By the time I graduated from college in 1997, I had become fully obsessed with the 1970s. Certainly film was the primary conduit for my interest, but the music and fashion of that decade began to play an increasingly important part in all aspects of my life. Released in October of ’97, “Boogie Nights” became sort of the embodiment of everything that inspired me, and I ended up seeing it probably ten or more times just while it was in theaters. And when Miramax announced that they were releasing “54” in 1998, it seemed like my cinematic celebration of ‘70s hedonism would have a second chapter.
Superficially speaking, it possessed as many or more of the 1970s pop-culture hallmarks than Paul Thomas Anderson’s film did – music, clothes, and a story about the decade’s imploding decadence that was actually true. But it ultimately kind of came and went without much fanfare, not the least of which because notorious meddlers Bob and Harvey Weinstein decided to chop out some 45 minutes of original footage and then add 25 more that changed details from the plot and otherwise altered it from writer-director Marc Christopher’s original vision.
This week, Lionsgate released the film on Blu-ray in a director’s edition which doesn’t restore the original cut Christopher produced, but at least gets a little closer to what he intended. (It’s the same as previous DVD versions, but with cleaned-up picture and sound.) Does the film deserve to go down as heir apparent to “Boogie Nights” and an overlooked gem that chronicles ‘70s culture? This week’s “Shelf Life” investigates to find out.
Released August 28, 1998, “54” was Christopher’s first feature-length film, and as indicated above, the Weinsteins took it away from him and put together a 98-minute cut that was less controversial and (intended to be) more commercial, excising details that the main character Shane (Ryan Philippe) was bisexual, and that he, Greg (Breckin Meyer) and Anita (Salma Hayek) apparently reached a happy ending all together. In any form, however, audiences responded halfheartedly, and it opened at number Four at the box office before generating a total theatrical revenue that was just shy of $18 million.
Although it was nominated for two ALMA awards, one for Salma Hayek and one for the three performers of “If You Could Read My Mind,” it also received two Razzie nominations, for Worst Actor (Ryan Philippe) and Worst Supporting Actress (Ellen Albertini Dow, who played Disco Dottie). The film currently hovers at 13 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works
Sadly, not a whole lot. Having never seen Christopher’s original cut, which is sort of legendary but all but unavailable, it’s impossible to attest to what might have been. But this version is brisk and superficial, showcasing three actors who were coming into their own at that time without giving them enough to do, while simultaneously offering comedian Mike Myers a chance to expand his repertoire in a more serious role. Myers is actually pretty great at Steve Rubell, the proprietor of Studio 54, but the film scarcely allows him to give Rubell (as a character or actual person) much real substance; he’s a charmer and a hedonist, but he’s also a sociopathic manipulator and mercurial drug addict.
The best part of the film unquestionably is the soundtrack, which was released in two volumes and features few of the obvious staples of the era, instead choosing deep-cut disco tracks that are more authentic to the New York scene, such as Gary’s Gang’s “Keep On Dancin’.” So at the very least, if you’re uninterested in the performances or storyline, there’s still something to enjoy throughout most of the movie.
What Doesn’t Work
“54” is a backstage drama where what’s interesting is on stage. While seeing 54 through the eyes of a young bartender is a promising idea, the theatrical version of this film does almost nothing interesting with it. If Christopher had gone full-out focusing on the hedonistic abandon of the club, or shown its descent via the legal troubles Rubell faced, then there might be something worth holding onto throughout its 100-minute running time. But Shane is a vapid, uninteresting, superficially-ambitious protagonist who does nothing except experience the same big-city revelations any other smalltown rube might if he threw himself into a world of celebrity, drugs and glamor.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Greg and Anita is not just cliched, but poorly-developed: during the first half of the film, they’re adorably lovey-dovey, always telling one another they love the other and talking about the success they’re going to have once she gets her singing career underway. But inexplicably, halfway through the film, Anita becomes inescapably attracted to Shane, and then her attraction to him becomes a larger issue in which she “needs her freedom” and inspires violent jealousy from Greg. But even then, that jealousy is only explored dramatically in one scene in the entire movie, and after that nothing ever becomes of Shane and Anita’s attraction; in fact, it’s literally never even mentioned again.
Finally, there’s a subplot involving Shane and an actress on “All My Children” played by Neve Campbell. It didn’t occur to me until this time that she is absent from almost all but the last 30 minutes of the film, when Shane teaches her a lesson about whoring herself out for work – which is exactly what he’s done for almost literally the entire running time but the film seems to consider that “ambition” or otherwise excuse it. In fact, most of the gender dynamics in the film are pretty despicable; in the guise of empowerment, women characters are mostly sexual predators, but in the case of Anita or Campbell’s character, they’re well-meaning sluts whose philandering is judged much more harshly than the hookups of their male counterparts. But in terms of Campbell’s character, she’s supposed to be instrumental in Shane’s evolution as a person and a character, and she is in the film so infrequently that she leaves almost no impact at all, although to Christopher’s credit, he just makes them friends at the end rather than having them become lovers. But that doesn’t feel satisfying either.
“54” is a pretty terrible movie. There’s so much interesting stuff to explore about Studio 54 that this feels like a catastrophic failure, which I, like many others, gave a pass at the time of its release because it felt like the morning-after follow-up to “Boogie Nights.” That said, I would absolutely give Christopher’s original cut another shot, since apparently it includes more details about Shane’s bisexuality and offers a more substantial exploration of the world. But ultimately its “peripheral character commenting on a larger context” approach just feels all wrong, because there’s simply too much of real interest – the music, the culture, the celebrities, and time period – to waste so much screen time on a himbo and a doofus married couple, especially when you have Myers there playing Steve Rubell, whose life, experiences, obliviousness, and ultimate downfall would have – and quite frankly still could – make for an amazing film.