Documentary film maker Jeffrey McHale tells GuysLikeU why notorious skin flick Showgirls is a work of camp genius!

Showgirls. It’s the neon-lit 90s flick about the filthy and bitchy lives of a bunch of lithe, scheming Las Vegas pole dancers that has divided the world for almost 25 years. Many think it is a vacuous, flesh-flashing exploitative abomination made by ‘the sleazebags’ who made Basic Instinct, while others think is a hard hitting feminist movie that shines a light on the vile behaviour of the money men behind the scenes who manipulate, control and exploit vulnerable women.

GuysLikeU is definitely Team Showgirls as we have loved it from day one for all of the above. Sure, it’s trashy! Yes, it’s tacky and by Lord it’s brash and harsh on the eyes, but hey folks, it’s about Vegas! That’s what Sin City is all about, right? But at the same time, it’s also incredibly well produced, fluidly directed by the mighty Paul Verheoven and is endlessly quotable thanks to a ridiculous script penned by Joe Esztahaus that simply sizzles and features lines like ‘You look better than a ten inch dick’ and ‘Must be weird not having anyone cum on ya!’

For those of you who are yet to experience this veritable cinematic masterpiece – here’s the story in a nutshell. Nomi Malone is a wannabe showgirl who wants to make it big in Las Vegas. Only problem is, if she wants to triumph and see her name in lights she has to get legendary Crystal Connors out of the way. Complications arise when Crystal plays a love hate game with Nomi and our hero gets caught up deeper in the seedy world of Sin City.

When the $40m movie was released in 1995, the reviews were scathing and audiences stayed away in their droves. While Paul Verheoven took the criticism on the Dutch chin (he even turned up to accept a handful of Golden Raspberry’s), the cast, in particular Elizabeth Berkley, were left savaged by the cruel reactions. 

But fear not folks, the movie got its Hollywood ending. Years later, the movie was embraced by the LGBT+ community, found an embracing crowd at late night screenings and fast became a cult smash that even the critics who slayer it at the time of the release have come around to.

Now in his affectionate new documentary You Don’t Nomi, director Jeffrey McHale explores the cult phenomenon and finally gives the film the respect it deserves and why it is in fact better than a ten inch dick!  Here, Jeffrey tells GuysLikeU why there is more to Showgirls than many critics would have us believe.   

Jeffrey, you say in your doc that you  came to Showgirls ten years after it had come out – had the terrible reviews put you off? 

It wasn’t the terrible  reviews that kept me away from Showgirls. It was probably my memory of the salacious advertising campaigns that made me think that this film wasn’t for me. So I really hadn’t given it much thought. But boy, was I wrong.

When you did see it for the first time, did you find it as bad as it had been described? What was your initial thought?

It was like nothing I had ever seen before. But there’s a feeling you get when you are in the presence of true high camp. It’s hard to describe. You get a feeling of excitement, joy, laughter, and so many questions. I didn’t want it to end. I have been a fan of Showgirls ever since my first viewing in my early 20s. Showgirls is one of those movies I’ve watched over and over multiple times throughout my life. And there are plenty of movies that I think are amazing and beautiful but I never needed to see them again. But I was curious why it’s something that we keep returning to. I was at the 20th-anniversary screening of film out in LA at Cinespia in 2015and experiencing the Showgirls love with 4000 other fans, I set out to dive deeper into the world of Nomi Malone and explore why her story has come to mean something—sometimes ironic, sometimes sincere—to so many people.

What did you know of Esterhaus and Verhoeven at the time – had you seen their previous work?

I was a huge Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers fan prior to my first Showgirls viewing. I knew of Robocop and Total Recall, but would first view them a few years later too. I knew Verhoeven was a satirist and you can feel that when you watch his films. But I think like many Americans, Showgirls didn’t feel like it fits in with the rest of Verhoeven’s films. But when you look at his whole career it’s actually Verhoeven at his purest.

Were you able to look past the glossy sheen and trashiness of the scenes to see the serious issues being raised in the movie?

Yes, I think there are many serious issues that surround Showgirls, within the film itself and the reception to it. This is why I wanted to dive deeper into the film and get a better understanding of my own fascination with this complicated piece of cinema.

The LGBT community have been drawn to this filmg for so many years… Why?

This was a question I was really proud we got to delve into in my film and I think it starts with Nomi herself. The ‘hero’s journey’ of Nomi Malone as someone who sets out to follow her dreams in a big city, finds her chosen family, and uses her strength and sexuality to fend for herself is a story that so many queer people can relate to. Nomi fights be seen, to be heard, to be recognised. What woman or gay man hasn’t had to do that too? It’s a movie for us, even if it wasn’t intended to be. This big budget studio film was just so vehemently rejected by the mainstream, but we took it in, raised it back up, and celebrated it at the midnight hour for the last 25 years.

Some of the storylines are actually pretty hard hitting. When Nomi’s friend Molly is brutally rape it highlights the way men in power think they can throw money at a problem to make it go away. Do you think people didn’t see these elements the first time because they were dazzled by neon lights and boobs?

Showgirls is a movie where almost everyone is an asshole. Except Molly. I think a lot of the dismissals had to do with critics and audiences questioning the intentions of the creators. It also had a lot to do with the NC-17 rating (only over 17s could watch it) that Paul Verhoeven was allowed to deliver, which was huge at the time for a major studio.

On the flip side, it also portrays many of the women as strong characters – especially Nomi and Crystal who are as toughened as manipulative as the men. Do you think Showgirls is in some way a feminist movie?

I have a hard time believing that feminist ideals were what motivated the making of Showgirls. But, a film doesn’t need to have feminist ideals for someone to find a feminist message in it or through it. What I can point to is the vast and diverse female fan-base that finds power and strength with the film.

Do you feel the film has been given too hard a time in terms of its artistry? Verhoeven’s direction is very fluid and impressive and the design of it is exquisite. Do you think the film’s directorial merits have been overlooked because of the terrible reactions.

Yes, I do think many of the films technical and stylistic successes were overlooked at the time of initial release.

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5 YEARS AGO – I don’t think anyone knew we would witness a miracle that night. The thought certainly didn’t even cross my mind as my husband and I dragged a cooler full of tequila and potato chips with our friends through the Hollywood Forever Cemetery for @cinespia . Still, we felt something special in the air. We were there for the 20th-anniversary screening of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, an event that would have had the energy of a Pride parade in normal circumstances, but on this night—the day after the Supreme Court issued its ruling legalizing gay marriage—there was a special energy in the air. That seems almost quaint when you think about it today, but under the setting sun in a grass meadow at this old cemetery where L.A.’s cinephiles gather on summer nights to watch classic films, the stars aligned. Given this, you can imagine the surprise of the crowd when, from behind a facade of flowers, the goddess emerged. As she walked into the light of the projection frame, a wave of gasps, then uproarious cheers swelled through the audience as everyone gradually realized we were in the presence of the Showgirl herself, Elizabeth Berkley. It was the actor’s first public Showgirls-related appearance since the film’s release, and it was divine. She introduced the film and took in our applause, glowing and beaming with the pride befitting a star among her fans. As a moment we had been waiting for but never dared to think possible, it felt sacred, like an apotheosis. At last, the fans of this much maligned and misunderstood film were being seen by its star just as we had always seen her: St. Nomi. You Don’t Nomi began as a personal quest to better understand my own fascination with this complicated film but became a love letter to a queer counterculture that embraced it when no one else would and engaged with its complexities the way no one else can. – Jeffrey McHale

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Elizabeth Berkeley was destroyed after Showgirls first came out but has found acceptance finally. That scene in You Don’t Nomi at the 20th anniversary screening was so moving. Do you feel sorry for her?

Absolutely! She was unfairly singled out in 1995. I’m happy with the response the documentary has received thus far specifically around the reaction to Elizabeth’s performance at the time. I think we’re fascinated by the question of what exactly happened on set because it seems like knowing the answer would help us better understand how a ‘masterpiece of shit’ like this could happen in the first place. In my film we even get glimpses of their insights, but of course they’re contradictory, and especially confusing when we look at how some of the cast talks about it now. But all of that only heightens our curiosity. We’d probably ask the same of Mommie Dearest if Faye Dunaway weren’t so notoriously unapproachable. Elizabeth doesn’t seem that way, so we ask the question. But I still don’t think that means we’ll ever get an answer that truly lands on exactly how and why camp happens. The mystique of camp is part of its allure.

Amen! The rape of Molly has always been reviled by critics – but in some way do you think it needed to be as brutal to show to highlight the vile way some men and big business men behave? 

This was the biggest thing that stood out to me when I went back and watched all of Verhoeven’s other films. Just about every single one of his films features a sexual assault of some sort. Verhoeven’s work is surprisingly repetitious. The rape and revenge scene in Showgirls is the most controversial element of the film. It was impossible to not address it and look at it’s connections within Verhoeven’s other films. From what I can tell he’s still operating from the archaic belief that voluntary sex work is bad or shameful and that it brings punishment to those involved. Verhoeven has been very clear that his intention is to hold a mirror up to society and depict the world as it is, and not as we wish it to be. The MeToo and TimesUp movement is beautiful and is one that is created by survivors. Paul Verhoeven doesn’t have the authority to decide that he’s the one to hold a mirror up to society in regards to sexual assault and neither do I. In speaking to my contributors  It was important to have equally valued perspectives that don’t always allign with each other but also don’t compete.

You chose not to interview the cast and crew involved on the film – have any of them been in touch since? 

From the beginning, I knew I didn’t want to tell a behind the scenes or making-of story. What I find most interesting is how the conversation around Showgirls and our relationship to it is always changing. The movie we live with today and our understanding of it has more to do with the fans, critics, and drag performers, who have reshaped the narrative and reclaimed it for themselves. We have yet to hear from any of the original cast or crew, but hope they will see and appreciate.

Do you think if someone were to remake the film in another twenty years how different do you think the film would be?

There’s no doubt that cult audiences and the queer community have kept Showgirls alive for all these years through pure adoration. That kind of audience-driven revival prompted some critics to see it in a new light or at least appreciate it differently as a movie that deserves its own place in history. There are also those of us who either grew up on Showgirls or who discovered our taste in film or camp culture with Showgirls already in our consciousness. Our standards for what is offensive or shocking has definitely evolved over the last 25 years too and I think that’s helped us all see beyond provocative elements to a film that is uniquely flawed, but succeeds because of those flaws. To be clear, I don’t think Showgirls should ever be remade. In another 20 years when we look back, and new generations discover it,  I think we will be having different conversations around Showgirls.

You Don’t Nomi is available to rent on Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player, iTunes, Amazon Prime Video,  Rakuten TV, Google Play and Sky Store