In 1977 entrepreneurs, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager threw open the gates to one of the most celebrated and infamous hot spots Manhattan has ever known – Studio 54. Catering to Rubell’s pedantic tastes, the eclectic mix of guests hand-picked nightly by Rubell, was a carefully calculated assemblage of the rich and famous, as well as ‘by invitation only’ roster of nobodies; hot young flesh with an attitude and a certain je ne sais quoi to be jet-setters themselves. It is difficult to imagine such a place today, but there was no stigma inside Studio 54; and seemingly no rules either. A Cook’s Tour of this weird labyrinth gave rise to the unsettling realization one had somehow unexpectedly, and quite literally left the real world far behind, replaced by an incredibly sophisticated, amoral purgatory; patrons casually snorting angel dust in the lobbies and bathrooms, the balconies teeming with openly gay and heterosexual couples banging their brains out, or suffering the after effects of a ‘heavy’ trip in the blue-light VIP rooms hidden beneath the main thoroughfare. In the relatively short period of 3 years, Studio 54 became a Mecca synonymous with some very Machiavellian personal freedoms, all inhibitions cast aside; a cultural institution and a landmark destination for virtually anyone looking to escape from themselves as well as others. Here, a layman lucky enough to catch Rubell’s eye, could likely rub elbows with the likes of a Princess Grace, Andy Warhol or Muhammad Ali.
Frequently described as the most glamorous party the world has ever seen, Studio 54 was as a fantasyland for adults; a ‘state-of-the-art’ dance hall with the allure of exploring dark temptations aplenty and a mindset inculcated by Rubell that any debauchery was permissible. Naturally, all this wanton revelry came at a price, and in 1978 the party was unofficially over; thanks, in part, to Rubell’s garrulous swagger “only the Mafia made more money” than he did. To the G-men in Washington, it stood to reason no legitimate discothèque could be that successful. Studio 54 was put under a microscope and later raided; Rubell and Schrager arrested for skimming nearly $2.5 million off the top to pay for their independently wealthy lifestyles. A trial and two short years later, the partners were indicted and sent to prison for thirteen months; hardly a life-sentence, and yet, to prove quite lethal to Studio 54’s reputation. Without Rubell’s flamboyance at the mic, nightly cherry-picking clientele to populate his palace of wisdom, the air thick with opiate perfumes as scantily clad musclemen rained down bucket tons of glitter on his audience, Studio 54 was just another piece of real estate with some flashy pyrotechnics and a disco ball to recommend it. In Rubell’s wake, others tried to keep ‘the magic’ alive but to little avail. Although Studio 54 lingered well into the 1980’s, its brief, if heady period of uber-pagan decadence was at an end.
For the film ‘54’, director, Mark Christopher envisioned an even more gaudy and glamorous liaison centered on an unlikely friendship struggling to find even a shred of tangible meaning amidst this sped-up mania. Alas, the picture Miramax green-lit and the one they ultimately released theatrically in 1998 bore no earthly resemblance to each other. Mixed opinions as to what went wrong. Certainly, the powers that be thought Christopher’s initial idea a splendid one; approving his budget, choice of cast, and, decision to shoot – with few exceptions – entirely in Toronto on a sound stage. It made perfect sense since Studio 54 was no more, having changed hands several times before closing its doors in 1989; all but its’ baroque lobby, a stay-over from the early 1920’s when it was known as the Gallo Opera House, gutted and later retrofitted to accommodate a live concert venue. Besides, what could be more exhilarating than this hallucinatory electric light show homage to both the club and the era that made it such a hallowed den of iniquity, devoted to soft core kink, designer drugs and pulsating techno erotica?
In reexamining Mark Christopher’s ‘director’s cut’ of 54 - a complete reboot, culled from existing hi-def footage, poorly archived 35mm outtakes, and, VHS masters stored in an un-air-conditioned warehouse in the valley - it becomes rather obvious why Miramax bristled at what ultimately materialized in the rough cut shown to them back in 1998. Christopher’s vision was decidedly ahead of its time and very unapologetically ‘gay’; the narrative, hardly that of the clichéd ‘coming of age’ ilk Hollywood usually peddles. Indeed, the characters who populate 54 are all liberally confused, emotionally scarred and easily corrupted; Shane O’Shea (Ryan Phillippe) a puckish rake with an impossible plumage resembling a Grecian God, equally possessed of an enviable bod to lend him stature as the boy toy du jour and on the prowl, but without the intellectual wherewithal to carry it off or elevate his social status beyond that of his alter ego – Shane 54; an easily exploited sex object with fairly indiscriminate tastes; Selma Hayek, as Anita Randazzo, an aspiring Latino chanteuse, unofficially dedicated to her marriage, but not above throwing both hubby, Greg (Breckin Meyer) and Shane under the proverbial bus to get her big break at the club during its ill-fated New Year’s Eve shindig; and finally, Greg – a puppy dog, hopelessly, the straight arrow of this piece, refusing to have his member waxed by Steve Rubell (Mike Meyers), yet oblivious to the fact Anita has already split both her affections and her loins for his best friend.
For decades, this cut of 54 existed only in director, Mark Christopher’s mind’s eye. Unceremoniously removed from the picture after the first rough cut was show to executives, Christopher was ordered to re-shoot new inserts to conform to their wishes. Complying, Christopher nevertheless kept a bootleg of his version of the movie culled from VHS dailies, hoping against hope to someday be able to re-release the picture he had worked so diligently to handcraft. Personally, I can see the merits and the flaws in each cut; the theatrical version, very much a glossied-up homage to the ‘party/party’ atmosphere of ‘a club’ with characters sifting in and out of focus; the director’s reassembly instead devoted to a story about three drifters off to experience a lifetime in just three short years; the club itself, now a facsimile of 54, more as a fourth character than backdrop, though decidedly not the whole show. In either version it is Alexander Gruszynski’s cinematography that remains the chief selling asset; ditto for Kevin Thompson’s production design, Tamara Deverell’s art direction and Karin Wiesel’s set decoration. 54 – the Director’s Cut – gives the illusion of having been culled from snapshots ripped from an album of paparazzi Polaroids taken at 54 – the club. And Christopher’s obsession, to find truth and unexpected beauty intermingled with kitschy excess, the picture’s third act imbued with an immense appreciation for this hedonistic lifestyle, too ‘out there’, fragile and ridiculous to last, lends stature to the still occasionally feeble performances. Indeed, of the featured players, only Mike Meyer’s laid back and wickedly tongue-in-cheek closeted impresario was singled out for favorable reviews when 54 hit theaters in 1998.
The theatrical cut reduces virtually all of its stars to cameos; some faring better than others within these limited bits of dialogue. The Director’s Cut expands upon our appreciation for this triage of interlopers into Rubell’s ninth circle of neon-lit hell. Virtually every performance, except for Neve Campbell’s Julie Black – a soap opera queen, and, the object of Shane’s disquieting obsession to be famous (or, at least, famous enough to get in Julie’s pants) – benefits from Christopher’s recut. But even in 1998, I had issues with Campbell’s slickly packaged, if oddly infantilized woman of the world, perpetually glimpsed with her head sticking out of some tinted-windowed limousine, looking every bit as though she just escaped from her ‘Party of Five’ day job; third billed in the credits to capitalize on that small screen success. Alas, Campbell’s role in the movie is marginal at best. Hell, even Sela Ward’s cocaine-snorting press agent, Billie Auster has more resonance, peddled as Shane’s mentor and, on occasion, sex slave. By Billie’s own admission, Shane ‘fucked me unconscious’. Oh, now I don’t know…I think the drugs helped a little; the booze too.
If anything, 54 in either incarnation present such wanton misbehavior as naïve social/sexual liberation almost entirely without reprisals. Even the scene where Shane contracts his first STD is treated with off-the-cuff amusement; unable to urinate without ‘pissing razor blades’ before being tapped on the shoulder with a wink and a nudge by Atlanta (Cameron Mathison); the more sophisticated hottie behind the bar. Aside: despite possessing killer looks and a fairly amiable personality, Mathison’s acting career has hardly evolved to do better things since 54; a genuine waste. But one of the best cameos in 54 belongs to aged Ellen Albertini Dow as Disco Dottie (a.k.a. Mona); a potty-mouthed granny who can shake it with the best of them on the dance floor and has enough chutzpah and moxie to tell it like it is; a sort of golden girl slightly gone to seed, and, so blindly unaware how the years are fast about to catch up with her more intoxicating and colorful image as one of the outspoken freaks in this bizarre menagerie. Dottie’s death by overdose at the height of the New Year’s Eve gala, and Shane’s heartfelt reaction to it, as he rushes to her comfort when virtually everyone else seems utterly oblivious – or at the very least, callously unwilling to acknowledge her collapse – is one of the most astonishingly tragic farewells in screen history.
It’s been less than 20 years since 54 hit theaters, and yet I can almost understand preview audiences’ negative reaction to the pseudo-homoerotic kiss between Shane and Greg; the former, desperately trying to come to terms with his own bisexuality after a heartfelt big reveal to Greg about his miserable home life; lied to by his sister, Grace (Heather Matarazzo), who cannot bear to admit Shane has been completely shunned by their conservative New Jersey dad, Harlan (Skipp Sudduth), even as his popularity as a sexy centerfold has suddenly catapulted his reputation – such as it is – into the stratosphere, enough to have rich widows, ‘fag hags’ and sugar-daddy queers adorn him in exquisite gifts; expensive jewelry, clothes, furs and a new sports car. Cream does indeed rise to the top. So does vermin. It is not the ‘gayness’ of the kiss audiences found utterly distasteful, insomuch as with its proposition we seemed to negate Greg’s loyalties to his wife; virtues she neither entirely understands nor reciprocates when the chips are down. Greg wants a home life. Anita wants a career. And never the twain shall meet in these disparate – and desperate – pursuits.
It should also be noted that in 1998 homosexuality, if at all seen in the movies, was generally presented as the figment of fun designed to alleviate hetero fears about ‘being turned’ toward such experimentations. In the years since, Hollywood has consistently offered more varied and natural interpretations of the gay subtext on celluloid and television; the general acceptance of the gay lifestyle now allowing these scenes in 54 - The Director’s Cut to play with more efficiency, purpose and credibility and without the pall of rank shock, homogenized then as comedic contempt and/or disgust for gays in general, particularly those who dared step out from ‘the closet’ as equals within our cosmopolitan worldview. Alas, Miramax’s reaction to what Mark Christopher had carefully wrought in 1998 was hardly embracing. The picture was ‘too gay’ for its’ own good; decidedly, much too gay for modern tastes. Thus, the greatest change between Christopher’s reboot and its theatrical cut is a distinct amplification of the picture’s gayness. It remains something of a pity to have lost these scenes back then, and yet not altogether edifying to have them reinstated into the picture now. It is not the ‘gayness’ that proves troubling, but what it does to our notions of who and what Shane O’Shea hopes to become via his fair-weather associations. He begins his odyssey as an aspiring ‘somebody’, lusting after Julie Black – the unattainable and deified among mortal women, especially for a tricked out little nobody before suffering a makeover under Billie’s watchful eye and auspices. Herein, I am reminded of a line from Billy Joel’s rock classic, ‘It’s Still Rock n’ Roll to Me’; “Have you heard about the new look, honey? All it takes is looks and a whole lot’a money…”
In the theatrical cut, our allegiances to Shane form along the lines that, like most of us similarly thrust into such a situation, he is our surrogate as the proverbial ‘fish out of water.’ Because the movie sets up Shane as a gas pump jockey from Jersey it is more than a little off-putting to suddenly watch him partake of the hedonism without first considering its reprisals. He still makes all the gauche and clumsy mistakes a novice or innocent might, even with the proper squire to direct his energies and talents toward the successful pursuit of Julie Black. But movies generally function better when the edicts, desires and strengths of our decided upon hero are clearly delineated. Again, in more recent times, we have come to embrace counterculture as the ‘new norm’ and empathize with the foibles of more complex characters. Even so, in the Director’s Cut, Shane O’Shea quickly learns how to play hardball with the big boys and girls, using his physical talents to cut a fairly ruthless, enterprising and non-discriminate swath through this sexual minefield. Without getting overly crude or psychological about it, Shane’s dick is his calling card and he wields it with aggressiveness and, later on, with absolute malice for getting exactly what he wants, regardless of who he hurts along the way.
Christopher’s decision to make Shane the schemer means the balance of power and, indeed, our empathies, shift to Greg; Breckin Meyer, with his soulful, wounded gazes, stepping up to the plate to pummel Shane in the cloak room after Steve reveals to him Anita and Shane were hot and heavy inside one of the bathroom stalls earlier. If only the Director’s Cut had carried this arc of newfound aggression to its inevitable conclusion; Greg casting Anita out with the trash and writing off his ‘friendship’ with Shane as a colossal miscalculation, then perhaps our sympathies would have remained with Greg to the final fade out. Instead, the Director’s Cut retains Greg’s ambivalence toward all he has seen and knows from these two people closest to him. Anita wants her career. She has not given up on this dream. In fact, given a taste of it at the New Year’s Eve party, it is unlikely she will simply surrender the fantasy and become Greg’s ever-loving homebody. And Shane, despite his humiliation, forced to cloak himself in the tatters of a shredded plastic garbage bag after being physically ejected from the club by Steve’s bodyguards, is nevertheless welcomed back into the fold by Shane and Anita, the pair offering Shane a portion of Anita’s slinky mink; either stolen or given by an admirer. How could Steve forgive his wife or his best friend their betrayal? The answer is simple; because he is a very weak lot with anxieties about the future that supersede his good sense.
Because of this fundamental flaw in Greg’s character, the Director’s Cut of 54 is precariously left with no one to root for by the final act. In the original theatrical edit, the renewed camaraderie between Shane, Anita and Greg was immediately accompanied by a flash forward; a reunion three years in the making; the principals gathered at the club to celebrate Steve’s release from prison; the one-time mogul welcoming guests to a decidedly changed – and never again to be as free-wheeling atmosphere; acknowledging his one-time employees in the crowd; each having gone their separate ways, yet somehow gained insight and maturity with the passage of time. Perhaps a bit too idyllic for modern tastes, but this epilogue nevertheless presents the viewer with the antidotal pseudo-happy ending; a chance to affirm for the audience the severity of those hard-living times has not exacted any lasting toll on characters they have invested in for the last hour and forty-one minutes; except, perhaps, Steve Rubell – a title card inserted before the end credits, marks his passing in July, 1989 at the age of 45; the particulars of his death from hepatitis and septic shock complicated by AIDS, left on the cutting room floor.
Our story begins with a superficial montage devoted to highlights and lowlights from the 1970’s; a decade buffeted by hostage crises, the oil embargo and fallout from an ineffectual presidency, having put a former peanut farmer in the White House. From here we regress to New Jersey; young Shane O’Shea, a long-haired grease monkey, living at home with his conservative dad, Harlan, and little sisters, Grace and Kelly (Aemilia Robinson); named by their mother for a certain idolized Princess, then very much alive and living resplendently in the enclave of Monaco. Rumor has it Princess Grace makes infrequent visits to Studio 54, the epicenter of a certain type of big-city glamor filling up the gossip rags and getting bylines in the newspaper. For Shane, nothing could be better. He has grown bored with the same dull watering holes, hanging out with his dead-end friends and wasting his Saturday nights on trying to make a ‘big score’ with a mediocre girl who cannot even be bothered to remember his name. So, Shane convinces his pals to drive over the bridge to Manhattan to take a stab at getting into Studio 54; the most haughty and exclusive nightclub in the world.
While owner, Steve Rubell does not think much – if anything – of Shane’s best friend, Ricco (Mark Ruffalo), he takes an almost immediate shine to Shane; allowing him entrance into this netherworld, but only if he loses the cheap satin shirt he is wearing. Shane willingly agrees, momentarily disrobing from the waist up and receiving applause from the other desperate hopefuls for his physical assets. Once inside, Shane is given a real eye-opener. 54 is populated by a crazy ensemble of pill-popping nymphos, bodybuilding studs, decorous vamps and sirens, effete fashionistas and an A-list roster of famous celebrities from stage and screen. Like Alice through the looking glass, Shane meanders naively through this wonderland; upstairs discovering various hetero and homosexual couples engaged in sweaty sex. The whole atmosphere is surreal to say the least. Mary Griffin takes to the stage to entertain this gyrating entourage with her pulse-pounding rendition of ‘Knock on Wood’; singling Shane out with a come hither finger that makes him feel as though he has suddenly stepped into the center of the universe.
The next day, Shane regales his family with his exploits. While Grace and Kelly are immediately dreamy-eyed and smitten, his father makes light of everything and later, refuses to loan Shane the car keys to return to the scene of his greatest personal glory. However, after Harlan falls asleep on the couch, Shane steals the keys anyway. On his second visit he does so well, he manages to ingratiate himself to Steve, enough to be recommended by his cousin and bookkeeper, Viv (Sherry Stringfield) for a job as a last minute replacement for a busboy. Harlan doesn’t like it one bit. He has seen Steve Rubell on TV, cocky and odd, giving boastful interviews about his trendsetting club. It does not sound like a good influence. So, Harlan forbids Shane to go back. This leads to a father/son rift; Steve moving out of the family home and in with his new best friend, lead busboy, Greg Randazzo. Greg’s wife, Anita, manages the cloak room. Anita has big plans to strike it rich as a singer. In fact, Greg has set up a makeshift recording studio in their living room. Shane is amazed by Anita’s talent, perhaps because he really has no plans of his own, except to become a legend at 54. This, so Shane reasons, will be achieved through a series of sexual conquests, beginning with Steve introducing Shane to press agent/socialite, Billie Auster; a cocaine addict who nevertheless comes to have Shane’s best interests at heart. We also meet Dottie, a foul-mouthed grandma hired by Steve to liven up the audience. Indeed, Steve chooses his nightly guest register for their overt eccentricities and what they bring to embellish the gathering of his clan.
Steve has placed Greg in charge of the money-laundering operation that takes place in the back alley behind the club with bagman, Anthony (Jason Andrews) who offers to hook Greg up with the best ‘party favors’ in the business. Now, grotesquely inebriated and laid out on a bed of hundred dollar bills, Steve demands Greg afford him the opportunity to perform phalacio on him. Interestingly, later, when Shane attempts to ‘better his prospects’ by offering up his member to Steve in trade for a new position in the club, Steve callously informs Shane he should be the one asking for such a favor, considering he isn’t looking for a better job. By comparison, Greg has shown great strength of character in his inability to accommodate Steve. He wants to be a bartender at the club - badly, just not at any price, and certainly not at the expense of wrecking the fidelity in his marriage to Anita. Steve claims to respect Greg’s decision before bringing up a mouthful of bile. But the next evening, Shane is elevated to bartender’s status in his stead, creating the first of many rifts in their friendship. Life at the club continues at a breakneck pace. Billie introduces Shane to all the right people – and a few wrong ones along the way. In no time, Shane is posing for beefcake in various magazines; his name, face and abs plastered across sleazy tabloid articles. He is Shane 54, and wastes no time exploiting his newfound wealth, buying snazzy clothes with Billie’s fashion-forward help. Alas, no amount of money can turn Shane from the proverbial sow’s ear into a silk purse. He embarrasses himself badly at a dinner party given at Billie’s upscale townhouse by not knowing who Errol Flynn is and thereafter increasingly out of the loop in their high-toned conversations. But Anita, who has accompanied Shane with giddy intentions of spreading her name, as well as her talent and desires to become a singer, has garnered the attentions of an oily record producer who just might be able to open a few doors for her.
Greg becomes increasingly suspicious of Shane and Anita’s ‘friendship’. He has good cause; Shane repeatedly putting the moves on Anita. She labels him as ‘too impulsive’ but increasingly finds herself drawn to him; at one point, accompanying Shane into the men’s room for a quick one, observed by Steve. To prove his worth to Anita, Greg is swayed by Anthony into selling drugs at the club; a lucrative sideline that quickly surpasses Shane’s cash flow. In the meantime, Shane’s carousing gets the better of him. He contracts his first STD but cannot even afford to pay for the penicillin. Lucky happenstance, Shane runs into Dottie (a.k.a. Mona) at the pharmacy, barely recognizable without her gaudy makeup. She pays for his prescription. Shane now asks Greg to set him up with Anthony. To do so, Shane will need some capital for investment first; helping himself to Steve’s private stash, a garbage bag full of cash hidden in the ceiling of Steve’s private office. More than ever, Studio 54 is the envy of New York, the crème de la crème settling in for a little wild R&R with other hobnobbing celebs and young hopefuls looking for their one shot at the big time. Steve gets sloppy, telling a TV interviewer ‘what the IRS doesn’t know won’t hurt them.’ Bad luck for Steve, the IRS is listening and begins a quiet investigation into his business practices. Meanwhile, Shane realizes one of his life’s ambitions by meeting Julie Black socially for the first time. Julie presents herself as genuine with no airs about her. The two share a heartfelt lunch at an out of the way New England inn over the holidays.
Back at the club, Steve fires Viv, suspecting she has stolen the money from his hiding spot. She denies the allegation but is given the ole heave-hoe anyway. Now, Steve’s drug abuse gets the better of him. Thus, as New Year’s Eve draws near, Steve’s erratic behavior leads to a breakdown of communication with Shane whom he has come to regard as his personal boy toy to be rented out to any prospective clientele. After Dottie takes a hit of cocaine and collapses on the dance floor, Shane interrupts Anita’s performance to demand the lights turned on. In the cruel and unflattering pall of the emergency lights the exuberant creature Dottie once portrayed dissolves into a little gnarled corpse, gently caressed in Shane’s arms before Steve angrily gives his bodyguards orders to have her carried out of the club. She’s ruining the mood. Steve informs Shane his dream client – Princess Grace - has finally arrived, waiting for a little something special in one of the VIP rooms below the club. Stricken with sorrow over Dottie, Shane tells Steve he cannot entertain tonight, incurring Steve’s considerable wrath.
After a very public altercation, Steve orders Shane forcibly removed. However, before his bodyguards can react, Shane ducks into the private offices to collect his things; naïvely believing his reputation as ‘Shane 54’ has already opened enough doors to make him a potential asset somewhere else; stumbling upon the IRS agents (Arthur J. Nascarella, and, John Hines), tearing apart Steve’s backroom with Viv’s complicity, discovering several garbage bags of cash tucked in the ceiling. Having learned from Steve that Anita has been unfaithful with Shane, Greg attacks Shane in the cloak room; the two wrestling and coming to blows. Shane hurries away to warn Steve about IRS. But Steve is in the balcony, already quietly observing as the G-men order his bartenders below to empty their registers with more confiscated cash. “Even from here their suits look cheap,” Steve reasons. “Steve, you gotta get out of here,” Shane reasons. But Steve has resigned himself to face the music, coldly adding, “Where would I go?” Indeed, there is no place in the world, outside of this insular cocoon Steve Rubell has created for himself. Steve is arrested and taken away in handcuffs. Having caught up to him at last, Steve’s bodyguards eject Shane from the club. But Anita and Greg return; Anita, in a stolen mink she now uses to wrap her half-naked husband and Shane in, the three hurrying away as police descend on Studio 54 to make their arrests and close the club for good.
54 ought to have been a big hit for Miramax; at least, that is what both Mark Christopher and the studio were sincerely hoping for – a summer blockbuster devoted to the bacchanal, free-spirited and pre-AIDS counterculture; a decidedly tame erotica with designer drugs and cheap booze thrown in for measure; heady times resurrected on the movie screen’s broad and bashful impressions of the seventies. Regrettably, after reviewing Christopher’s rough cut, the executive brain trust at Miramax elected to take the film out of his hands; ordering Christopher to assemble cast and crew for retakes to bridge the gaps, but also to excise much of the orgiastic hedonism, replaced by antiseptic cutaways of oddly attired patrons stricken with an inexplicably shallow, if cabaret-esque euphoria. “I did as I was asked,” Christopher admits, “But in the end no one was happy. No one got what they wanted out of it.” Alas, critics eviscerated the theatrical cut of 54 as a fairy tale minus that illusive spark of magic, some claimed, while miserably failing to rekindle the naughty spark that was Rubell’s publicity-seeking Mecca for the hoi poloi.
Seventeen years later, 54’s time has come around, thanks to producer, Jonathan King – but a little too late for the surviving elements. Honestly, has Hollywood learned absolutely nothing from its own perilous history regarding film preservation or a lack thereof? Apparently not; as whole portions of the new Director’s Cut were only made possible by reinserting the work print dailies from VHS quality masters, more recently discovered in an un-air-conditioned vault miles away from the studio facilities. The new – new – management at Miramax has elected to do what they can to up-covert this tired old footage. Regrettably, the results are about what one might expect; looking fairly harsh, with a lot of video-based noise and a decided downgrade in overall quality. It is important to note a lot of work has gone into the ‘restoration’ and ‘reedit’ of 54; Miramax applied virtually every modern tool in the preservationist’s bag of wonders to breathe new life into some very careworn and badly-aged materials. They remain very careworn and badly-aged, alas; and nothing can change the fact no one along the way cared enough about the original 35mm negatives to archive any of the trims, outtakes and edits for future reference. Yes, some 35mm footage not included in the theatrical cut was rediscovered, cleaned-up and reinserted into this Director’s Cut. This footage miraculously shows very little signs of downgrade, although when inserted into the existing hi-def material, are prone to a brief wobble and/or jump cut; unobtrusive on smaller monitors, but occasionally quite distracting when blow up in projection.
Mark Christopher estimates only about 10% of his masterpiece is missing, substituted with the aforementioned VHS video masters. Personally, I think the ratio is closer to 20%. Nevertheless, this Director’s Cut has been seventeen years in the making. Accordingly, the re-envisioning of this raw material still does not yield the sort of chef d’oeuvre the director had hoped for, though I will confess it represents 54 in an entirely different light. There is not much of the old movie people saw in 1998 in this Director’s Cut and Christopher would have it no other way. Because of this, the film’s entire soundtrack had to be redesigned and remixed from scratch. Viewing 54 -The Director’s Cut is like seeing the movie for the first time…or perhaps, more accurately, like seeing another movie photographed simultaneously with the one that has been readily circulated for the last seventeen years. Extras include a brief ‘making of’ featurette, a podcast audio interview with Christopher, some outtakes, a stills gallery and a trailer. I think it is too soon to comment on whether or not I prefer the Director’s Cut to the theatrical release. I confess to thinking the original edit not all that bad. Actually, in 1998 I quite enjoyed 54 for what it was without any illusions it was one for the ages. Nevertheless, there are some new revelations in this restored version. It plays with an entirely different, darker vibe; a more telescopically focused narrative devoted to the Shane/Anita/Greg triangle with the club atmosphere serving more as an exotic backdrop for what is essentially a tragically flawed ‘coming of age’ story. In 1998, Christopher lost 45 minutes of his original vision at the studio’s behest; replaced by 25 minutes of new scenes and a voice-over that all but watered down and washed away the thematic bisexuality and group sex experimentation between our three principals. We get this back in the Director’s Cut. Does it make for better viewing, better continuity – a better film? Hmmmm. Arguably, yes. Obviously, truer to Christopher’s original intentions and perhaps coming closer to experiencing a real night out at that celebrated New York landmark. But like George Lucas’ repeated tinkering with the original Star Wars saga, the changes herein will likely elicit grumbling from the cheap seats; those who thought 54 in its original incarnation was neither a disaster nor a gem; and no amount of reinventing the wheel can make it such ever again. Bottom line: recommended as an exercise in how to rethink a movie from the ground up. Is it a better film? Let us simply agree it is an extremely different one and be done with it - knock on wood.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)