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54 Director’s Cut – BFI Flare 2015
March 29, 2015
54 was perhaps never the obvious choice for a director’s cut. Having bombed with both critics and audiences alike on its initial release in 1998, it’s hardly a great classic ready to be seen in a new light.
Writer-director Mark Christopher has meanwhile gone on to do little of note in the years since, so it’s also not a case of an iconic director revisiting his early work.
Instead, 54’s Director’s Cut was driven by a cult following, a bootleg VHS and the story of one of the most brutal cases of studio interference in Hollywood history.
After 54’s stars Ryan Phillippe, Mike Myers and Neve Campbell exploded in popularity between casting and the film’s release, studio Miramax thought they might have a hit on their hands.
A couple of test screenings later, and executive producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein cut almost a third of the film’s running time, and ordered half an hour of reshoots to compensate, butchering the film in the process.
The original cut lived on in bootleg copies however, and Christopher has now been given the chance to restore his initial vision. Comparing the two, it’s hard to imagine what could have driven the Weinsteins’ clumsy alterations, which robbed the film of meaning, subtlety and basic dramatic effect.
Ryan Phillippe, nominated at the time for a Razzie, shows a wit and depth entirely absent from the original theatrical edit, never overplaying his Jersey upstart Shane’s gormlessness or resorting to melodrama for his descent into depravity. He turns a potentially simplistic role into a complex lead as a bartender learning to use his own good looks to work up the social ladder of New York’s elite.
The real highlight though is Mike Myers’ turn as Steve Rubell, the languid owner of New York’s Studio 54, the height of disco excess. Myers was one of the few to earn praise on the film’s release, for his delicately balanced portrayal of a man living on a cocktail of drugs, his Rubell a complex mix of joie de vivre, sexual voyeurism and greed, never entirely likeable but persistently charming. Myers has dabbled in dramatic roles since, but only rarely, though on the strength of 54 he should be given more opportunity to do so.
Studio 54 itself is transformed in this new edit of the film, as expanded musical numbers and crowd sequences bring the disco to life. Christopher’s close-up camerawork in the club pulls the audience into the crowd, while musical performances are shot from below, as we look up onto the stage. The striking slow build of Shane’s entrance to the club for the first time is restored, giving our first glimpse of Studio 54 the proper impact it deserves.
The Weinsteins’ other unfortunate edits included cutting a central love triangle and upgrading Neve Campbell from cameo to romantic lead, but it was one set of changes in particular that helped turn 54 into a cult classic. Alarmed by homophobic responses in an early test screening, Miramax excised several gay kisses from the film, along with any suggestion of Shane’s budding bisexuality. While not central to the overall arc of the film, it was word of these changes that drew attention to the film’s bootleg copy, as the LGBT community latched onto the idea of a lost gay cult classic.
Even in its intended form, 54 is unlikely to go down as an unquestioned triumph, though its faults are not the same as they once were. Gone are the irritating, over-explanatory narration and twee happy ending, but the director’s cut suffers from a baggy, repetitive midsection which slows the film down unnecessarily. There are also several sections of footage which are grainy and poor quality – the unfortunate result of some shots only existing on VHS backups – but in a strange way, these shots add to the film’s tone, serving as a charming reminder of this cut’s provenance.
54 Director’s Cut is an entirely different film from the original, with major plotlines and characters taking radically different directions, and the film’s tone and message substantially altered. In its first incarnation 54 seemed to show just how dead disco was, but the director’s cut marks a glittery, coke-fuelled resurrection, giving the film the chance to earn the admiration it deserved all along.