How ‘Showgirls’ Became a Queer-Movie Classic
Nomi Malone’s is “a story many queer people understand to our core,” writes Jeffrey McHale, the director of the documentary “You Don’t Nomi,” available June 9th.
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’s weekly outdoor movie screening. 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.
Released in 1995 to brutal reviews, Showgirls bombed so hard at the box office that it took the careers of its key players down with it, including star Elizabeth Berkley. What should have been a stepping stone for Berkley—then known as a star of the Saturday morning kids sitcom Saved by the Bell—to a serious acting career became an albatross for her. In the years after its release, Showgirls had found an audience largely through midnight movie screenings and over-the-top reenactments of its most memorable already over-the-top moments (often by drag queens). The studio threw a red carpet event for the 10th anniversary for the film’s DVD release. Verhoeven and his leading stars, including Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Gershon, and especially Berkley had steered clear of it all.
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.
Nomi, of course, is Berkley’s Showgirls character Nomi Malone, who we meet upon her arrival in Las Vegas and follow as she ascends from lap-dancer to star showgirl amid a cavalcade of bare breasts, crude dialogue, and unintentional laughs. Verhoeven’s “masterpiece of shit” turns 25 this year and for those in the know, it’s no surprise that the “worst movie of all time” is primed for a revival.
In the first few years after its release, loving Showgirls was something of a rebellion. As I show in my documentary, You Don’t Nomi, the film once universally scorned has not only found its audience but it’s also enjoying a critical reappraisal. I was too young and too gay at the time of the NC-17 movie’s original release to have been enticed by its sleazy marketing campaign that invited audiences to “leave their inhibitions at the door.” When I finally saw Showgirls as a film student in Chicago in 2005, not only did it blow my mind but I felt that it was made for me.
The filthy script, the characters’ erratic behavior, two near car crashes, jackpot won, jackpot lost, a switchblade, and projectile vomiting all splayed across the screen within the first five minutes. I recognized the exaggerated and bombastic tones from other camp classics like Mommie Dearest and Valley of the Dolls, and felt its inherent queerness as much as I did with Pink Flamingos and Rocky Horror Picture Show.
In You Don’t Nomi, I explore how Showgirls has become part of the contemporary queer lexicon partly through its entry into the canon of camp film. Camp is the aesthetic roughly understood to be when something is so good because it’s so unintentionally bad. Susan Sontag defined it as “failed seriousness” in her essay “Notes on Camp.” It wasn’t long after the shattered costume beads of Showgirls settled at the box office that queer audiences discovered the discarded pieces of an accidental camp masterpiece.
In San Francisco, drag performer Peaches Christ would recreate Showgirls with her fellow queens for their midnight film series. A few years later in Seattle, film critic David Schmader would host interactive screenings where he would explicate the film’s “intricate pattern of badness.” Poet Jeffery Conway found inspiration for a book of sestinas in the story of Nomi. Actor April Kidwell would star as Nomi Malone in the off-Broadway Showgirls! The Musical! before writing her brilliant one-woman show, I, Nomi.
Certainly, frequent airings on cable (albeit sanitized) propelled the popularity of Showgirls, but the very nature of camp and cult cinema is communal. Through the shared experience of viewing a film, we can find connections and companions in unexpected places. Even as audiences continued to mock its absurdities, Showgirls came to mean something—sometimes ironic, sometimes sincere—particularly to women and gay men. Nomi’s fight to be seen, to be heard, and to be recognized is a fight women and queer audiences can relate to on a visceral level. Sure, in the beginning we were laughing at the erratic and over-the-top performances. Yet the more we get to know Showgirls, we still laugh, but for different reasons.
To be clear, Showgirls is a deeply flawed and problematic film. While Verhoeven has often defended his work as his attempt to hold a mirror up to America, with all our flaws and complicated ideas about sex, it’s hard to ignore the film’s more blatant moments of misogyny. The film’s most controversial scene—the depiction of a brutal sexual assault—is so gratuitous, it’s hard to imagine it even being filmed today.
And yet, it seems that a film doesn’t need to uphold feminist ideals itself for us to find value, or even take personal power from its message. One of the more revelatory experiences for me in the process of making this film was getting to know April Kidwell. In You Don’t Nomi, she describes how playing the character Nomi Malone on stage became an unlikely way for her to heal from sexual trauma.
More than that, she says she connects with the story of Nomi Malone as she sets out on her “hero’s journey,” following her dreams in a big city, finding her chosen family, and using her sexuality and inner strength to fend for herself. That’s a story many queer people understand to our core.
In the year since You Don’t Nomi premiered at Tribeca in April of 2019, I have often thought about Berkley and her experience of playing Nomi. Like many others of my generation, I grew up watching her on Saved by the Bell. Like so many other young actresses, her transition into adulthood was scrutinized into oblivion. It makes me wonder: have we learned anything in the last 25 years? Or do we still ask young women to be chaste and wholesome until they’re old enough to thrust themselves into being fully sexual if not sex objects, and then blame and punish them for the result? Sure, we now have social media to do it, but how much have the ways in which we critique, mock and tease really changed?
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.
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. Like any worthwhile piece of art, it reflects images of the familiar and strange. Verhoeven’s vision of America serves as a way to connect with ourselves and others at a time when many of us are perhaps realizing how much there is still to learn.