Monday 15 June 2020


"I think we're still talking about Showgirls because we're not done with it". So says the opening voiceover of this new documentary that seeks to re-contextualise the unfinished business audiences have had since its release in 1995 with Paul Verhoeven's cult classic film about Nomi Malone, a Las Vegas stripper turned hottest act on the Las Vegas strip, and decide whether it's worth the critical appraisal some have offered it over the years.

Over clips of the film, Director Jeffrey McHale's documentary uses a chorus of voices to illustrate why Showgirls deserved a better reception in the 90s, with some arguing that it was Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Ezterhas's intent for it to be the gaudy, camp, broadly acted work of cinema it ended up being. Among those voices is Adam Nayman, author of It Doesn't Suck, the definitive critical text on Showgirls where he lays down his reasoning for why this may in fact be a misunderstood "Masterpiece of Shit".

There's an interesting device used to place Showgirls in the context of Verhoeven's other films, by splicing in scenes into the frame of his other films. For example, we have Jeroen Krabbe from 1983's The Fourth Man watching reels of footage from Showgirls, Peter Weller's Robocop wincing in pain as the monitors show him dreaming about a topless Las Vegas show, and Arnie in Total Recall casually looking at the star ratings for Showgirls' dismal critical reception on his futuristic big screen TV. It's a clever little trick that's returned to throughout this film, and suits the campy propagandist tone that's present in most, if not all, of Verhoeven's filmography.

McHale takes time to chart Verhoeven's progress, from his early Dutch sex comedies to his eventual move/exile to Hollywood, and bigger budget, higher concept films like Robocop, Total Recall, and the film he made prior to Showgirls, Basic Instinct. For those unfamiliar with Verhoeven's oeuvre, the cross cutting between these films ties a lot of things together, proving that he's not a director who does things by accident. It's up to your interpretation as to whether the high camp value of Showgirls was an intentional thing, and this doc does acknowledge that Verhoeven, along with key cast members like Kyle MacLachlan and Gina Gershon, have said conflicting things that could push the argument either way; but when placed in the context of his filmography, sandwiched between Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers, personally I find it difficult to believe that Verhoeven was not aware of how polarising and provocative his film would be.

It's entirely plausible that the cast and crew's ability to claim, Tommy Wiseau style, that it was always meant to be a low art comedy is a piece of retro-active damage control, and that it really was just a disaster of excess that even a craftsman like Verhoeven couldn't keep under control. What's for certain is that its cultural legacy has jazz-handed its way into audience's hearts, even if they're not sure if they're laughing at it and not with it. Along with the film clips from the film, the doc also has footage from the new life the film has taken on on stage, with drag performer Peaches Christ's interactive screenings in San Francisco, and the lively musical version performed by April Kidwell, that provides one of this film's most touching moments, as Kidwell expresses how taking on the role of Nomi (and her previous stint as Elizabeth Berkley's other famous role of Jessie Spano in the Saved By The Bell musical) helped her get over some deep personal trauma.

Despite what your feelings to Verhoeven's film might be, it's without a doubt that this documentary enriches it, providing you with moments to celebrate and laugh at, like the bizarre use of chips, nails & brown rice and vegetables as recurring motifs, or conversations about Doggy Chow. You may also gain a deeper understanding of Verhoeven as a director who is no slouch in providing a depth of visual language you would not expect, nor need, from a film that were only aiming to provide its audience with base level titillation. What is for certain, though, is that by the finale of You Don't Nomi you will have a much stronger appreciation of Elizabeth Berkley.

If Showgirls really is just an updated version of All About Eve and showbusiness's propensity to chew up potential stars, then Berkley is the 1990s billboard star of that trend. A young actress with a wholesome image thanks to her time on Saved By The Bell, You Don't Nomi does document the course of countless young women who felt the need to prove their worth as a bonafide, grown-up film star by using their sexuality so overtly. Was it a great performance? Well, that's to judge for yourself. But it's undeniable that the critiques of Berkley's turn as Nomi Malone were vicious and often personal, and Verhoeven himself has gone on the record to confirm that she followed every direction she was given, and that the over the top actions of her character were by his design. Dismissed as a bad actress by audiences and by Hollywood, this doc does go some way to try to give Berkley her dues, and by the moving finale of this well presented, insightful documentary, even something of a cultural redemption.


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