You Don’t Nomi review: An engaging celebration of Showgirls
Matthew Turner | On 12, Jun 2020
Director: Jeffrey McHale
Cast: Elizabeth Berkley, Joe Eszterhas, Gina Gershon
Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls – a sleazy showbiz drama about a dancer trying to make it in Vegas – was a notorious flop when it was released, panned by critics and largely derided by audiences. 25 years later, however, the film has been reappraised by critics and reclaimed by audiences, ironically and non-ironically. Jeffrey McHale’s engaging documentary traces the journey of Showgirls from flop to camp classic to misunderstood masterpiece.
The film borrows its central structure from It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, by author Adam Nayman, who also serves as a frequent commentator. As such, it’s divided into three sections: “Piece of Shit” (about the initial reaction to the film), “Masterpiece” (covering the film’s early rehabilitation at midnight movie screenings) and “Masterpiece of Shit”, looking at how the film is viewed today and making the compelling argument that it can be all three things simultaneously: a terrible movie, a camp classic and a scathing commentary on the Hollywood Dream narrative (with a lot of sleaze thrown in).
McHale eschews the traditional talking heads in favour of voiceover contributions from a wide variety of commentators with a cultural connection to Showgirls, ranging from authors such as Nayman to critics who reviewed it at the time, film professors, drag queens and actors, such as April Kidwell, the star of stage show Showgirls! The Musical! David Schmader, who first programmed midnight screenings of Showgirls, proves particularly good value, particularly when describing his shock at being asked to do a DVD commentary for the film.
Alongside multiple clips from Showgirls itself, the commentary is illustrated with a wealth of archive material that includes behind-the-scenes footage, interviews from a 1995 press junket, clips from Saved by the Bell (Elizabeth Berkley’s previous claim to fame) and footage from various stage shows and screenings. On top of that, McHale cleverly integrates footage from Verhoeven’s other movies, sometimes highlighting recurring themes in his work (a vomit scene montage makes its point quite forcefully) and sometimes using the material in inventive ways, eg. cutting scenes from The Fourth Man so that they illustrate Nayman talking about obsessively rewatching the film.
McHale provides plenty of cultural history and context, such as Nayman locating the film within a trilogy of camp that includes Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Mommie Dearest (1981). He also makes a number of interesting points about American culture, noting that Verhoeven was critically lauded as a satirist when his films explored violence and militarism in America (RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers), but not when he attempted to explore sex in the same way.
In addition to giving Showgirls its due, the film is unexpectedly moving, particularly when it looks at how the film affected Elizabeth Berkley’s career. McHale tugs hard twice on our heartstrings, first with a quote from Verhoeven, where he admits that he was responsible for Berkley’s roundly derided over-the-top performance and second with an emotional sequence where a visibly moved Berkley attends a screening at the Hollywood Forever cemetery in 2015 (capacity 4,000) and describes it as a “magical, full circle moment”, because she never got to experience an audience’s enjoyment of the film the first time round.
This is an entertaining, even-handed and well-argued documentary that will hopefully inspire multiple rewatches of Showgirls, whether ironic or not.
Listen to erotic thriller podcast Fatal Attractions discussing Showgirls here