I was there at the beginning: the first evening screening of Showgirls at the Odeon West End in 1995. As a huge fan of the grand guignol Dutch arthouse cinema of Paul Verhoeven, I couldn’t wait to see Vegas refracted through his warped lens. His 1983 film The Fourth Man, about a bisexual author plagued with murderous visions, had been a cult phenomenon in London, and Verhoeven had recently shifted to Hollywood – knocking out two pop art sci-fi blockbusters in Robocop and Total Recall. Showgirls was from the same mould, but instead of working the beat of futuristic violence, it was a pre #metoo bonfire of sexual politics and exploitation. The film had received an NC-17 rating in the prurient US for its sexual content, and the reviews had been eviscerating. Expectations were everything. They were met and more.
The story of dim but ruthless dancer Nomi Malone, desperate to become a big deal in the meretricious world of Vegas theatrical spectaculars, Showgirls was BEYOND. It was gaudy, camp, offensive to American sensitivities and, crucially, full of quotable lines to sit alongside the best polari from Victoria Wood and Absolutely Fabulous. Today, I own the Blu-ray and have seen the film around 50 times.
Writer and filmmaker Jeffrey McHale came to Showgirls as a film student ten years after its initial release. It clearly left the same impression on him as on me, but while for me it is a rainy day pick-me up, for McHale it became an obsession culminating in the making of his documentary You Don’t Nomi. Writing in The Daily Beast, he explains his own film as a love letter to queer counterculture, but more than that, he wanted to unpack what Showgirls meant in the context of the history of American cinema: “When I first saw Showgirls, it was a joke—a terrible, obscene and shocking film experience like nothing else. Now I see it as a deeply complicated piece of our culture. Showgirls is a snapshot both of a studio system which no longer exists and of a time in our culture we’ve tried to evolve past, maybe not as successfully as we think.”
As is the way in American cinema at its boldest in the 1990s, there are bald vaginas aplenty, and bare breasts galore
When you’re a part of the Showgirls cult or not, You Don’t Nomi is a hugely entertaining ride through the American cinema of the 1990s. It’s also a masterfully executed film in its own right. McHale never falls back on the talking heads that can so frequently turn otherwise interesting documentary subject matter into death on toast. He cuts many of his points, literally, into frames from other Verhoeven movies, drawing a line between Showgirls and the rest of the director’s career to date, and considers how its attitude to women flags up an America in which Joe Eszterhas either wrote or inspired almost every successful, problematic narrative. McHale documents both the critical savaging and the reappraisal of Showgirls via other film academics, including Adam Nyman, author of It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, and Jeffrey Conway, who used the format of DVD commentary for a collection of his poetry, Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas. McHale also peppers the film with rarely seen behind-the-scenes footage, and documents how Showgirls became a successor to Rocky Horror for immersive queer screenings staged by drag artiste Peaches Christ.
Showgirls is a film about sexual objectification and ambition but it is also, as the documentary flags up, curiously sexless. As is the way in American cinema at its boldest in the 1990s, there are bald vaginas aplenty, and bare breasts galore, but not a single, solitary flaccid (or otherwise) member in sight. And the interaction between characters is as glacial as it is athletic. One of the few genuinely erotic scenes Verhoeven has ever shot is in Starship Troopers, when all-American white stud Johnny Rico (played by Casper Van Dien) gets bound and lashed by his sergeant after the accidental death of a fellow soldier. Verhoeven can do extreme, but he can’t do intimate. He also, notably, uses rape as a plot device in every film he makes. It’s crass and repugnant – but that’s the point. In Spetters, it “turns” a homophobic character gay, in Showgirls it is a lever for revenge, and in 2016’s Isabelle Huppert-starring Elle he created the template for what could be an unlikely new genre: the arthouse rape comedy. In someone else’s hands, all this would be deeply unsettling. And there’s nothing casual about it. But with Verhoeven it somehow straddles the preposterous and the profound. He is the Jeff Koons of European art cinema and Showgirls is his La Cicciolina moment. It is also, as the documentary shows, part of an interesting period in an ongoing career: from 1987 until 2000 Verhoeven essentially infiltrated Hollywood and made audacious art movies that played at multiplexes.
Much of You Don’t Nomi considers what everyone involved in the production thought they were trying to achieve. Did anyone think this was a serious work? It seems almost no one “got” what Verhoeven was doing. Which is, in its own way, fabulous. He spent $45mn on conjuring up something as weird as anything Matthew Barney has put his name to, but also as camp as anything you will ever experience. Gina Gershon’s line “Ya are a whore, darlin” must surely make the top ten most quoted pieces of dialogue from cinema of all time.
The biggest star in Verhoeven’s film is the city in which it is set. It creates a myth around Vegas that Francis Ford Coppola failed so dismally to do with One from the Heart. Yes, I’d forgotten about it too. Showgirls captures the cynicism and hubris of the neon city, and amplifies it. Some years after I saw Showgirls, I went to Vegas for the first time and felt disappointed. I went to see a show at the Stardust casino, purely because that’s where Goddess – the focus of the story in Showgirls – is staged in the film. I caught the first half of a variety performance that had been staged with no expense apparent before leaving to play roulette. It was banal. Real life just can’t compare with Verhoeven’s interpretation of it. But then that’s probably for the best. C