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The 'Showgirls' Must Go On

Photo courtesy RLJE Films
Photo courtesy RLJE Films

Whether we like it or not, Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 box-office bomb Showgirls is one of the definitive Las Vegas movies. The image of Elizabeth Berkley as exotic dancer Nomi Malone, gyrating onstage at the Cheetahs strip club or in the gaudy production show Goddess, has taken its place right alongside Elvis Presley crooning in Viva Las Vegas or Robert De Niro’s Ace Rothstein overseeing his domain in Casino. In the years since Showgirls was released, it’s been reviled, reassessed, and reinterpreted, and director Jeffrey McHale’s new documentary You Don’t Nomi (which premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival) wrestles with that complex legacy. 


Influenced by movies like Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 (which examines conspiracy theories about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) and Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (which delves into the various onscreen depictions of L.A.), You Don’t Nomi is an impressive feat of editing, composed entirely of movie clips and archival material, narrated by the various interview subjects. McHale draws connections between Showgirls and the rest of Verhoeven’s oeuvre, from Verhoeven’s transgressive early films in his native Netherlands to his Hollywood blockbusters like Basic Instinct and Robocop. In the process, McHale interviews critics and academics, as well as artists like drag queen Peaches Christ and poet Jeffery Conway, who’ve created their own new works in response to

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The documentary has a clever, self-aware sensibility that understands when to take Showgirls seriously and when to appreciate its ridiculousness. Threading together multiple interviews, McHale builds to a description of Showgirls, borrowed from critic Adam Nayman’s 2014 book It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, as a “masterpiece of shit.”


In an interview with Desert Companion, McHale talked more about the movie’s origins and intentions.

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How did you first encounter Showgirls?

I came to it late in life. I was in seventh grade when it first came out, so it took a couple years to kind of catch up to it. It was about 10 years after it had come out. It was after it had already become a queer cult classic. I was with a friend one night, late, in Chicago, and Showgirls came up, and he was like, “What, you haven’t seen it?” He walked over to his DVD shelf, popped it in, and my mind was blown immediately. Everyone always can remember their first viewing of it. They know who they were with, where it was, their experience of it. My mind was blown, my heart started racing, and I just didn’t want it to end.  


How did that appreciation develop into the idea to make a documentary about it?

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It has always kind of been in the background. I’d always been a fan since I’d seen it, and I was actually at the 20th-anniversary screening in Los Angeles (shown) at the end of the movie, where Elizabeth Berkley presented the film. I was just curious why a film like this, in today’s age, speaks to so many other queer people like myself, and why we’re still talking about it.


Was the plan always to interview critics and commentators rather than the people involved with making the movie?

Yeah. I wasn’t really interested in making your standard behind-the-scenes making-of about the film. I wanted to have an honest conversation about the film and our relationship to it, and how it’s evolved over the years. I saw it as, their jobs were all done, and the reason that we’re still talking about it to this day was because of the audiences and because of the people that we spoke to, who have these interesting relationships to the film and interesting takes on it. I wanted to explore that.


What was your process of choosing interview subjects?

Basically just the internet. I just started finding everything that had been written. There hasn’t really been a lot, so it’s not like you have to do a lot of searching. If someone has produced something around Showgirls, it lives on the internet somewhere. Then I started to kind of work in critics. I tried to find critics who still hate it — they hated it at the time, and they hate it to this day. That was probably more of the challenging part, reaching out and cold-calling random critics who reviewed it negatively at the time and seeing if they still wanted to talk about it. A lot of them didn’t, but thankfully I found a few whose opinions haven’t changed and were interested in coming on board.


Why was it important to include a negative critical perspective?

I love it just as an experience, but obviously there are huge concerns and questions about the film. It’s a complicated film, and I think that was one of the interesting things about it. Even the fiercest supporters of it can honor and respect and acknowledge the areas which are complicated. I didn’t want to gush over it for 90 minutes. I don’t think that would be fair for anybody.


What does Showgirls mean for Las Vegas?

Adam Nayman had a little bit about Vegas in his book, and it is interesting because Vegas is one of those uniquely American cities. There’s not many cities like it around the world. It could only exist in America. I think that it’s an interesting portrayal of Vegas and the culture, even though you really don’t see a lot of Vegas in it. Vegas lives in it. Vegas is a city where American dreams are to be made. Fortunes can be made there. I think it was an interesting snapshot of a time in Vegas, and I’m not sure that Vegas exists anymore.


Do you have any personal Vegas memories?

I do, actually. My husband and I stopped in Vegas on a road trip when we moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. It was fun to see the places that were depicted in the film. We actually stayed at the Riviera. That was Nomi’s first stop in Vegas.


How was the response from audiences when you showed the movie at film festivals?

I encourage as much participation as audiences want to give. It’s one of those things that at every festival I go to, the programmers or whoever’s working with each event, they’re always surprised: “You want to sit there and watch?” Yeah, of course. I love hearing the reactions and the moments that people respond to.


Have you gotten any feedback from people who were involved in making Showgirls?

I don’t know if they’ve seen it yet. We’ve offered it up, but we haven’t heard back. I know that Kyle (MacLachlan) was asked about it recently and wished the documentary well. So hopefully one day they can see it. I’m sure they’re going to be curious. I would love to hear their take and hear their thoughts. They have a unique experience of the film, like nobody else.


You Don’t Nomi is available on video-on-demand via all major digital outlets.