1998 saw the release of 54, a movie starring Ryan Phillippe and Salma Hayek that dramatized the fast times at the infamous 1970s New York nightclub Studio 54. But the real drama was going on behind-the-scenes of the film’s production.
The original cut by writer-director Mark Christopher included a scene of Phillippe’s character briefly kissing co-star Breckin Meyer. But test-audiences reportedly reacted negatively to this scene, and to the movie’s generally unsympathetic characters.
Fearing a bomb, the studio, Disney/Miramax, insisted on quick reshoots and reedits. In the end, 45 minutes were cut from the film, new scenes were shot and 25 minutes of new footage were added, along with additional voice-over to streamline the narrative.
The movie bombed anyway, with both audiences and critics.
Related: “54” Director Mark Christopher On The New Director’s Cut, Moviemaking Today, And Turning Ryan Phillippe Bisexual
It was yet another in a long line of Hollywood "de-gayings," where gay content is removed from a movie’s source material or edited out of a film before its theatrical release, and it’s still one of the most notorious examples.
In 1999, a DVD was released, which included some alternate takes and additional footage not seen in the theatrical release. But this was not the director’s original cut.
In 2008, Christopher reassembled his original cut for a screening at Outfest, where the reaction was generally positive.
We got our hands on a copy of that version: Sure enough, it is greatly superior to the theatrical version.
Comparing the two versions is actually quite fascinating. A minor character played by Neve Campbell, is turned, hilariously and incongruously, into full-fledged heterosexual love interest for Shane, Phillippe’s character.
And it’s not just the kiss between Shane and Meyer’s character (who doesn’t reciprocate) that was cut from the theatrical release: the heart of the original version is a touching love triangle between Shane and the characters played by Hayek and Meyer — three more-or-less doomed souls.
The original movie also makes it very clear that Shane is bisexual, or is at least more than willing to play up that side of himself in order to get ahead. All this was scrubbed completely away for the theatrical release.
It’s an annoying film cliché to include homosexuality or bisexuality in order to communicate to audiences the idea of hedonism and the abandonment of all morals. Such gay hedonism was a big part of the theatrical release, with men kissing and having sex in the darkened balcony at Studio 54.
Of course, in this case, the gay hedonism happens to be historically accurate. What’s ironic about the elimination of the love triangle and Shane’s bisexuality is that audiences were left with virtually all the soulless gay hedonism, but none of the gay emotion. That’s not historically accurate.
To the credit of the director, it doesn’t tell the story of Studio 54 in the preachy way this kind of story is almost always told: as a morality tale where a modern-day Icarus dares to fly too close to the "sun" of hedonism and ends up getting destroyed by it.
Indeed, the theatrical re-edit adds a sub-plot about the real-life legal troubles of Steve Rubell, the owner of Studio 54 (played to skin-crawling perfection by Mike Myers), making sure the audience sees him get what’s definitely coming to him.
But the director’s cut doesn’t play it nearly that simple. There’s no moral condemnation for Rubell, and there’s only a hint of redemption for the other characters. Instead, the movie shows things as they probably really were: a druggy, uninhibited, but vaguely unsatisfying party followed by a hazy, embarrassed hangover.
In fact, for all the over-the-top decadence at Studio 54, the story itself in the original cut is surprisingly understated.
There’s a great scene where people are clamoring to get into the club even though it’s Christmas Eve: When the doorman says to one woman that she’s not
getting in and to go home, she says, plaintively, “This is my home!”
And Myers, whose performance was practically the only thing praised about the theatrical release, is an absolute revelation. The scenes where he seduces/sexually harasses Meyer’s character are among the creepiest ever put on film, and Myers is fearless. (Both these scenes were also in the theatrical release.)
It’s unclear from the cut I saw if the grainy, slightly-washed-out footage is intentional or not — the theatrical release has a completely different look — but it’s actually quite extraordinary.
If you didn’t know this movie came out in 1998, you would absolutely think it was a movie from the late 1970s, not just because of the film stock, but also because of the amazing costumes and sets, and the defined-but-not-pumped-up body types of the men and the lack of breast implants in the women.
The rough cut of the director’s version that I saw isn’t a "perfect" film. It could benefit from further streamlining, and the fact is, it’s never going to be a movie for everyone. It lacks a conventional narrative, something the studio clearly tried to add with their after-the-fact reshoots. The characters really are (mostly) unsympathetic. This is simply a warts-and-all look at Studio 54 and the people who inhabited it, minus the usual moralizing.
That alone makes it pretty fascinating.
Ever since the 2008 Outfest screening of the director’s cut of the movie, rumors have circulated that this version might one day find a DVD release. It absolutely deserves it, not just on its own significant merits, but also because it helps establish an important visual record, about both Studio 54 and an important moment in the history of gay cinema.
There’s added voice-over toward the end of the theatrical release where Shane says, "Corporations took [Studio 54] over and they did what corporations always do: they made everything safe and boring."
He could just as easily be talking about 54.
UPDATE: The original Director’s Cut of 54 is now available on Amazon.