April 27, 2019
by Carla Hay
Directed by Jeffrey McHale
World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.
The 1995 campy film “Showgirls” has become a cult classic for many people, and there are now two documentaries exploring the pop-culture spectacle that’s been spawned by intense “Showgirls” devotion. The documentary “You Don’t Nomi,” directed by Jeffrey McHale, is expected to be released first; the movie focuses on “Showgirls” fandom and doesn’t include any interviews with any of the stars and filmmakers of “Showgirls.” The other documentary is “Goddess: The Rise and Fall of ‘Showgirls’,” directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, which includes the participation of several “Showgirls” principals, such as director Paul Verhoeven, but not “Showgirls” star Elizabeth Berkley. (“Goddess” launched a Kickstarter campaign in March 2019, and reached its $50,000 goal.)
Without the participation of anyone from the “Showgirls” cast and crew, “You Don’t Nomi” has to rely on archived interview clips with “Showgirls” principals and a lot of commentary from talking heads. The pundits interviewed in “You Don’t Nomi” include “Showgirls” superfans such as drag queen Peaches Christ, actress April Kidwell (who has starred as Nomi Malone in the off-Broadway musicals “I, Nomi” and “Showgirls! The Musical!”) and podcaster Matt Baume. Others who give their comments on “Showgirls” include film critics such as Adam Nayman (who wrote the book “It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls”), Barbara Shulgasser (formerly of the Chicago Sun-Times and San Francisco Examiner) and Susan Wloszczyna, who wrote for USA Today at the time “Showgirls” was released.
You don’t have to know anything about “Showgirls” before seeing “You Don’t Nomi,” because the documentary explains it all. “Showgirls,” which was a flop with critics and at the box office when it was first released, tells the story of Nomi Malone (played by Berkley), an aspiring dancer who moves to Las Vegas to try to make it big in a racy Vegas revue called “Goddess” at the Stardust Casino, where the female dancers often have to perform topless or nearly nude.
Nomi has ambitions to be the star of the show, and in order to do that, she has to find a way to replace Cristal Conners (played by Gina Gershon), the catty queen bee who is the current star of “Goddess.” Nomi uses her sexuality to get ahead, including seducing Cristal’s boyfriend Zack Carey (played by Kyle McLachlan), who is the Stardust’s entertainment director, and James Smith (played by Glenn Plummer), who is a bouncer at Cheetah’s Topless Club, where Nomi works on her way to joining the “Goddess” show. The movie has undertones of bisexuality, as Nomi and Cristal play erotic mind games with each other by trying to act like they want to have a sexual affair with each other. There are also hints that Nomi’s roommate Molly Abrams (played by Gina Ravera) has a crush on Nomi.
The melodramatic acting, the over-the-top sexuality and the laughable dialogue all made “Showgirls” either universally reviled by those who considered it to be one of the worst movies of all time, or endearing to those who think that “Showgirls” is so bad that it’s good. The movie also had the notoriety of getting a rare NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, so that people under the age of 17 weren’t allowed to see the movie in theaters. “Showgirls” sparked public outrage at the time because critics said the movie was exploitative and misogynistic, an accusation denied by Verhoeven and “Showgirls” screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. Verhoeven and Eszterhas previously worked together on 1992’s “Basic Instinct,” another controversial erotic drama.
The pundits in “You Don’t Nomi” offer insightful and sometimes hilarious analysis of “Showgirls,” pointing out its flaws as well as aspects that might be considered underrated. One of the inexplicable quirks of “Showgirls” is that the characters repeatedly mention eating brown rice and vegetables. Fan theories have abounded over why this type of meal is brought up so many times in the movie.
The outrage over “Showgirls” has faded over the years, but the damage to Berkley’s career has had long-lasting effects, since this former “Saved by the Bell” star hasn’t been able to get top billing at a major studio film since “Showgirls.” In recent years, Berkley has become more open about her “Showgirls” past, even appearing at a 20th anniversary “Showgirls” screening event in Los Angeles to introduce the movie. “You Don’t Nomi” has footage from that event.
Verhoeven’s and Eszterhas’ previous movies are examined in the documentary, and “You Don’t Nomi” has hilarious sequences demonstrating that Verhoeven’s movies have an apparent obsession with showing women admiring their fingernails. More disturbing, Verhoeven also has a pattern of depicting rape and other sexual assaults in his movies. One of the main reasons why “Showgirls” was hated by so many people is because of a scene where one of the female characters gets gang raped. Even the “Showgirls” fans who comment in “You Don’t Nomi” agree that the “Showgirls” rape scene was gratuitous and reeked of exploitation.
The documentary also doesn’t shy away from commenting on another criticism of “Showgirls”—that the movie was kind of racist, since the black characters in the movie were expendable and only seemed to be written as subservient people who would do anything for Nomi. However, the pundits also mention that one of the campiest things about “Showgirls” is that almost everyone who crosses paths with Nomi seems to fall for her—even though she’s not very charming, not very smart, and she has some pretty big anger issues. (Nomi’s temper-flaring outbursts, which are often random, are among the most-ridiculed aspects of “Showgirls.”)
There’s also some film history in “You Don’t Nomi,” as one of the pundits notes that “Showgirls” can be considered the spiritual sister of two other female-starring movies that flopped but went on to become cult classics: 1967’s “Valley of the Dolls” and 1981’s “Mommie Dearest”—all films about women driven to the brink of insanity by the desire for fame in the entertainment industry.
So why do people love “Showgirls”? The movie is cathartic for many people who relate to the characters, especially Nomi. As Baume points out, that’s why “Showgirls” has struck a chord with many in the LGBTQ community because, like Nomi, many LGBTQ people move to a big city to reinvent themselves, chase dreams, and find acceptance in a new environment. For actress Kidwell, she says in the documentary that “Showgirls” and playing the Nomi Malone character on stage were therapeutic for her, and helped her cope with the trauma of a real-life rape that she experienced.
McHale not only directed “You Don’t Nomi,” but he also wrote and edited the film, and is one of the documentary’s producers. The editing is one of the best things about “You Don’t Nomi,” because McHale has a knack for placing the right footage with effective music and commentary. He uses clips from a hodgepodge of pop-culture references to augment a point being made in the film. The clips range from well-known blockbusters such “E.T.” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to cult films such as “Pink Flamingos” and “Plan 9 From Outer Space” to flops that most people haven’t seen, such as Olivia Newton John’s “Xanadu” and Lindsay Lohan’s “I Know Who Killed Me.” After watching “You Don’t Nomi,” it will be hard to resist the temptation to see “Showgirls” to look out for some of the details that get an entertaining analysis in the documentary.
UPDATE: RLJE Films will release “You Don’t Nomi” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on June 9, 2020.