By Ali Moosavi.
Showgirls (1995) is one of the most notorious films in Hollywood history. Director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas were riding high on the massive box office success of their previous joint effort, Basic Instinct (1992). Perhaps because of that success, the critics had sharpened their pencils, ready for attack. The degree of hostility shown towards Showgirls was unprecedented. It quickly became known as one of the biggest turkeys Hollywood has ever spawned and collected a bunch of Razzies for Worst Picture, Worst Director, etc (which Verhoeven sportingly turned up to collect).
I was among the vast majority of moviegoers who had succumbed to the huge negative publicity and not bothered watching the film, even though I was a Verhoeven fan. When I was asked to review a documentary about the film, You Don’t Nomi (2019) and interview its director Jefferey McHale, I sat down and watched Showgirls. Couple of things about the film surprised me. One was the degree of graphic sex in it, still unprecedented for a major studio movie, and secondly, how entertaining the film was!
Showgirls is the story of Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) who hitchhikes to Las Vegas, dreaming of fame and glory. She manages to successfully audition to be one of the dancers in a top Vegas show where the lead dancer is Cristal (Gina Gershon). Nomi though sets her sights on replacing Cristal and does her best to work on the show’s casting director, Zack (Kyle MacLachlan) to achieve this.
In You Don’t Nomi, Jeffrey McHale uses lot of archive interviews with cast and crew plus fresh perspectives on the film by critics and film scholars. He also examines the film in relation to earlier work by Verhoeven and finds motifs which run through all of Verhoeven’s work. He also shows how the film has become a cult phenomenon. One of the highlights of You Don’t Nomi is Elizabeth Berkeley turning up at one of the recent showings of Showgirls, in an outdoor venue with 4,000 adoring fans, and at last receive love and respect to make up to some extent for the venom and sneer that she and the film had endured all these years.
I talked to McHale about his documentary.
When did your fascination with Showgirls start?
From the first time I saw it! I came to it late, about a decade after it had already become a gay cult classic. I had no interest in Showgirls until a friend told me I had to see it, pulled it off his DVD shelf, and I had my mind blown by the insanity of it all. You see all these strange failures but then realise it succeeds because of these failures.
Why do you think critics were so harsh towards Showgirls on release? Do you think it was the unprecedented graphic sexual nature of a film that had received a wide release?
Yes, I think the film’s vulgar nature did contribute toward that, along with some other factors. Coming off the success of Basic Instinct, I think Verhoeven and [screenwriter] Joe Ezterhas were easy targets, and there were already critics who were dismissive toward that film. It’s also interesting looking at the state of film criticism in the nineties, when criticising an actress’s appearance was seen as valid; it’s quite brutal now to read what was written about the stars at the time.
Verhoeven claimed that he intentionally tried to provoke people. Do you believe that’s true?
Definitely, he is provocative. I think Showgirls was more shocking for an American audience who were familiar only with his blockbusters like Robocop and Total Recall, that he would choose to tackle this subject matter. For myself, when I went back and watched some of his earlier Dutch films, I could see recurring themes and motifs from them in Showgirls.
Showgirls has in recent years been categorised as a “camp classic” in the vein of Valley of the Dolls and Mommie Dearest. Why do you think these films initially had a negative critical reception, and why do they have a critical reappraisal and cult following years later?
I don’t think it took long for the LBGT community to find and embrace these films, but I think it’s because of that community’s love of these films over the years, and almost twenty-five years of midnight screenings in the case of Showgirls, that wider audiences start to reappraise them.
Do you think that the actresses in Showgirls would have been prepared to go as far as they did with regards to nudity were it not for Sharon Stone’s famous “leg crossing scene” in Basic Instinct?
Interesting question. I think that because Sharon Stone’s career skyrocketed after Basic Instinct and the fact we’re still talking about that film now thanks to the risks it took, maybe made the cast of Showgirls more open too. Maybe Showgirls didn’t pan out the way the cast hoped but we’re still talking about that film now as well thanks to the risks it also took. Hopefully the legacy of Showgirls will teach people to think differently about how to consume media.
Did you consider approaching the likes of Verhoeven or the rest of the cast and crew for interviews for your documentary?
I didn’t set out to make a traditional “making of” documentary, I was more interested in making something about the conversations about the film in the years since its release, with the wide range of opinions and experiences tied to people. I wanted to focus more on the “afterlife” of Showgirls, the audience’s relationship with the film after the author(s) put it out there. Maybe in twenty-five years another documentary could be made about the evolving relationship between Showgirls and the audience!
Have you had any feedback from the cast and crew of Showgirls?
I heard Kyle MacLachlan was asked about it and wished us well, but we haven’t heard any direct feedback. I’m excited for the documentary to be released for them to see it, along with the rest of the world, feels like we’ve been screening at festivals for a while!
Where did the phrase “masterpiece of shit” come from?
That came from Adam Nayman, who wrote the book “Showgirls: It Doesn’t Suck”. I took the phrase to track the evolution of the film’s evolution: how it went from “piece of shit” to “masterpiece of shit”.
How did you go about discovering the recurring motifs of Verhoeven’s earlier Dutch films in Showgirls?
I watched them after seeing Showgirls having not seen his European work before. I think you really have to examine his whole body of work when watching Showgirls.
What are the release plans for “You Don’t Nomi”?
It will be released to VOD on June 9th.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).