The incredibly raunchy and extremely vulgar Showgirls was a big Hollywood film that opened to terrible reviews, with many regarding it as one of the worst films to ever be released. But over time, the film has been earned a gradual appreciation over the years, recognising it as a daring film that exposed the depravity of this kind of Las Vegas lifestyle and the people within it.
The documentary You Don’t Nomi takes a varied look at Showgirls, first showing the critical detractors it had, then showing the immense love it’s been given by its newfound fans. The doco’s director Jeffrey McHale talked to DAVID MORGAN-BROWN about the film’s strange allure and the cult of Showgirls that he has seen grow over the years.
What was your first experience with watching this film? When did you first watch it?
I came to it late in life, so I saw it about 10 years after it had come out, and at that point it had already become a queer cult classic. I was studying film in Chicago, I was in film school, and I was hanging out with a friend one night and the topic of Showgirls came up and he was just kind of shocked that I hadn’t seen it yet. So he walked over to his DVD shelf and took it off the shelf and popped it in. And my mind was just kind of blown from the beginning.
And I kind of had no idea that this was the movie that everyone that was just so, you know, notorious in the way they responded to it and everything. My mind was blown and I just I didn’t want it to end. It was one of those magical films that you just don’t get very often.
When was it that you noticed that there was this sort of different attitude taken towards this film, like looking at it as a masterpiece?
Yeah, that kind of was more recent. I had been a fan of it ever since, ever since that night. And it would be one of those movies that I maybe watch once a year, or I would just pop it on. And I enjoyed the commentary track that David Schmader did, I would watch it with that occasionally. I moved to L.A. shortly after graduation and out here in L.A., they have these outdoor film screenings called Cinespia at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. I went with some friends to Showgirls, which I wasn’t aware of was the twenty fifth anniversary.
That’s why they were doing it that night, and so I was there. The final scene in You Don’t Nomi, where Elizabeth Berkley [Showgirl’s main actress] comes out and introduces the film, I was one of those four thousand people sitting in the audience. And after that, I was curious to kind of explore my own fascination with Showgirls.
And so I started to read and do research and consume everything that had been produced and written about the film since it had come out. And I found the film Quarterly Roundtable, I found Adam Nayman’s book, I found the musical, Jeffrey Conway’s book… So that’s when I kind of started to dive deeper and I wasn’t really sure yet what it is I would be doing.
This is my first feature documentary. I wanted to explore my own curiosity. And I was just really inspired by the varied points of view, the kind of conflicting points of view from fans, from detractors, all of it. And I was inspired by other films like Room 237 and Los Angeles Plays Itself. So I started reaching out to those people, those contributors who had written and produced art around Showgirls, and everyone was very excited to be involved with it.
It’s one of those really interesting films from a viewing perspective, because so much is going through your mind as a viewer of like, what was everyone thinking? How did this get made? So there’s like all the backstory that I think is fascinating. But, you know, with this, I didn’t really want to do the traditional making of behind the scenes documentary on Showgirls, because the more I read and listen to the cast and crew in interviews over the years, the less I was kind of concerned with their own experience with it.
What’s unique about Showgirls is what the audience have made it into and how their relationship with the film continues to evolve to this day. And so I wanted to focus on the afterlife of it. I guess it was just after reading and consuming everything that had been written about it, I was just really inspired, and felt there was something there worth exploring.
This is discussed in the doco from all sorts of angles, but for you, what do you think was really the main issue that the film initially had with critics and audiences when it was first released?
This was Paul Verhoeven’s first NC-17 film, so he basically got the green light from MGM to make an NC-17 film. And after Basic Instinct [Verhoeven’s previous film] they went on this big kind of PR blitz to promote Showgirls. And they had this kind of salacious ad campaign, and I think it just had a big target on it, too. And I think that it was hard for a lot of mainstream critics to look past the vulgarity of the dialogue and the nudity and just they just tore it apart. It was an easy, easy thing for everyone to pile on.
And so I think that, after Basic Instinct, during a lot of his interviews, Paul Verhoeven expressed frustration about having to cut so much out of Basic Instinct in order to get it to that R rating. And so I think knowing that he had that NC-17 approval from the beginning, I think he wanted to kind of get away with as much as he could. And so you probably wouldn’t have had Showgirls had Basic Instinct not come before that.
I was wondering, are there any other movies out there that you feel have similarly been wrongfully attacked, like any other so-called terrible movies that you also love?
I’ve heard a lot of Cats comparisons as of lately. And obviously, The Room. But I think Showgirls is so unique because it did come from a big studio budget. It was an original screenplay, so there wasn’t any kind of existing material that it was based on. Jeffrey Conway kind of has the trilogy of camp: Mommy Dearest, Valley of the Dolls, and Showgirls, and those I think are pretty closely aligned. And the interesting thing about those is all those films are 14 years apart, too. So we’re definitely long overdue because Showgirls came out in 1995. I think it’s just so unique and I think a film like Showgirls, it’s nothing that could be created again or remade or anything.