In the same year we celebrate (or mourn) “Showgirls'” 25th anniversary, the new documentary “You Don’t Nomi” explores the film’s vast appeal and place as a film history oddity.
Sometimes being a movie critic is too much fun.
Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls,” 1995’s infamous $40 million stripper drama, attempted to bring the NC-17 rating into the mainstream. It had the opposite effect and lingers as a notorious disaster with some intriguing film history.
In 1990, the Motion Picture Academy of America declared we needed a new rating to keep children out of movies meant for adults only. They had a point. The R-rating wasn’t keeping kids out of seeing “Rambo” or “RoboCop” (both hard-R films that, ironically, spawned Saturday morning cartoons aimed at children).
Theater owners lacked a means of properly separating kids from movies they shouldn’t be seeing.
I’m not an advocate for censorship. On the other hand, dozens of stories from my schoolmates, of how (due to no available babysitters) they were scarred from sitting through the likes of “Pink Floyd- The Wall,” “Fatal Attraction” and “Pet Sematary” indicated that the R-rating wasn’t working.
Yes, an adult can take a kid to an R-rated movie, but should they? American movie audiences needed the NC-17 rating, which meant filmmakers didn’t have to censor their work and grown-ups could see great movies like “Henry & June,” “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down,” “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” uncut in theaters catering to an audience both mature and mainstream.
At least, that was the idea.
The NC-17 was associated with an X-rating, with many NC-17 movies not listed in newspapers. The stigma of the rating being associated with smutty art films was killing it. There needed to be a barrier-breaking hit, cementing how the rating could serve audiences without amounting to box office poison. “Showgirls” was supposed to be that game changer.
It almost was.
It stars Elizabeth Berkley (fresh off “Saved by the Bell”) as Nomi, a dancer whose wild and untamed ways (visible from the very first scene) makes her both ideal and at odds with the business workings of Las Vegas, where everyone like her must sell out to succeed.
Cristal, a mentor turned nemesis (Gina Gershon, giving the film’s one great performance), inspires Nomi to do whatever it takes to become a star. As Nomi ascends to the height of glitter stained, paper mache volcano bearing stages, she also becomes the kind of monster that once stood in her way.
Both Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, fresh off the blockbuster success of the taboo pushing “Basic Instinct,” were exactly the right pair to try for this kind of large-scale boundary pushing. What resulted is a bizarre concoction, blending melodrama from 1940s potboilers, C-level dialog and “All About Eve” story turns with the tone and feel of “Roadhouse.”
Much of the dialog is vulgar, trying too hard for the kind of catchy crudeness created with ease on the back of men’s room door stalls.
From the introductory scene on, it’s clear Verhoeven and Eszterhas are pushing that NC-17 rating as far as it could go, indulging in artistic freedom with a naughty relish and an unshackled zeal. The dialog alone intends to keep informing us that this, ladies and gentlemen, is as close to a big budgeted, mainstream X-rated movie as we’d see since the peak of highbrow pornography in the early 1970s.
Catherine Trummel, Eszterhas’ “Basic instinct” femme fatale, was genuinely empowered, but Nomi seems like a male fantasy caricature in every way. This is perhaps the worst aspect of Eszterhas’ screenplay and the film itself. You can feel the contempt the writer has for every one of these characters.
To say the least, every actress visible is exploited, but you also feel either a faint or overt resentment towards them from the writer. If this isn’t misogyny than its at least extremely chauvinistic.
Berkley’s performance is kind of a miracle, both embarrassing for how overplayed it is but, nevertheless, fearless and strangely compelling. In the early going, her pushing every scene too hard brings a flurry of unintentional hilarity but, by the late going, the manic quality to her work seems like an overreach that somehow works.
As an acting piece in which a gorgeous female lead fails in a leading turn, its comparable to Kathy Ireland in “Alien from L..A.”
However, Berkley is so much more impressive and feral than Cindy Crawford in “Fair Game,” the underwhelming and highly touted, one-time-only starring vehicle for the model-turned-actress-turned-model (“Fair Game” also came and went in ’95 but with far less fanfare).
By the way, Michael Douglas’ performance in “Basic instinct” is equally as unhinged, lacking control and flamboyant as Berkley’s but the critics took his side (just sayin’).
Gershon finds the right tone from the start, evoking the kind of performance that either Raquel Welch or Mae West would have given in their heyday.
Because it’s Verhoeven, the film looks gorgeous, and the camera has a way of moving into a scene that feels like a delicate dance. Cinematographer Jost Vacano does extraordinary things, giving in to the promise of voyeurism, certainly, but, during key moments, also going for close-ups and rich color that evoke the Golden Age of Hollywood.
For a movie so take-it-or-leave-it-sleazy, there is genuine skill on display in the filmmaking. “Showgirls” may be stupid, but at least it isn’t lazy or boring.
The so-bad-their-great moments are all there, and time has only made them more sublimely absurd: note the scene where Nomi and Gershon exchange the secret that they’ve both eaten dog food. Or, witness the appearance of wacky performance monkeys that (per the dialog) have loose bowels.
Or how, in the uproarious first act, Nomi pours ketchup on her fries, and runs out into traffic with the kind of crazed abandon we’d normally see from Nicolas Cage at his wildest.
As a guilty pleasure, it’s fun for a while. Then, like a party that goes on too long, someone spoils the whole thing and has everyone looking for the exit.
In this case, a third act rape scene (both contrived and horrible at the same time) kills the mood entirely. Some reliably silly wrap-up scenes don’t succeed at recreating how most of this plays like “The Room” with a $40 million budget and far more nudity.
Jeffrey McHale’s “You Don’t Nomi” is a passionate response to reviews like mine.
Not a cheaply made bit of fan service or a single-minded diatribe, McHale’s documentary is smart, informative, humorous and extremely well crafted. I’m unsure if it’s a definitive take on Verhoeven’s film (perhaps we’ll know by the 30th anniversary in 2025). It’s highly entertaining and plays like a master class on all things Nomi N’ Cristal.
The only thing it didn’t do was sell me on the notion that Verhoeven’s career low point is a misunderstood masterpiece.
Writer/director/editor/producer McHale’s film is thorough but still misses a few points worth mentioning. No one brings up that, during its opening weekend, “Showgirls” was a hit. Making $8.1 million in one weekend was a major win for an NC-17 movie and an indication that the rating had appeal, distinguishing itself as a nouveau Adults Only moniker.
It wasn’t until the second week, when it fell from number two to seventh place at the nationwide box office (a crippling 56 percent drop), that cemented its fate. A minor quibble: one title card incorrectly dates “Basic Instinct” as a 1993 film (it arrived the year before).
As packed as this is with trivia, no mention is made of the VH1 cut, in which animated pasties are clumsily animated over the nudity, which somehow succeeds at making “Showgirls” even funnier. Clips of Verhoeven’s films are smartly interspersed for some nice comparison. However, no one makes the point that Verhoeven’s troubling, remarkable “Elle” provides valuable perspective on his depiction of women who refuse to be victims.
The handful of intelligent professional film critics, journalists and programmers interviewed come up with refreshing observations. Someone notes that, in addition to its troubling depiction of women, it also depicts African Americans in a condescending manner.
USA Today movie critic Susan Wloszczyna is interviewed, which is a great choice, as her review always felt the most spot on -- in a nutshell, she stated the film is enjoyably trashy until the rape scene ruins it.
Drag queen Peaches Christ correctly notes that “Showgirls,” along with “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Mommy Dearest,” “goes too far for the mainstream.” Peaches briefly brings up Demi Moore’s “Striptease” and misses a rich opportunity for a comparison.
Although a valuable mention is made of child stars who challenge their careers playing sexually active women (a topic deserving its own documentary), no mention is made of Meg Ryan in “In the Cut.” That movie impacted Ryan’s career in a similar fashion to Berkley’s.
“Showgirls” completists will love the footage of Berkley at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery screening in 2015, a review of Verhoeven’s book and the testimony of April Kidwell, star of “Showgirls: The Musical,” who says playing Nomi provided a cathartic healing.
We also get to see Verhoeven’s appearance as a “winner” at the Golden Razzies; Verhoeven is visibly a good sport. but whoever voted his movie as Worst of the Decade clearly never saw “Mannequin Too: On the Move,” “The Island of Doctor Moreau, “Exit to Eden” or “Wild Wild West,” all far worthier contenders for that title.
I respect the defense of McHale and the others on his documentary, but let’s be realistic about this: had “Showgirls” been a great movie, it would’ve hung in there. The bad word of mouth was merited, not an unfair, knee-jerk reaction.
At least no one in the documentary makes the claim that audiences were too conservative to enjoy “Showgirls,” and they don’t need to. The film it opened against that became a massive hit with a long visit to neighborhood theaters was the nihilistic, bleak and highly un-commercial “Seven.”
What Verhoeven and Eszterhas were going for was to connect an audience with a niche that didn’t exist. When the Eszterhas-penned “Flashdance” (strikingly similar in many ways to “Showgirls”) arrived in 1983, it was campy, sported an absurd premise and was a prime example of considerable style over pithy substance.
However, as the first post-MTV pop musical that resembled a feature-length music video and fed the need for a music television fix, it found a massive, appreciative audience. “Showgirls” is pining for the 1970s, when X-rated movies like “Emmanuelle” and “Behind the Green Door” were playing in respectable (and disrespectable) movie theaters to full houses.
By 1995, owning a VCR meant you didn’t have to view adult movies (soft core or XXX variety) in a movie theater but in the privacy of your own home. The initial appeal of movies like “Nine and a Half Weeks,” “Wild Orchid” and yes, “Showgirls” wasn’t in their brief theatrical run but in robust video rentals and sales.
FAST FACT: “Showgirls” famously bombed, but its curious after life earned it a sequel. The 2011 film “Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven” follows Rena Riffel’s character from the first film. Riffel wrote, directed and starred in the film.
It must be said that, of those three mentioned, “Showgirls” is the only to find a massive midnight movie audience and develop “Rocky Horror Picture Show” cult worship. I find Verhoeven’s achievement of getting the film to play in more than 1,000 theaters its greatest merit worth celebrating, but I suspect McHale and his subjects, would happily toss glitter in my face.
Someone deems it, “the kind of comedy you can’t make on purpose,” a great quote but hardly a compliment. Another states the film has been “reclaimed artistically,” which is like saying we now enjoy “Ninja III -- The Domination” as a neglected Rom Com.
“Showgirls” remains a one-star, hilariously awful endurance test for me, but “You Don’t Nomi,” which would make an ideal double feature, is four-star wonderful. It didn’t make me a pole dancing, dog food loving, brown rice n’ veggies munching super fan, but it is a solid and valuable work of film study.
If you enjoyed the wacky, conspiratorial interpretation of “The Shining” in “Room 237” or the wild tell all of “Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four,” then here’s a work that is just as enjoyable and enlightening.
Considering how it’s almost always bad movies that are prime candidates for gradual cult status, I eagerly await the inevitable, retrospective documentary on “Cats.”