Great films come and great films go, but few films are so spectacularly bad that they burn themselves on pop culture forever. Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 Showgirls remains one of the most notorious misfires in Hollywood history, having brought to an end a hot streak for the director that included RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Basic Instinct (1992). The film, a rare big budget studio endeavour with a saucy NC-17 rating, won seven Razzies including Worst Picture and Worst Director with Verhoeven famously making history as the first winner to accept the award in person. Critics hated it and audiences laughed, particularly at the central performance by Saved by the Bell star Elizabeth Berkley, who shed her wholesome image to play Nomi Malone, the ambitious dreamer from “different places” who makes it big as a Las Vegas showgirl and finds herself swept up by the dark underbelly of Sin City.
However, Showgirls lives on as the ultimate “so bad it’s good” experience. Director Jeffrey McHale explores the second wind for Showgirls in the riotous documentary You Don’t Nomi, which assembles the voices of numerous fans and critics, including POV contributor and It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls author Adam Nayman, who have fuelled Showgirls’ longevity. The film unpacks all the elements of Showgirls that seem to go wrong, like Berkley’s bizarrely over the top performance, Nomi’s wildly abrasive yet endearing personality, and the film’s campy self-seriousness, along with a lumbering script by Joe Eszterhas (then Hollywood’s million-dollar man) with a fixation on fingernails and potato chips. The film also reframes Showgirls within Verhoeven’s filmography to reconsider the elements that the movie gets right, like its technically accomplished cinematography and engaging mise-en-scène, as well its story of an outsider in search of acceptance that invites new readings by queer audiences. (And, yes, they also talk about that ridiculous sex scene in the pool, which defies both categorization and gravity.)
You Don’t Nomi doesn’t seek to rewrite history. McHale instead positions Showgirls within the context of its original release and within the conversations it inspired to understand the initial reaction to it as well as the opinions that say the film deserves a second chance. Nomi leaves it up to audiences to decide if Showgirls is trash, a masterpiece, or a “masterpiece of trash,” but one thing is certain: no matter how good or how bad one considers the film’s objective quality, one can enjoy Showgirls all the same.
POV recently spoke with McHale ahead of the Canadian premiere of You Don’t Nomi at Toronto’s Inside Out LGBT Film Festival.
POV: Pat Mullen
JM: Jeffrey McHale
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: So, tell me about the first time you saw Showgirls!
JM: I came to it late in life. I saw it when I was in my early twenties, living in Chicago and it was after it had already become a queer cult classic. On first viewing, I was amazed that it had taken me that long to see it. I was aware of it and was a fan of Verhoeven’s other films, but I had a very similar experience with the first viewing as my contributors did. They kept going back to those first six minutes where your mind is blown and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, is this how the rest of the movie is going to be?” It’s over two hours and it doesn’t let up. It sucked me right in.
POV: How much fun was it diving into the film again and again, as well as the surrounding archival material? Can you talk about that process?
JM: I was actually at the Hollywood Forever Cinespia screening, the 20th anniversary out here in LA, which is the one that Elizabeth Berkley introduced and you see in the film. Being with an audience for that was the closest thing I’ve had to a spiritual experience. None of the friends we were with had any idea that she’d be there introducing the film. It was just incredible. That was the first time I’d actually seen it with an audience. Every other time I watched it was just with friends or with my husband at home on our couch. The energy of that screening was like a rock concert.
POV: Was that screening the spark for this film?
JM: Showgirls kept popping up in interesting ways throughout my life. I’m curious to consume everything that’s been written about it. I watched the film with the commentary track that David Schmader recorded for the re-release. I read Adam Nayman’s book and kept deep diving into everything that had been written about the film. I was fascinated by the people who contributed to the afterlife of Showgirls; I call them my “contributors.” They have a wide and diverse range of opinions with this complicated movie that we’re still dealing with. I reached out to them and we recorded the interviews via Skype through an audio kit that I sent everybody through FedEx. They were miked and then after the interview was done, they shipped it back to me, so we actually didn’t shoot one frame of video while making this movie.
POV: Did that facilitate the editing or make it more complicated? With video, you could cut between archival footage and talking heads to for time or reduce the amount of archive for clearance.
JM: It definitely provided a whole set of creative challenges, but that was always the intent going in. I was inspired by films like Room 237 and Los Angeles Plays Itself, which employed similar techniques. It forced me to think outside the box and think about the visuals and then what other ways you could connect everything. In the middle of all the interviews, I started watching Verhoeven’s earlier works, which I hadn’t seen, at least his Dutch films, prior to working on this film. I was fascinated by the motifs and the themes that connected back to Showgirls. General audiences question how Verhoeven could make Showgirls because they are only familiar with Total Recall, RoboCop, Starship Troopers, and Basic Instinct. It was fascinating how everything connected back to his earlier work.
POV: Yes, it’s really fun to see how much some shots of Showgirls mirror his other work. What inspired that running theme where you take Verhoeven’s films and break the fourth wall, like when they’re looking at the TV screen and we’re seeing The Globe and Mail’s review or someone in one of Verhoeven’s a box of film reels and they are all Showgirls?
JM: I think it was mostly finding ways to tie the contributors’ experience back to characters within Verhoeven’s films. It brought everything under the umbrella of his work. People like to think that Showgirls sits outside of that, so I wanted to blend everything together and show how these films are connected.
POV: Are you familiar with the concept of vulgar auteurism, which is the act of reappraising “popcorn” films or “trash” filmmakers within the context of auteur cinema?
JM: No, that actually hasn’t come up in the conversations I’ve had.
POV: I ask because one criticism of that concept is that sometimes it’s not considered genuine. Like, you can make a nuanced argument about some terrible films and get noticed through a sort of contrarian criticism. Did you ever feel that the re-appraisals of Showgirls were opportunistic, or do you think they come from a genuine desire to reframe the film in a meaningful way?
JM: I can see how that may apply to other films, but one of the reasons that Showgirls is so unique and one of the reasons why we are still talking about it is that it allowed critics to revisit it. The cult audiences kept it going for the last 25 years. Film Quarterly did their round table on it in 2003 and it’d be hard to know if that would have happened if Peaches Christ wasn’t hosting these screenings and there wasn’t a cult following that kept it alive. Showgirls is unique in that way with fandom. People have very personal relationships with the film. I don’t think that that can be discarded, either.
POV: No, no, for sure. Did Tommy Wiseau’s The Room ever come up in your discussions? That’s an interesting film to compare with Showgirls because it also has a devoted fan base.
JM: It came up a couple times. The Room is probably the more recent example of this type of film with the kind of the audience and the following that has received. But what makes the Room comparison hard is that it was done by an amateur filmmaker. He didn’t have $40 million. He didn’t have one of the highest paid screenwriters and they weren’t coming off one of the biggest films of ’92 [Basic Instinct]. It’s very similar in some ways, but I think it’s unique.
POV: Do you think we’ll ever get another Showgirls? Is there room for a big budget studio film that pushes the envelope so much in terms of sex, violence, and queer culture?
JM: I was doing a little math with Jeffrey Conway. He has the trilogy of camp, which references Showgirls with Valley of the Dolls and Mommie Dearest. The interesting thing about those three films is that they’re all 14 years apart. We are way overdue for the next Showgirls, but it feels like it would be hard to create something on that level. If there were another Showgirls, it probably wouldn’t be about dancers or strippers in Vegas. It would have to be about something different. The Room has kind of scratched that need for modern audiences, but it’s hard to imagine something like Showgirls happening again with the studios structured the way they are now with comic books and superheroes. The risks aren’t being taken within the studio system.
POV: Right, and the contributors touch on this with movies like Sharknado that are made with the intent of camp value.
JM: These movies are aware of a lower camp. They’re in on the joke, but it feels empty.
POV: A few years ago, you were a bit of a viral sensation when you made a trailer mashup with the images of Showgirls set to the audio of Black Swan. My friends actually sent me that because I was such a big Black Swan fan! Did you consider working the Black Swan mashup into You Don’t Nomi?
JM: I played around with the idea that it would be fun to incorporate it, but I didn’t really ask the contributors about it. Black Swan did come up in my conversations with Peaches Christ, like if it’s a film that might be considered camp in 10 years and if we’d be looking at it like the same way that we are with Showgirls. But Black Swan was nominated for Best Picture, so I don’t know if we’re going to have that kind of reaction to it. It [the trailer] was a fun project that got a response.
POV: It’s funny how well the action matches the dialogue in this deadpan way that could make the trailer seem legit if you haven’t seen the films, but it works on another level if you’ve seen them both.
JM: The idea popped into my head and I was like, “I have to do this tonight or otherwise somebody else will beat me to it.” I literally went home from work that night and threw it together and put it online the next day.
POV: That’s impressive! Did you try to reach out for conversations with Verhoeven or Elizabeth Berkley, or anyone who survived Showgirls and lived to tell about it, or was the approach driven primarily by fandom?
JM: When I set out, I never really intended to make a behind-the-scenes or “making of” film about Showgirls. I was really after my first step of exploring. This is my first feature film—I’m a television editor by day, so I wanted to explore something on my own in my free time. I started with the material that had been created by our contributors and that’s where I found the story. I never reached out because I wanted to keep it focused on the people who kept the conversation alive after the film was made.
POV: What about people who still hate it?
JM: That was one area that was actually a lot harder than I than I thought it would be, trying to get critics who reviewed it negatively at the time to speak with me about the project. I basically went through Metacritic and reached out to everybody who reviewed it negatively. I didn’t hear back from some people and other people just didn’t want to be involved with anything that was about Showgirls. I was really lucky to find Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, who responded to my email with four dense paragraphs of her thoughts. It was incredible!
POV: She’s a highlight of the film.
JM: One of the great things about Showgirls is that it doesn’t fit nicely into holes. There’re so many gray zones within the fandom of the film, like even Haley Miotek, who still comes off as very critical, but is a fan of the film. The fans are aware of the issues and the criticisms within the film. It’s not as if everyone’s worshiping it like high art. Everyone is able to take a step back from it and appreciate it for the parts they enjoy, but also recognize where it went wrong.
POV: Hollywood keeps remaking some of its greatest hits, but they rarely turn out well. Would you rather see Hollywood try to remake a film like Showgirls that had a lot of the ingredients but didn’t get the recipe right, or is this film better left untouched?
JM: [Audible cringe.] I would hate to see a remake. I would hate to see it. So much of Showgirls is about the history of it. It’s about the response. It’s about the performances. So much of it was about that failed seriousness. You cannot do that on purpose. If a filmmaker wanted to go out and remake it, it would be impossible because so much happened by mistake or by decisions that had been made under unique circumstances. I have a hard time thinking about all the problems of a Showgirls remake.
POV: There would be many. You Don’t Nomi builds to the story of Elizabeth Berkley and how she’s kind of the tragic figure of Showgirls. How did that narrative shape the arc of your film?
JM: I thought that it was important to look at how Elizabeth, Paul, and Joe spoke about the film on their press tour when it came out. The way they’ve spoken about the film in public has evolved over the years. So much of the criticism landed on the shoulders of Elizabeth when the film came out and the way that the critics spoke about her was disgusting. It’s hard to know what happened on set. It’s impossible to know what happened in the editing room, but there were choices made for whatever reason. It was good to see Verhoeven come out a couple of years ago in an interview and take responsibility for her performance. That was an important step for him, just as Elizabeth embracing the film in front of 40,000 screaming fans was an important step for her.
POV: For anyone who hasn’t seen Showgirls, what’s the ideal way to see it?
JM: The most ideal way would be with an audience. If there’s a midnight screening or something playing in your town, then I would highly recommend seeing it with an audience. But if that’s not possible, then it’s best viewed with friends. Late night, have everybody over, open about some wine. You could always get the 15th anniversary drinking game edition that they released. It’s best experienced with a group. Even if you see Nomi, you still need to see Showgirls!
You Don’t Nomi screens at Toronto’s Inside Out LGBT Film Festival on Friday, May 31 with critic Adam Nayman in attendance.