I’m quite a fan of Elizabeth Berkley from Saved by The Bell. I saw her play what is essentially the Valerie Perrine role in a stage production about Lenny Bruce, performed in London circa 1999, with Eddie Izzard playing the notorious comedian. It wasn’t a surprise that Izzard was a great fit in this intense role, but it was highly impressive that Berkley could hold the stage opposite him, and give a powerhouse performance of her own.
Berkley was the star of Paul Verhoeven’s over-hyped 1995 drama Showgirls, which has attainted a cult status since an initial critical and public rejection. Jeffrey McHale’s documentary is another superdoc in the Room 237 mode, artfully editing clips from most of Verhoeven’s films into a ragbag of Showgirls-affiliated projects; promotional interviews with the cast and crew, stage revivals, even poetry inspired by the film. But does Showgirls really deserve this kind of granular attention?
It’s a tricky question. Verhoeven’s film is probably the worst of a storied career; as pointed out here, when he addressed sci-fi, he was allowed the creative space of a satirist, but when he put sex at the centre of his creative process, things changed for the worse. Showgirls doesn’t have the mordant wit of his early Dutch films, or the comic verve of Robocop or Total Recall. There’s considerable kitsch and camp value, both seams thoroughly mined by McHale, but a late slide towards drama throws up a problematic rape scene and a feminist revenge story which doesn’t land; there’s something missing from the character acrs presented in Joe Eszterhas’s script that makes Showgirls a gratuitous, exploitative film for this critic.
McHale’s documentary is a far more appetising prospect, allowing the viewer to relive the undoubted highlights (the dogfood discussion, the Satan’s Alley-type dance routines) shorn of the narrative thrust. Instead, McHale and a number of contributors assess the different values they find in the journey of dancer Nomi (Berkley) to Las Vegas, where she embarks on a personal and physical re-discovery. Verhoeven had been pushing the limits in terms of sex-on-screen for some time, and Showgirls feels like a grab-bag of specific sex-film genres; girl on girl, girl on guy, and so on. It all feels like a miscalculation; audiences could pretend they saw Basic Instinct for the story, many probably did, but that wasn’t really possible with Showgirls, and consequently, no-one turned up at the cinema.
They did, however, rent it to gawp at from the comfort of their own homes, and Showgirls somehow became a cult hit; I’ve rarely heard anyone in fashion or film who didn’t use Nomi’s deliberate mis-pronounciation of Versace as a badge of honour. Verhoeven shows himself in a good light here at he self-effecingly picks up a haul of Golden Raspberry awards, while Berkley seems appropriately philosophical about the whole experience as she presents a revival screening. And this is a very tightly edited package, seemly weaving dozens of movies together with real ingenuity. In short, You Don’t Nomi is a better film than the middle-aged white-man’s folly it’s about; whether you buy into the theories here or not, McHale’s commentary is well worth the rental.