I don’t really want to go over the top here, but have to be brutally honest: the original version of 54 really is a wretched piece of cinema. The script and performances are poor, the final edit released in 1998 consistently makes little or no sense at all, and it’s a dull, plodding hour and a half with no real direction; it is no surprise that the movie tanked. I say ‘original version’ above as that’s what I watched, as opposed to the director’s cut, which surfaced a few years ago with an extra 15 minutes of restored footage. That at least has garnered a little bit of goodwill since it appeared, but more on that later.
This is the tale of Studio 54, the notorious late 70s/early 80s New York City nightclub famed for its ‘anything-goes’ party attitude and its slew of celebrity dancefloor patrons. Those that were there usually say they can’t remember it, the memories lost in a fog of uppers and downers, but in the heyday of disco the club attracted the bold and the beautiful. On any given night, legend has it, you might find yourself rubbing shoulders with Grace Kelly, Marlon Brando, Pele, Tennessee Williams, Andy Warhol, Sylvester Stallone, Dolly Parton, Woody Allen, Mick Jagger, Cher, Michael Jackson or Truman Capote. I personally like to picture the lot of them doing the conga around the dancefloor to the tune of Black Lace’s novelty hit ‘Agadoo’.
While other famous New York clubs saw their fair share of debauchery over the years, such as more serious draws for disco enthusiasts like The Paradise Garage or The Loft, none could match Studio 54 as a celebrity hangout (though, y’know, I can’t actually think of anything worse myself; if you happened to be in 70s New York and you tried to get in there instead of CBGBs you’re basically dead to me). Director Mark Christopher spent several years researching the club’s history, which opened in 1977 and closed at the end of 1980 after co-founders Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were found guilty of tax evasion and imprisoned. Schrager is oddly absent from the film’s story, which largely concentrates on Rubell (played by Mike Myers) and a teenage club bartender from New Jersey called Shane O’Shea (played by Ryan Phillippe, the character supposedly based on a real-life employee called Tieg Thomas). Support comes from Neve Campbell as actress-on-the-up Julie Black, Breckin Meyer and Salma Hayek as club employees Greg and Anita, and in one of his first roles Mark Ruffalo as drug pusher lowlife Ricko.
Myers’ Rubell is strangely uncharismatic, given the genial likeability of the comic actor (in his first major serious role here). He is also portrayed as being incredibly sleazy, something strongly disputed by Rubell’s relatives upon the film’s release. Sadly Rubell wasn’t around to defend himself in person; he contracted AIDS and subsequently died of hepatitis in 1989. Myers received positive reviews for his performance (about the only good press the film received in the late 90s) and was even talked up as a genuine Oscar contender, but I fail to see why. Admittedly he appears to be doing his best with a bad script but it feels like he is constantly fighting his natural tendencies for showmanship and clowning around, which is a shame when you consider that this gregarious, generous and OTT club host would surely be the perfect role for Mike Myers to let fly with his Mike Myersisms. The character probably ought to have been focused on more during the film, too, but we learn nothing of Rubell’s background and see very little of his personal life outside of the club. In most of his scenes we see him sitting behind a desk in his office or up in the DJ booth making announcements to the crowd; it’s all pretty boring when you consider how interesting Rubell’s life must have been on the whole.
Myers is the best of a bad bunch though, and that’s possibly the reason many referred to it as a stand-out performance. Campbell is mind-numbingly bland, but then her character is a walking cliché – a small-town girl that ditches her pleasant personality in order to run with the club’s major leaguers – and the actress has to grin and plough through several terrible lines. Hayek looks confused, and it’s difficult to warm to her character, a club coatroom attendant looking for a big break in the music industry. They are saved from receiving too much scorn though by the performance of Phillippe, who was bestowed with a Razzie nomination for his rotten turn. His character, the wide-eyed and innocent kid from the sticks initially dazzled by the bright lights of Manhattan and gradually corrupted by the high life, is one dimensional and quite dull. In a way his tale is very similar to Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler character from Boogie Nights (released a year earlier), but Wahlberg’s effervescent performance crackles with knowing wit and energy. Here O’Shea is just a pair of blue eyes and a blonde haircut. The lights are on but no-one’s home, and you seriously wonder whether that was a deliberate move by Phillippe. Or not.
The film was actually nominated for two Razzies; Ellen Albertini Dow was also the recipient of a backwards nod for her performance as ‘Disco Dottie’, an elderly clubgoer based on real life NYC party fiend Sally Lippmann, aka ‘Disco Sally’. Lippmann died in hospital in 1982; in the film Disco Dottie dies on the dancefloor as the 70s heavy-handedly turns into the 80s. That’s something else Boogie Nights does way, way better.
Christopher populates his mock-up of Studio 54 (filmed largely in Toronto) with sailors, Roman centurions, busboys in tight shorts, glamorous transvestites, coked-up grannies and a variety of unconvincing freaks. There are pointless, empty portrayals of Andy Warhol and Truman Capote, and several irritating cameos feel shoehorned in (in particular two scenes with Ron Jeremy and Elio Fiorucci), but many of the club’s real-life regular patrons are ignored or not referred to at all.
The first time we see the club it’s actually quite exciting, and it offers a decent glimpse into the hypnotic power of disco as O’Shea is immediately intoxicated by the sights and sounds he discovers, but as the film progresses the dancefloor scenes quickly lose their initial fizz. In truth, the club scenes are fundamentally lacking in energy (and extras), and criminally Christopher’s Studio 54 ends up looking like a fairly dull and empty place to be.
So far, so bad. However, the worst problem with 54 – worse than the acting and the wretched dialogue and the poor representation of the club itself – is that all too often you get the sense that you’ve missed something very important. Subplots involving Meyer’s character stealing from the club’s offices, Ricko’s arrest, the club’s alleged connection to the Mafia and Rubell’s supposed mis-management of funds and subsequent trial are dealt with in a very flimsy fashion. As a viewer there is a constant feeling that the film just skipped forward ten minutes and you missed a couple of crucial scenes. The blame for this rests largely with Miramax, who intervened disastrously after a test screening went badly. They forced Christopher to ditch vast swathes of the plot and reshoot extra material just prior to the film’s release.
In total, 45 minutes of footage was cut from the film and 25 minutes of new material and voice-over were added, so it’s no wonder the actors generally look confused or disinterested at times; the director’s cut apparently does include some of the earlier, discarded footage. Miramax must have been spooked somewhat by the release of the far superior, classier Whit Stillman film The Last Days of Disco earlier in 1998, which covered the Studio 54 scene to some extent and received largely positive reviews; production on Stillman’s film was speeded-up to ensure it beat 54 into cinemas. Still, there’s a reason why Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein earned the nickname ‘Harvey Scissorhands’.
Initially, Breckin Meyer’s role was much bigger, and he was going to be one of the stars of the film, but his part was reduced considerably after the studio stepped in. Apparently much of the original plot dealt with a love triangle between Meyer, Hayek and Phillippe, but this was largely cut out before the film was released. Confusingly, there are elements of it left in (I was perplexed as to why Hayek’s Anita was going around town at one point with Phillippe’s Shane, rather than Meyer’s Greg, her on-screen husband. Only afterwards when reading about the film’s troubled production history did I find out why.).
Phillippe and Meyer were supposed to share a kiss on screen, and Phillippe’s character originally took part in several gay sexual encounters during the film, but these were all ditched after a test audience reportedly reacted negatively. A victory for conservative homophobia there (and this is the late 1990s, for goodness sake). Quite what Miramax expected when they sanctioned and funded a film about a late 1970s New York disco club that was popular with a gay and sexually-liberated crowd is a question only the studio can answer, really, and it seems bizarre to actually alter vast swathes of a film’s plot just because one or two test viewers got a little hot under the collar. Either way nearly all the traces of Shane and Greg’s bisexuality were cut. Again, confusingly, hints of this were left in.
It’s difficult to say today without having seen the subsequent director’s cut whether Christopher’s film as he originally intended it would have been any better than the version Miramax released; the abandoned scenes and structure surely couldn’t make the club suddenly come alive, or drag some of the performances back from the brink, but at the time of release there were suggestions that a pretty good movie had originally been made. It would, presumably, have been more coherent, and it’s likely that the plot would have moved forward at a more acceptable speed. The characters may have been a little more appealing to audiences, too. In fact the biggest shame is that I’m writing about a completely different work than the one intended by most of the people making it. As it stands, 54 is a complete mess and a lesson in the dangers of studio interference. That said, I suspect there’s no masterpiece hidden away somewhere, just a slightly less terrible version. In the released 90 minutes there is a chronic lack of invention and it suffers from poor attention to detail. There are poor lead performances and little character development. The script is filled with cliché after cliché, the plot is muddled and it flits from character to character without truly concentrating on any of them, or properly establishing their links to each other. In short it’s a complete disaster and it’s a surprise it even saw the light of day.
Directed by: Mark Christopher
Written by: Mark Christopher
Starring: Mike Myers, Ryan Phillippe, Salma Hayek, Neve Campbell
Running Time: 93 Minutes