Producers: Jeffrey McHale, Ariana Garfinkel and Suzanne Ziants Director: Jeffrey McHale Cast: Adam Nayman, April Kidwell, Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, David Schmader, Haley Mlotek, Jeffery Conway, Jeffrey Sconce, Matt Baume, Peaches Christ and Susan Wloszczyna Distributor: RLJE Films
Among Hollywood’s legendary big-budget bombs, Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls,” written by Joe Eszterhas and starring Elizabeth Berkley (from “Saved by the Bell,” in her first “adult” role) in the story of Nomi Malone, hard-bitten young woman determined to make it as a Vegas dancer, holds a special place. Panned by critics and ignored by audiences who smelled the odor of disaster, it quickly turned into not just a punchline but one reviled for its ostentatious nudity, sexuality and violence—as well as its ludicrous dialogue and overwrought acting, not just by Berkley but by her co-stars Kyle MacLachlan and Gina Gershon. (It won a handful of Razzies that year, and Verhoeven showed up to accept them.) All the Vegas glitter and pizzazz provided by Verhoeven didn’t prove sufficient compensation.
Jeffrey McHale’s documentary is basically an attempt at rehabilitation, with a good deal of the running-time devoted to fans who have enthusiastically embraced the movie, turning it into a cult favorite. It doesn’t ignore the negative voices—both those who trashed the picture at the time of its original release and those who continue to do so today—but admittedly they get less time to have their say than those on the opposite side. (It should be noted, incidentally, that McHale eschews talking head interview clips for the most part, preferring voice-only excerpts that overlay more varied visual montages.)
Among the commentators pride of place certainly goes to Adam Nayman, who in 2014 published “It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls,” which argued—as the writer does here in his extended voiceovers—that the film is no debacle but a smart, savvy piece of work whose virtues, in contrast to what he sees a truly awful pictures that were originally praised but whose wretchedness has been recognized as the years passed (he cites “Forrest Gump” and “American Beauty” as examples), have become more obvious over time. McHale’s dependence on Nayman is evidenced by the fact that he even titles the documentary’s chapters—“Shit,” “Masterpiece,” and “Masterpiece of Shit”—after his book’s terminology.
But what’s nice about McHale’s film is that while leaning heavily on Nayman, he shows that people embrace “Showgirls” for various reasons. Some, like Nayman, talk about its cinematic strengths; but they differ as to be whether it’s a powerful hyper-stylized drama or a biting satire of the American striving for success. The picture is often called an updating of—or perhaps homage to—“All About Eve,” but some see that as too reductionist, underplaying its uniqueness.
There are those who simply become obsessed by the movie, watching it over and over, like poet Jeffery Conway, who also wrote a tribute titled “Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas.” He talks about its place in what he calls the trinity of camp, situating it with “Valley of the Dolls” and “Mommie Dearest” as classics about ambitious women who find the heights bitter once they’ve been scaled. He’s representative of those who love “Showgirls” precisely for its campiness and what it’s done for them. Drag artist Peaches Christ has used it as part of a highly successful act, while actress April Kidwell has not only made a career out of it—playing not only Nomi in “Showgirls! The Musical” but Berkley’s “Saved by the Bell” character, Jessie Spano, in “Bayside! The Musical” (both very off-Broadway).
On a more serious note, Kidwell argues that her own recovery from sexual trauma came from playing Nomi, and there’s a brief discussion of how the movie appeals to gay men because the narrative of someone remaking herself and realizing her sexual power mirrored their own experience.
By why shouldn’t fans hold myriad views about “Showgirls” when even the makers have hedged their bets? In footage from 1995, Verhoeven and Eszterhas both pontificate about the film’s seriousness, but more recently the director has described it as a satire played broadly to generate laughs. And Berkley, shown in contemporary clips earnestly discussing her role, is seen more recently saying it was intended to be played humorously over-the-top.
Indeed, her performance is so extreme that McHale includes as a digression Jack Smith’s comparison of it to the double performance of Maria Montez (playing twins) in the 1944 cult classic “Cobra Woman,” a gonzo Technicolor extravaganza with snakes and volcanoes and Sabu, saying that both actresses reach a level of mad intensity that constitutes greatness of a very special sort. Yet the movie did kill Berkley’s career, and so it’s nice to see her being asked to host a screening of it for a large crowd of fans.
If all this seems like overload, rest assured it merely scratches the surface. McHale offers scads of clips from “Showgirls,” along with clips from the publicity machine that promoted it as a must-see in 1995. He situates it within the context of the steamy movies of the period, including the 1992 Verhoeven-Eszterhas smash hit “Basic Instinct.” He offers an overview of Verhoeven’s career, portraying him as a natural provocateur who used violence and sex to ridicule societal norms, first in his Dutch homeland and then in America. (He also cheekily employs clips from the director’s other movies to show their characters watching “Showgirls.”) And there are grainy clips from Peaches Christ’s stage shows, as well as some from “Saved by the Bell” that highlight that show’s sexism and its wacky attempts at seriousness. It’s all presented in a near-hysterical mixture of montages and commentary that comes across as breathless, with such feeble transitions that one is often left uncertain of who’s speaking or what point s being made at any given moment.
Since McHale has little feel for structure or selection, “Nomi” is like a cinematic buffet groaning under the weight of dishes of all sorts randomly thrown together. But if you’re a movie buff, you’ll find the messy meal a treat, whether you consider “Showgirls” unmitigated trash or misunderstood masterpiece.