Review: The Original “54” Really Deserves to be Seen

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.

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. has gotten 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.

Readers of this site know how annoyed we get by the film cliché of including same-sex sexuality 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 great credit of the director’s cut, it doesn’t tell the story of Studio 54 in the clichéd, 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.

Next Page! Will the director’s cut get a DVD release?

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