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There’s been a lot of recent nostalgia surrounding director Paul Verhoeven’s classic Total Recall, as the film just celebrated its 30th anniversary in the lexicon of sci-fi geeks everywhere. But that’s not the only Verhoeven film that’s celebrating a milestone this year, as this September marks the 25th anniversary of Elizabeth Berkeley’s Nomi Malone and her quest for stardom. A film infamous for its explicit sexuality, Showgirls has gone on to become a cult classic on the midnight movie circuit, and director Jeffrey McHale has made a documentary that delves into just why it’s become a cult classic.
In his film, You Don’t Nomi, Jeffrey McHale ultimately nails the key reason behind Showgirls’ success as being attributed to the following formula:
I think with Showgirls, one of my contributors Haley Mlotek said so perfectly, ‘The reason we’re still talking about it is because we’re not done with it.’ We’re not done trying to figure it out, we’re not done trying to figure out its impact, why it was made, and why we’re still kind of drawn to it.
Part of the reason why people are drawn to the allure of Showgirls is the natural inclination to check the film out as a curiosity of sorts. A film that earned and proudly wore an NC-17 rating back in 1995, the nudity and sexual content were used as potential points for audience members looking for something more risqué. At this point, if you’ve never seen the movie, but heard its name and reputation in passing, you have to see it for yourself.
Of course, as anyone who’s seen Showgirls will tell you, it doesn’t turn out to be a purely carnal affair, as Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas’ film had a heaping help of intentionally exaggerated performances and tongue-in-cheek comedy. You Don’t Nomi’s Jeffrey McHale learned this lesson himself in his college days, as a friend’s introduction to Showgirls helped him see the truth: the supposed branding that saw this MGM film labeled as a picture of a smuttier persuasion was absolutely wrong.
Sure, there are elements that are erotically charged, but the consistent humor that Elizabeth Berkeley’s journey from obscurity to stardom entails tempers those more excessive moments. It’s the adoption of the film by the gay community has helped keep it fresh in the minds of the world. As early as 1996, The New York Times was reporting midnight screenings that would see groups of drag queens on either coast helping turn a taboo entry at the multiplex into a social event. You Don’t Nomi also covers this part of the Showgirls legacy, as one of the commentators who's included in the parade of contributors to this oral history is famed queen Peaches Christ, who ran 20 years worth of screenings at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre.
With the eventual rehabilitation that turned Showgirls into a midnight movie hit, it made me think of another, more recent failure at the box office that’s started down the same path: Tom Hooper’s Cats. It didn’t take long for the severely slammed musical adaptation to start scoring late night parties of its own, as several theater chains started to host “rowdy screenings” where viewers were encouraged to treat the entire experience like a Rocky Horror-style fun fair.
With his You Don’t Nomi experience under his belt, I had to ask if Jeffrey McHale thought that Cats could possibly become something akin to the sort of cult classic that Showgirls had become. I was relieved to know I wasn’t the first person to ask him this question, but McHale doesn’t seem to think that sort of scenario is a given at this point. He explained to me why, as follows:
That has come up since it came out. I ran out to the theaters, I wanted to make sure I saw it in theaters this [past] Christmas when it came out. I don’t think it could, I think that they’re two very different things. Cats was obviously one of the longest running musicals on Broadway, it has its own kind of history along with it. Even from like the Cats fanbase, you’re gonna have people who don’t like the movie. It is strange, but I think the musical itself is strange, so I think drawing upon another source makes it hard to kind of say it’s the next Showgirls. … It’s like one of those things where only time will tell how audiences are going to kind of respond to it in the long run. I find it hard to think it’s going to have the same kind of excitement, confusion, and questions.
It was a long, hard climb that got Showgirls into the place of cult culture classic, and it's not something that happens easily or often. The work speaks for itself, as a movie this beloved and catchy doesn’t happen by accident, and Jeffrey McHale knows that possibly better than anyone. With another five years in the books, and Paul Verhoeven still making movies in the industry that once burned him, perhaps the continued success of Showgirls could resurrect Bimbos, the originally intended sequel that saw Nomi head to Hollywood. The world clearly isn’t done with Showgirls, and maybe Charlize Theron can finally take part in the world that once passed her over. Stranger things have obviously happened.
You Don’t Nomi is currently available to rent or buy in Digital HD.