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“Know Me, I’m Alone”: The Greatest Showgirl On Earth

by Shawn Baker

“I’m a dancer!”

Boulevard of Broken Queens

Such is is the defiant, armored response of Showgirls‘s vituperative Nomi Malone, her all-purpose deflection that she’s something “anything” more than a fifty dollar whore, a skid row stripper, a trailer trash refugee, and a girl born into the gutter.

This is a chick whose life fuel is teeth-gnashing, acrylic nail-brandishing desperation channeled to claw herself out of a hell not of her own making, and if anyone deserves to roundhouse her way up from the pavement to the penthouse, it’s her.

Nomi is your Venus.

Common sentiment is that you can’t really succeed in intending to create a cult film. Bad is just bad, but BAD as in “Ja-mon! You know! (to quote Michael Jackson by way of Trash Goddess Elvira) is like a solar eclipse: we may technically understand the phenomenon, but there remains something otherworldly and unknowable about it. Cult movies and figures aren’t born so much as they are adopted like the least pet shop window-presentable member of a litter, which makes Showgirls with its amped-on-all-cylinders heroine the unruly, in-heat kitty bent on biting the hand that feeds it and slinking off to the alleys as the hackle-raising Queen of The Night.

When Showgirls strutted onto screens in 1995 after months of salacious publicity and mortified buzz, the film was (mis-)marketed as both the latest entry in the vogue of mid-’90s erotic thrillers following in the wake of Basic Instinct and a splashy expose of the perils of Vegas Strip showbiz. The finished product was ultimately neither, its roots instead laying in Grindhouse Cinema’s cautionary Girl In The Big City genre dating back as far as the Poverty Row days of Wages Of Sin and Escort Girls, and in the late-’60s mainstream Hollywood Identity crisis that resulted in big studios aping B-movie exploitation tropes to stay in the game.

The line between theaters and drive-ins blurred for that brief time, and while the Grindhouses and smaller studios offered up Wayward Girl pictures, often mixing the search for stardom with delinquency, drugs, and prostitution, bigger studios cut in on the trend. 1964’s Kitten With A Whip! in particular features an emotional whirling dervish turn by Ann-Margret that’s very proto-Nomi, while Twentieth Century Fox chronicled the downfalls of pill-dependent, man-troubled heroines in Valley of The Dolls and its salt-the-earth sequel Beyond The Valley of The Dolls.

If you crammed the three leads from the former into one gyrating vessel that can’t contain their needy mania, and dashed in the raucous and violent exploitation of the latter, hair trigger-tempered Nomi’s misadventures in Sin City would be (and is) the delirious result. What was intended to be some sort of peepshow for Middle America misfired with that intended audience, schizophrenically being lambasted by mainstream critics as cynical sleaze, while urban crowds –and particularly, the already-got-‘em-in-‘Frisco ready-made gay fan base who had no inhibitions to leave at the door — hailed it as a glorious trash spectacle that delivered everything we could ask for in a movie while dispensing with all the greeting card schmaltz and eye-rolling hackery we hate.

Life On The Pole

Caught in the eye of the whirlwind was Elizabeth Berkley – the teen queen looking to seriously bust out of type – who took the brunt of the jeering from the Pretty Woman crowd while simultaneously and instantly winning the enduring love of hipsters, drag queens, and queers who’d gladly build her a neon temple if she’d asked for it. I had just discovered the outre works of Russ Meyer when Showgirls hit, and when the film debuted on cable after its tempestuous run in theaters, I immediately saw the parallels. Berkley, all doe-eyed and coltish, may not boast the suffocating proportions of a Tura Satana, but in spirit, she had all her sneering verve and ball-breaking bravado in spades.

Rare is the review I’ve read that even mentions her spectacular dancing; Flashdance may’ve required all manner of doubles, but Berkley is all there from the pole to the casino stage, and this lady’s moves are so razor-sharp they could draw blood. At least once daily an image or exchange from the film enters my head, be it Nomi’s opening full-throttle nerve-jangling (immortally christened in Movieline‘s Bad Movies We Love as “a French Fry hissy fit”), the uproarious on-stage sabotage involving some maliciously-strewn beads, or Nomi and her rival Cristal Connors bonding over their mutual love of Doggie Chow.

I wasn’t alone. I distinctly remember RuPaul within months of the movie’s debut already referencing Nomi as a camp touchstone and mimicking her fast and furious audition moves, while Quentin Tarantino – comparing Berkley’s incredible topless, leopard print mini-skirted, switchblade-wielding beat-down of a rapist rock star to Pam Grier‘s “Up Against The Wall, Motherfucka!” persona – declared that Showgirls was the then-years-too-late example of Hollywood producing a big, glitzy Grindhouse flick and being afraid to sell it as such.

Other trash-chic entries have followed, but none has since delivered the same overheated goods. A planned sequel chronicling Nomi’s arrival in Hollywood called Bimbos (!) sadly never materialized, and though two curious quasi sequels recently hit the scene, without Berkley/Nomi as their rock-hard diamonelle heart, I just can’t see them working. MGM got hip upon the movie’s 2004 DVD release, noticing that the film had become a fave at college parties, drag shows, and midnight showings, this release targeted at cult enthusiasts and including playing cards, drinking games, and a nude Nomi poster with suction cup pasties.

Empire scribe Michael Adams developed such an abiding love for the movie that it became the inaugural entry for his year-long sojourn to experience the most entertainingly kitsch and irredeemably wretched movies in creation (even nabbing top billing in the title) for his book Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies. Showgirls clearly ranks as the best of the BAD for him. Adams admits he can’t picture anyone else essaying Nomi the way Berkley did, and I’ll concur that I can’t fathom any other actress doing Nomi justice. Berkley had just narrowly edged out Charlize Theron for the role, and herself wouldn’t have even taken the part had she not lost out on Friends to Jennifer Aniston, whose own career typifies the type of mirthless, assembly-line anodyne Showgirls could never be.

Berkley, whose Nomi is at her apex the more freely she flirts with lip-glossed lesbionics and drag queen heel-gouging, gives one of those rare queerly-tinged performances that mainstream Hollywood can never truly manage to accommodate thereafter, joining the ranks of Dog Day Afternoon‘s Chris Sarandon, Fright Night‘s (and later, gay porn D-List’s) Stephen Geoffreys, Ms 45‘s Zoe Tamerlis, and The Doom Generation‘s Johnathon Schaech out on the borders while Gerard Butler and Sarah Jessica Parker cash their big paychecks for phoning it in for Mismatch Romantic Comedy No. 754.

If there’s a reason to love Showgirls outside of its obvious charms, then ponder all of the conventions of the typical Showbiz movie – the narrative arcs of which are without fail numbingly identical – the movie subverts. There are no formative childhood flashbacks or much in the way of come-from-nothing exposition for Nomi; we simply encounter her on the Lost Highway and based on her weathered shell can draw our own logical conclusions about this girl’s path. Adams goes so far as to label the almost-feral Nomi an anti-heroine, noting that her own name (is it real or a self-styled invention?) is a phonetic koan: “Know me, I’m alone.”

Goddess On The Mountain Top

Outside of a “Ver-sayce” dress, she really has no need for a make-over to transform her from a wide-eyed rube to a Big City girl; our Nomi is already sporting her porn starlet mask of make-up and bottle-blonde locks from frame one. For all of her histrionics, she’s actually a remarkably stable presence in term of her M.O. in coping with adversity. There is no hackneyed “Look what stardom has made me become!” catharsis because we can’t imagine for a second that this experience marks the first time she’s pushed someone down the stairs or drop-kicked a fucker. This bitch was born bad-ass, and stays true to form.

Best of all is Nomi’s navigating of her personal attachments. The men depicted in the movie are all largely dispensable, either briefly-encountered authority figures and well-meaning-if-insufficient flirtations, or convenient rungs for climbing the ladder and bastards deserving broken skulls; none can really match her. It’s her ties to the other female characters that have heft, and with antagonist Cristal and seamstress friend Molly split down the middle as Dark Girl and Light Girl, that leaves Nomi to occupy a traditionally male vantage (note how co-star Kyle MacLachlan was similarly bound to the same dichotomy in Blue Velvet) in which she can’t get everything she needs from just one special lady.

There’s no expected betrayal of a loved one that signals Nomi’s fall to earth and serves as her path to redemption. Cristal’s baiting and scheming leads them both to a predestined end – one Nomi wisely sees coming for her soon enough if she becomes complacent, anticipating convenient ally Julie is likely to turn on her when the time is right – while Molly’s attack finds her switching gears from Top Bitch to thigh-high-wearing Avenging Angel as she chucks it all with a blazing cry of “Fuck this scene!” The film ends cyclically as it began, with Nomi blowing town as quickly as she came in, leaving with both less and more – what the hell was in that suitcase anyway? – as the same erratic hothead we’ve come to love. This may be Showgirls‘s most inspired undercutting of formula: our heroine doesn’t really even have to smart from crashing to earth after a dizzying rise and fall.

For a gal like Nomi Malone – and a movie like Showgirls – all there is is rock bottom.