WRITING: RANDI BERGMAN
1995 was a big year for low brow. It was the year the O.J. Simpson trial dominated headlines, the year Drew Barrymore flashed David Letterman on late night TV, and the year Hugh Grant got arrested for getting a very public blowie from a sex worker named Divine Brown. And sure, those events have gone down in history at various levels of culture-shaping, but to me, a 10-year-old on the verge of experiencing my most confusing sexual awakening, all that mattered was the night my friend Jessica and I snuck downstairs to watch Showgirls on VHS in her older sister’s secluded basement bedroom.
The film, which turns 25 today, was Elizabeth Berkley’s first big screen moment after playing Jessie Spano, the feminist keener who once got hooked on caffeine pills, on Saved by The Bell. And her portrayal of Nomi Malone, a drifter pole dancer and tacky style goddess with dreams of making it as a Las Vegas performer, was universally panned. Critics weren’t ready in 1995, but that was neither here nor there to a couple of burgeoning pre-teens who wanted into the world of NC-17. As we sat in silence on the floor, all I remember is the feeling of being simultaneously perplexed, aroused and delighted by the film’s brash, neon eroticism.
For years, it lived on in my memory as a haze of pique turns and spread eagles as I pursued the finer things in life, like quoting Pride and Prejudice in my Facebook statuses and using Google translate for Serge Gainsbourg lyrics… lol. But on the eve of the Nineties resurgence seven years ago, I looked Showgirls up again. And boy, did that re-watch set my world on fire. It’s as if all of my greatest loves—for neon flamingo signage, for metallic tiger prints, for non-sensical one liners—were crystallized in one paean to trash culture and the unapologetic stripper manifesto. I was giddy to finally make sense of what was always there, lurking… trash, as it turns out, was my life!
I went pretty Showgirls crazy for the next few years, from trying to replicate the exact shade of iridescent baby blue in Nomi’s leather Versace skirt suit to forcing my friend to spend New Year’s Eve 2016 at Cheetah’s, the IRL Vegas strip club where Nomi dances (it recently became a COVID casualty… RIP), to hosting a themed birthday party with bags full of fake nails, to starting my own stripper zine which sadly, never made it to print.
All these years later, I still think about a lot of Showgirls a lot. I think about the way Nomi screams, “Fuck off, fucker!” while beating her friend’s rapist to a pulp. I think about the way Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) finishes every zinger with “Darlin.” I think about the fact that Nomi and Zack Carey’s (Kyle MacLachlan) famed floppy fish pool sex scene makes little functional sense. And I think about the way each of these insignificant details have united a generation in gloriously campy adoration 25 years after the film’s release.
Case in point: The Showgirls documentary, You Don’t Nomi, was released last year to much fanfare, while another, Goddess, is set to be released shortly. Before the pandy, Thnk1994’s glorious gallery walls were chockfull of dedications to the film’s greatest moments. And before that, Adam Nayman’s book, It Doesn’t Suck, put a critical defence of the film into the national archives.
It ain’t just superfans, either. Find any post-2010 review of Showgirls, and its writer will likely wax poetic about how misunderstood the movie was when it first came out.
For me, the film’s ironic genius can best be summarized by the way Nomi expresses the fairly unexplained rage that bubbles below her shimmery surface, with a one-two punch of barfing, running into oncoming traffic, and tossing a basket of fries near the beginning of the film.
Allow me to set the scene: Our girl has just arrived in Las Vegas, and after gleefully tossing around some coins she won off a slot machine, she quickly realizes her suitcase has been stolen by the lowlife who gave her a ride into town. Frantically rushing out to the parking lot, she screams “Shit! Fuck! Shit!” while pounding a neighbouring car. The owner of said car, her soon-to-be-BFF Molly (Gina Ravera), tries to pull her off, inadvertently making Nomi twirl, barf and then run into oncoming traffic, only to save her moments later. The two stare at each other erotically, before Molly buys Nomi dinner.
At dinner, Molly is making conversation, and asks where Nomi is from. This irritates Nomi, who angrily squeezes a bottle of ketchup while evading questions.
Molly: “Where are you from?”
Nomi: (huffs) “Back east.”
Molly: “From where back east?”
Nomi: (tosses basket of fries and grabs soda) “DIFFERENT PLACES!”
And as you might expect from this irrational exchange, Molly offers her a place to stay.
Nomi gave no fucks, sure, but what really makes me laugh is the sheer absurdity of her actions. Even though she’s hiding a real dark past (“Your father killed your mother then killed himself!” is the smoking gun later delivered by MacLachlan), was it really necessary to ruin a perfectly good side dish? I guess what I’m saying is that Nomi, and Showgirls, have given me permission to lean into my most over the top self.
In a movie where every moment is a gift, this scene is a real chef’s kiss of spastic overacting. And it’s funny because it’s this overacting, which Berkley took the blame about for years even though the cues came directly from director Paul Verhoeven, that has been vindicated with the film’s elevation to cult status. Back in 1995, Showgirls tanked Berkley’s career. If the film was released today, it’s hard to imagine a reaction other than pure adulation.
At a 2015 screening of the film, Berkley told fans, “I had the most extraordinary experience making the film. When a dream is happening, it’s unlike anything you can ever imagine. Which is why, when the movie came out, it was more painful than anything you can imagine. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on that moment, because why do that? We don’t live in the past. I’m just bringing it up for a point, to tell you that 1995 was such a different time, where taking risks like that were not embraced. They were laughed at. They were shamed publicly. To be a young girl in the centre of that was something that was quite difficult. But I found my own resiliency and my power and my confidence – not only through what I had to find out, but because of you guys.”
25 years later, we’d call this “doing the most.”
Here, a few fellow Showgirls diehards share the scenes that make ‘em do pique turns all night.
“Nomi dancing in the nightclub is, we feel, one of the most innovative yet timeless expressions of body movement ever captured on film. An explosion of fringe and fury! She dances for no one but herself in this moment and thus empowers us to move through space as if we are fighting a swarm of bees. You can add any music to it and the music is instantly elevated, as evidenced here.”
—Matt Harkins and Viviana Olen, Curators, THNK1994 Museum
“Nomi meets a bouncer named Glenn and goes back to his place and in the midst of dancing to a “number” he came up with, he starts to grope her and he puts his hand down her pants to which she says “I’m on my period”. Like WHAT? When he doesn’t believe her she tells him to check, and after he confirms the presence of MENSES, he says “It’s ok, I got towels!”. The scene is so incredibly absurd and over the top but what I think makes it iconic is the fact that a period interrupts a sexual move, which was pretty ground-breaking for 1995 but James’ reply is equally iconic because he isn’t repelled like most dudes would be, making him very progressive. In fact, he is entirely non plussed and is ready to sully his whites in the name of some action.”
—Lesa Hannah, Beauty Director, Elle Canada
“Showgirls was the first time I saw gay people being portrayed in a context I could relate to. Two male dancers kept popping up and I wanted to see an entire spin off. Seeing them just being themselves, interacting, existing gave me a feeling of acceptance. If only for the length of the movie, I got to feel like who I was on the inside had a place in the world to exist without persecution. They were young, full of life and no one was belittling them for it. Growing up and living in the deep south of Mississippi, it gave me a tiny glimpse into how spectacular life could be instead of what everyone was telling me life had to be.”
—Derek Covington Smith, artist
“I love the scene at Spago because it’s as delicious as the champagne Nomi nibbles on with her fingers! That scene alone helps Showgirls pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours, as these two impossibly gorgeous women psychologically circle each other like cats — getting to know each other, testing each other, flirting with each other (and not once do they mention a man). The sexual tension, over-the-top dialogue, and stunning visuals make it one of the greatest scenes of high camp ever filmed.”
—Lottie Pharris Knowles, producer of the upcoming documentary, Goddess: The Fall and Rise of Showgirls
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