Showgirls was the most reviled movie of the nineteen-nineties, which sabotaged the career of its leading lady and set back the depiction of sex in cinema to the early sixties. It signalled the end of the sexual frankness, and indeed exploitation, in the mainstream of the decade as audiences felt embarrassed to be going to see it, so most of them either stayed at home or decided to spend their ticket money on something else. It arguably brought in a new puritanism into the movies, where sex could only be referred to as a joke, and the idea that you could attend a movie even with nudity in it became too excruciating to contemplate. Showgirls' extreme bad taste was too much for anyone to take seriously and it became a byword for the biggest, crassest mistakes of Hollywood...
So why now do some people believe it to be a masterpiece? It really isn't, but that's just one opinion and there are many counter to that, as heard in Jeffrey McHale's documentary You Don't Nomi, named after the Nomi character of Elizabeth Berkley who we follow from rags to riches and back again over the course of a brief but stellar career as a Las Vegas Showgirl. Had this been made back in 1995, or shortly after, McHale would have had a mountain to climb, although the impression this film gave was that nobody was identifying its cult appeal back at its release, which simply is not true, for there were a number of dissenting voices mid-nineties who lapped up the glitzy sleaze with enthusiasm. We do hear from some of them here, but they sound like voices in the wilderness.
What is true that general audiences refused to see it, and those who did were faced with, well, an in your face display of sexuality so aggressive that they didn't know whether to laugh or cringe. The fans now opt for the former, and a big part of the following is from the gay audiences who love how over the top it is, how camp but not in a knowing way: Valley of the Dolls and Mommy Dearest are cited as equivalent entertainments, designed to be shocking and sobering, yet actually embraced as a laff riot, often by the non-hetero viewer. Showgirls, says drag performer Peaches Christ, is empowering because Nomi's experience reads as the gay experience, an outsider who changes her name to be accepted as herself (and kisses some ladies too), but the matter of the attraction of watching heterosexuality portrayed as excessively grotesque is never brought up.
One thing we can be sure of: director Paul Verhoeven is a man of immense personal charm, not only because he can persuade his cast to strip off and behave like maniacs, but because of his defence of the motivations behind his work. He talks a good talk, and you can almost believe that Showgirls was intended as a satire of sorts: the "I meant to do that" argument, yet his coffee table book about the movie is held up as exhibit A that he and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas were perfectly sincere in what they concocted. And yet, for a film that's so often labelled as horrendously misguided trash, Showgirls proves very difficult to pin down as to what it was supposed to be - there seems to be intentional humour and bad taste to make us laugh, yet near the end there's a brutal rape of the nicest, and arguably only sane character which is conveniently dismissed when the camp is discussed (not here though, to its credit).
It's fashionable in the twenty-first century to close down discussions of works like this as problematic, yet many buffs love it, suggesting a tension in what is embraced and rejected: would Showgirls be quite as tolerated if it had been the go-to favourite movie of beer-swilling football fans, for instance? Nobody involved was left unaffected, not least Berkley who you really come away feeling sorry for, though cheered that she accepted her place as a one-off camp icon (maybe two, for her Saved By the Bell anti-drugs sitcom episode). But though Verhoeven had a couple of would-be blockbusters lined up to direct, Hollywood could not forget Showgirls and he had trouble getting funding for his pet projects; Eszterhas? Forget it, he went from million-dollar scripts to couldn't get arrested. Even the story's villainess Gina Gershon, who seemed to get the tone perfectly, never went onto the stardom she seemed to deserve. Maybe that's why documentaries like this pick at its bones: it means so many things to so many different people, and it's too awkward and unruly to fit a consensus.