Just like a paperback novel: 54: The Director’s Cut

54: The Director’s Cut (1998/2015)

Mark Christopher’s newly-restored original cut is remarkably different from the 1998 theatrical version, especially with regard to what it wants to say

54: The Director's Cut


Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Mark Christo­pher. Star­ring Ryan Phillippe, Salma Hayek, Neve Camp­bell, Mike Mey­ers, Breckin Mey­er, Sela Ward, Sher­ry String­field, Cameron Math­i­son, Heather Mataraz­zo, Skipp Sud­duth, Mark Ruf­fa­lo, Lau­ren Hut­ton, Michael York and Ellen Al­ber­ti­ni Dow.

When 54 came out in 1998, it was a com­plete fail­ure with both au­di­ences and crit­ics. It was ob­vi­ous that, for a movie about a dis­co-era Man­hat­tan night­club that be­came fa­mous for al­low­ing in only those who looked “glam­orous” enough, 54 had very lit­tle glam­our and was just un­in­ter­est­ing and va­pid. In fact, every­thing in it looked toned down to meet the ex­pec­ta­tions of a main­stream au­di­ence not used to he­do­nism, bi­sex­u­al­i­ty and drug use in the cin­e­ma.

But for those who don’t know it, di­rec­tor Mark Christo­pher is not re­al­ly the one to be blamed. What hap­pened ac­tu­al­ly was that the stu­dio (Mi­ra­max Films) de­mand­ed cuts to be made in his ini­tial cut af­ter it was met with neg­a­tive re­ac­tions at a test screen­ing. He then reshot 25 min­utes of new scenes to re­place 45 min­utes ex­cised from the film and the re­sult was a harm­less movie full of poor­ly-de­vel­oped char­ac­ters we couldn’t care less about.

17 years lat­er, how­ev­er, Christo­pher de­cid­ed to put the film to­geth­er the way he orig­i­nal­ly in­tend­ed it to be. He re­moved the reshoots, re­stored the delet­ed ma­te­r­i­al and record­ed a new voice-over with main ac­tor Ryan Phillippe. Mi­ra­max gave the green light and 54: The Director’s Cut pre­miered at the Berlin In­ter­na­tion­al Film Fes­ti­val in 2015, gar­ner­ing pos­i­tive re­views. No won­der, since it is in­fi­nite­ly su­pe­ri­or in terms of char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment, themes and tone, and even its mes­sage dif­fers com­plete­ly from the the­atri­cal ver­sion.

For those who haven’t seen the the­atri­cal one, 54 (also known as Stu­dio 54) takes place in the late 1970s and fol­lows Shane O’Shea (Phillippe), a young fic­ti­tious Jer­sey City man who dreams of danc­ing free among the cool ones at the real-life night­club Stu­dio 54, owned by Steve Rubell (Mike Mey­ers). Shane is in­cred­i­bly hand­some and not bright (“the most gor­geous troglodyte,” as some­one calls him), which makes him the per­fect choice for a bar­tender at the club. Once work­ing there, he be­friends as­pir­ing singer Ani­ta (Salma Hayek) and her jeal­ous hus­band Greg (Breckin Mey­er), and is quick­ly pulled into a life of drugs, sex and par­ty­ing.

Right off the bat, the most no­tice­able dif­fer­ence in this new ver­sion is the glam­our. Even the new open­ing nar­ra­tion, with a 40-year-old Ryan Phillippe sound­ing a lot more cyn­i­cal than his younger self, adds to the whole feel of dis­co deca­dence that the film is sup­posed to be about. At Stu­dio 54, a place that saw the likes of Tru­man Capote, Andy Warhol and Grace Kel­ly, every­one is a star – and the blind­ing, over­whelm­ing sen­su­al­i­ty of such a dar­ing palace is em­pha­sized by the movie’s al­most preter­nat­ur­al use of in­tense blue, pur­ple or red lights that bathe the bar­tenders’ god­like sweaty bod­ies. The mu­sic is sim­ply amaz­ing, and any­one at the club is free to con­sume as much drugs as they want and be who­ev­er they wish to be.

It is great to see now all the nerve that had been left out in fa­vor of an in­of­fen­sive ap­proach, and so we get to have the cuss­words, drug abuse, ho­mo­sex­u­al sex and ques­tion­able char­ac­ters that were miss­ing. Sean’s fa­ther, for in­stance, is shown as a hor­ri­bly racist and ho­mo­pho­bic per­son, while Christo­pher doesn’t mind pre­sent­ing his pro­tag­o­nist as a promis­cu­ous man who steals from his boss and even has sex with an un­con­scious woman (all of this was re­moved in the the­atri­cal ver­sion, and Greg be­came the thief). Like­wise, the orig­i­nal love tri­an­gle be­tween Sean, Ani­ta and Greg is brought back as the main fo­cus of the nar­ra­tive, and Neve Camp­bell is now re­duced to the small role she was al­ways sup­posed to have.

Lead­ing the cast, Ryan Phillippe does a de­cent job as an im­pul­sive young man who is awestruck by glam­our, while Salma Hayek is per­fect as an am­bi­tious woman who wouldn’t mind go­ing to bed with some­one fa­mous if that meant a ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ty – and I love when she tries to look el­e­gant smok­ing a cig­a­rette at a cer­tain fan­cy din­ner. And if Ellen Al­ber­ti­ni Dow is amus­ing as the foul-mouthed old granny Dis­co Dot­tie, it is Mike Meyes who steals the show in his first se­ri­ous role as the soft-spo­ken and wild Steve Rubell, who near­ly eats drugs for break­fast, grind­ing his teeth and look­ing even deliri­ous at some mo­ments.

De­spite how Sean’s open­ing nar­ra­tion is un­nec­es­sary and nev­er heard again (an ob­vi­ous but mi­nor flaw), it makes the movie al­most feel like a doc­u­men­tary – and the film in­cludes scenes from VHS copies that some­times look like au­then­tic archive footage from the pe­ri­od, which adds to the re­sult. Even bet­ter is see­ing that this Director’s Cut throws in the garbage the cheesy and im­plau­si­ble end­ing of the the­atri­cal ver­sion (which tried to be op­ti­mistic by forc­ing us to ac­cept that those emp­ty char­ac­ters were ever friends) and ends in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent way by show­ing in­stead how peo­ple can stand by each oth­er when the whole palace falls down.

And that is so much more in­ter­est­ing, ma­ture and wor­thy of see­ing than the mediocre ver­sion that Mi­ra­max in­sist­ed on. I only hope that Mark Christo­pher is hap­py now that peo­ple can fi­nal­ly see what he had in mind in the first place, be­cause 54: The Director’s Cut is def­i­nite­ly bet­ter than any­one would have ex­pect­ed.

June 14, 2017


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