Mark Christopher’s much maligned queer cult classic 54 has an interesting past; produced by Miramax, it was infamously doctored by the Weinstein Brothers after test screenings, allegedly removing queer plotlines, extending the role of Neve Campbell (turning her into a love interest), and changing the film’s overall tone. Having dug out a copy of the theatrical (not extended) cut a few weeks ago, it’s clear that what screened in theatres was a mess, a mish-mash of ideas with an inconsistent tone. What cannot be faulted, however, is the film’s opening 30-40 minutes, which felt as though it had a clear, queer, directorial voice.1 With the theatrical cut’s faults, an obvious derailment around the midpoint for one, in mind, Christopher’s so-called “Director’s Cut” feels much more like a ‘reactionary cut’, re-queering the final product but radically changing the tone and pacing of some sequences to its occasional detriment, distancing his final product from the original theatrical cut in the process; the fact that the original version Christopher turned into the studio runs nearly 15 minutes longer than the one here only adds weight to this case.
For those who don’t know, 54 (aka Studio 54) was produced by the Weinstein Brothers after it was pitched to them as a queer Boogie Nights that focused on New York’s infamous Studio 54 club. While there is clear comparison between the small-town boy with big sexual talent plotline, 54 lacked the creative flourishes of a young Paul Thomas Anderson and played extremely poorly to small-town, suburban test audiences, sealing its fate after re-shoots and re-edits against Christopher’s wishes. The film follows Shane O’Shea (Ryan Phillipe) as he moves beyond his small-town Jersey roots, searching for more and hoping to find it at Studio 54. With his boyish good looks and chiselled body, he is an instant hit with club owner Steve Rubell (Mike Myers), who hires him as a busboy. Christopher’s Director’s Cut loses some of the Theatrical’s charm, removing a stack of important exposition and switching up the opening third’s pacing in such a way that it occasionally becomes hard to follow, often compressing 2 minute scenes into a matter of seconds. Much to my dismay, the pumping disco score that coloured much of the theatrical cut is also absent. Shane is an instant hit, a sexual stallion that goes both ways (at least in the Director’s cut), and the rest of the film follows his exploits and somewhat stereotypical queerification – Shane sees himself rejected by his family due to his sexuality, contracts his first STI, has a lot of promiscuous sex, turns a straight friend etc.2 – until the film’s logical endpoint, when Studio 54 was shut down due to tax evasion.
Despite the aforementioned pacing issues in the first third, this cut is a marked improvement on the original, and cast some of the terrible performances and bad characterization in a new light. Two major things stick out: Mike Myer’s Steve Rubell is clearly not a buffoon in this edition, and Ellen Albertini Dow’s Disco Dottie did not deserve a Razzie nomination. There’s some pretty questionable stuff relating to Rubell in the theatrical cut, including one sequence in which he asks to “suck [Greg’s] (Breckin Meyer) dick” before dribbling on himself that plays out like ‘laugh at the gay club owner’; in the Director’s Cut, though, with the addition of a few insert shots and a little extra dialogue, the scene is totally transformed, much more a statement about Rubell’s excessive drug use than poking fun at the film’s only (at that point) queer character. Albertini Dow, too, turns in a much better performance in this re-edit, given far more screen time and context for her actions transforms her character, not to mention she gets one of the film’s showstealing lines around Christmas-time – definitely not Razzie material.3
The big rumour surrounding the long-awaited Director’s Cut is that the Weinstein Brothers had Christopher re-shoot a bunch of material involving Phillipe and Neve Campbell’s characters, and without going into too much detail, I can say without a doubt in my mind that is total garbage.4 All of the Campbell footage (barring maybe 20 seconds, that was clearly shot by Christopher for the original cut) is here, with one sequence shortened, another re-arranged to introduce her at a different point, and one with a different outcome (that changes the arc, but not really by much seeing as we never saw her again anyway). Shane still calls her his girlfriend, they still kiss, everything is ostensibly (almost) the same. What was added, however, is a queer plotline between our lead and another film favourite, which hugely alters the tone of the latter half of the film for the better.
Overall, although not amazing in and of itself, 54: The Director’s Cut is a marked improvement on its theatrical counterpart, especially in its latter moments. It probably won’t convert many people, seeing that 54 was never really a big hit anyway and too much time has passed since its release, but it’s really nice to see an early mainstream queer-crossover film restored back to its original, queerer form. I wouldn’t rush out to see it, but if you find yourself craving a little bit of 54 action, this is definitely the way to go.