Showgirls has a notorious reputation as the most over-the-top, un-erotic erotic thriller in recent years. What was intended to be a career-making, hard-hitting drama that unveiled the dark gritty truth of life as a Vegas showgirl turned out to be an awkwardly acted, poorly written exploitation film disguised as a Lynchian satire that has been reviled and mocked by critics and viewers alike. However, it has garnered a fairly large cult following for its value as a so-bad-it’s-good camp classic. Filmmaker Jeffrey McHale has produced a feature-length video essay that cleverly discusses whether or not Showgirls is a masterpiece or a ‘piece of shit,’ and more importantly, how it can be both.
You Don’t Nomi covers the basic arguments used to defend Showgirls, such as how the entertainingly campy acting and melodramatic writing has gained it a ‘guilty pleasure’ status and a large following in the LGBT community. However, Jeffrey McHale goes deeper into the inner workings of the film’s creative choices by comparing them to the other films of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven’s previous work at the time included the ultraviolent sci-fi satires RoboCop (1987) and Total Recall (1990). What truly put him on the map in the U.S. however, was the blockbuster erotic thriller Basic Instinct in 1992, earning over $300 million despite mixed reviews. You Don’t Nomi argues that critics appreciated Verhoeven’s films when they satirized society with plenty of violence and just enough sex to titillate the audience. However, when sexuality was front and center with violence creeping in the background, audiences labeled him a pervert. The documentary compares recurring themes and visuals in several of Verhoeven’s films ranging from women vomiting, the use of mirrors, strong depictions of sexual violence, and political satire, trying to prove that Verhoeven is an auteur in his own right. Whether or not the audience is convinced remains to be seen.
One may never believe that a schlocky film like Showgirls could have any emotional impact on a person. However, it did for New York actress April Kidwell. In an interview, Kidwell discusses dealing with severe post-traumatic stress after a sexual assault. She was eventually cast in back-to-back Elizabeth Berkeley roles as the Off-Broadway musical version of Jessie Spano and Nomi Malone. Despite the campy, parodic nature of her performance in Showgirls: The Musical!, Kidwell found empowerment and catharsis in her role, raising the argument that Nomi Malone was a symbol of feminist self-empowerment and sexuality. Her story brings much more heart than one would have predicted in a documentary mostly compiling drag shows and corny Joe Estzerhas dialogue.
You Don’t Nomi easily could have been a run-of-the-mill YouTube video discussing standard arguments any cult film lover would have already known and been bored hearing again. However, McHale digs deep with critics, scholars, hardcore fans, actors, and writers to create a new level of discourse on such a seemingly silly topic. The film doesn’t necessarily choose a side and therefore can sometimes appear to lack direction but overall it makes for a fascinating watch and might encourage you to sit through Showgirls again.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 30, 2019, as part of our coverage of Fantastic Fest.