I’ve never seen Showgirls, Paul Verhoeven’s notorious disaster released in 1995. I was 13 when the film first hit theaters with its much talked about NC-17 rating so, of course, it would have been impossible for me to see it in theaters. It was the kind of film whispered about around lunch tables, with one friend, or perhaps friend of a friend, always there to claim that they had seen it. That they’d somehow managed to sneak their way into the theater and witnessed the film in all its bare-chested glory.
I could have rented it, I suppose, but by the time Showgirls hit the shelves of our local Blockbuster, my cinematically attuned mind had already heard the news. I still vividly remember staying up too late on a school night to watch Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert tear it to shreds. Steeped though I was in shlock at the time, as all adolescent film lovers tend to be, I was aware that Showgirls wasn’t worth the effort it might take to see it. My mom certainly wasn’t going to rent it for me, and the good folks behind the counter clearly wouldn’t let me rent it myself. And so, I left Showgirls in the garbage bin of history where I thought that it belonged.
But time’s relationship to cinema is a tricky, sometimes fickle, thing. Yesterday’s masterpiece can become today’s pile of shit, and vice versa. In the 25 years since Showgirls first hit the culture, a cult was born. It’s one that unabashedly and unironically adores Verhoeven’s film, star Elizabeth Berkley’s performance as Nomi, the small-town girl who dreams of becoming a dancer, and engages with the film on levels typically reserved for works of sheer and utter importance.
Could it be that Showgirls is a film that deserves the attention and adoration it receives today? While I can’t say for myself, a new documentary, You Don’t Nomi, certainly makes a compelling, fascinating argument. Director Jeffrey McHale has assembled something of a masterwork of critical reconsideration, bringing together a variety of voices who advocate for the film and, along the way, presents Showgirls in an entirely new light.
A running thread throughout You Don’t Nomi is the inability for audiences and fans to truly know what was intended by the over-the-top erotic drama. Recent years have found Verhoeven and Berkley—whose career was tanked as a result of her involvement with the film—making claims about the intentionality of the film as a campy satire. That certainly falls in line with Verhoeven’s career as a whole. His American work, which includes the likes of Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers certainly ooze with over-the-top critiques of American society and the American obsession with violence. So why is it that we try to take his films about sex, such as Basic Instinct and Showgirls, entirely at face value?
This is a question that McHale presents throughout You Don’t Nomi, and it’s a question that deserves consideration. Even while Showgirls costar Kyle McLaughlin maintains that the film was always intended to be a heavy hitting drama, the wild excesses of Showgirls does lend some credence to the latter day claims of its director and star. As such, is there an argument to be made that critics have, for the last quarter century, been entirely wrong?
Is Showgirls a masterpiece?
A more important question might be to ask yourself what a masterpiece is. As a critic, it is easy to want to quibble with the audience reaction to a particular film. The critical community so often throws its collective hands up in frustration at seeing the choices audiences make and the films that connect with crowds. That’s a divide that’s always existed and it’s one that will always exist. In a slow year, I might see 100 movies. The average moviegoer won’t even see a quarter of that. As such, tastes tend to get skewed. A film that, to me, is fair or average might be the best thing someone sees all year. That’s a reality I try to be mindful of when watching a movie, even a movie I hate. The worst movie I’ll ever see will eventually be someone’s favorite movie of all time. Who am I to reject their claim that Transformers is a masterpiece?
Even while it might be difficult to chart the ascension of Showgirls from universally reviled winner of an (at the time) unprecedented 7 Razzies to cult classic to film worthy of reconsideration, it does serve to remind us of the subjectivity of art. We cannot tell what will affect audiences and to what audiences will relate. Which serves to create a secondary thread of reasoning in You Don’t Nomi.
While the doc never claims to be about anything other than Showgirls, subtextually one can’t help but wonder about other critically reviled failed films. History is filled with films that didn’t get their due for years or decades after their release. The American Film Institute’s number one best movie of all time, Citizen Kane, languished as a critical failure for at least a decade before it was reevaluated. Sometimes it just takes time. Sometimes word of mouth has to build. Sometimes the right audience sits far enough from the mainstream that it simply can’t be reached with any sort of immediacy.
Whatever the reasoning, whether it’s because it’s a masterpiece of camp or just a flat-out masterpiece, there’s no denying the newfound life and respect that Showgirls has earned over the last 15 or so years. For the most part, You Don’t Nomi presents a fascinating exploration of how Verhoeven’s film wound up in the place it’s at now. While it might have served the film well to unpack the sad case of Berkley, who still has yet to get her due in Hollywood, what we have is an extraordinary work of longform criticism that not only explores the film itself but the nature of critical reception and audience reaction.
For me personally, I have no idea what I think of Showgirls or the new respect it’s earned over the years because I’ve never seen it. Fact is, I’ve never wanted to. Now, however, I admit I’m curious. Maybe, like most critics, I’ll land on the side that thinks it’s trash. But maybe there’s a chance I’ll fall in love with it. At the end of the day, criticism comes down to that. Sharing the films and works you love with others in the hopes that they might love it too. In that respect, You Don’t Nomi is an unqualified success.
You Don’t Nomi is now available on On Demand platforms.