Nostalgia in pop culture seems to operate on a twenty-year delay These days, there are a lot of callbacks to ’90s movies, TV shows, video games, and more. Conversely, the 90s were all about the ’70s, and during the latter part of the decade, there was a resurgence of movies that took place in the late ’70s, complete with earworm disco tunes and bell-bottoms. The king of these films is of course Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights.” Whit Stillman’s “The Last Days of Disco” was an even-tempered approach to relationships during, well, the disco days. Spike Lee combined a gritty thriller with an ensemble drama in the 1977-set “Summer of Sam.” Adam Rifkin pitted hard rockers and disco kids against each other in the underrated “Detroit Rock City”.
Among these was 1998 oddity “54,” about a young and naïve stud’s fish out of water experiences as an employee of the infamous Studio 54 nightclub during, you guessed it, the late ’70s. I saw the original cut of “54” when it showed up on cable not long after its financially and critically disappointing theatrical run. That cut wasn’t much more than a fluffy celebration of late ’70s excess and an exploitation of the audience’s nostalgia for the era. It was full of overlong montages of eccentric and hedonistic behavior in Studio 54, wrapped around a bargain basement “Saturday Night Fever” melodrama. Yet there were some moments in it that hinted at characters and themes with more depth. Either “54” missed its opportunity at saying something substantial about the narcissistic culture of the era, or there was a much better cut hiding in there somewhere. As the director’s cut of “54” comes out with an unfashionable 17-year delay, the answer turns out to be a bit of both.
After the 1998 test audiences balked at the film’s gay content, “54” distributor Miramax forced writer/director Mark Christopher to cut 45 minutes and add 25 minutes from reshoots. Those, among other changes, downplayed the bisexuality of the film’s main character Shane O’Shea (Ryan Phillippe).
Culled together from various sources, some of which look like footage out of a VHS tape that was left out in the sun too long, Christopher’s cut of “54” is still far from great, but it’s a considerable step in the right direction. What we get is a film that, while still understanding the characters’ inherent need to party hardy, also tenderly touches on the spiritual vapidity of such a shallow life. Right off the bat, Christopher comments on the extreme and sudden highs and lows of the Studio 54 lifestyle with a new credits sequence that smash cuts to eerie silences in between anarchic shots of disco mayhem.
We meet our hunky protagonist Shane pretty much the same way we do in the theatrical cut. He’s a working class Jersey boy who dreams about making it to Studio 54 and meeting Julie Black (Neve Campbell), a starlet he has a crush on. His luck turns one night after 54’s kooky owner Steve Rubell (Mike Myers) is smitten with Shane’s abs and lets him in the club. Shane eventually gets a job as a busboy and lives the dream of Studio 54, snorting, swallowing, and screwing anything he can get his hands on. From this point on, the striking narrative differences between the theatrical cut and the director’s cut become more and more apparent.
First of all, yes, Shane sleeps with a slew of men as well as women in the new cut, which contains a clever montage where his sex partners switch in his bed within the same shot. However, apart from this cut’s vindication upon the reinsertion of the gay content, what really works is the overall shift of focus from Shane’s relationship with Julie to a love triangle between his best friends, the married Studio 54 employees Anita (Salma Hayek) and Greg (Breckin Meyer).
One of the biggest problems with the original cut was that once Shane achieved his dreams of partying and hooking up with the crème de la crème of New York high society after the first act, it got stuck on the same thematic gear until the end. The protagonist achieved his goal way before the movie was over, and the studio’s cut was too afraid of inserting a substantial conflict in fear of not delivering enough shiny and fun stuff they thought the audience wanted.
The director’s cut largely fixes this issue by relegating Neve Campbell’s role into a glorified cameo while having Shane look for something more meaningful in his life as he lives vicariously through Anita and Greg. His attempts at a sexual connection with either of them feels less like genuine sexual desire, and more like a desperate craving for something real. Since he’s been getting attention in Studio 54 only via his sexuality, he thinks he doesn’t have anything more substantial to give to people he considers to be his only family.
The director’s cut’s focus on a darker and more dramatic approach makes the performances stand out a lot better. Phillippe successfully presents a more tragic angle on his character, while Hayek and Meyer turn in more three-dimensional performances. It’s now fashionable for comedians to try their hands at dark and disturbing dramatic parts (Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher” comes to mind), but Mike Myers taking on the role of the manipulative and draconian club owner was a bold move in 1998. His take on Steve Rubell is a man who’s the ruler of a hedonistic kingdom and yet is perpetually disinterested in the madness that surrounds him. My favorite scene in both cuts is a sequence where Rubell struggles to ask Greg if he can give him a blowjob, simply because of Myers’ nonchalant delivery in a kind of scene that usually milks the heights of melodrama.
Any way you splice it, “54” is still the runt of the litter as far as late ’90s movies about the late ’70s are concerned. The director’s cut still has a pacing that lags during the second act, and now that the film’s about the love triangle, the scenes with Julie don’t really add anything to the overall story. That being said, it deserves a second chance in its new life. [B-]
“54: The Director’s Cut” is now available on Digital HD via Lionsgate Home Entertainment and Miramax.