He’s a tattooed beefcake now, but it wasn’t so long ago that the fortysomething actor Ryan Phillippe was twinkable. Impressively slim and toned, pouty and pretty, inoffensively brownish-blond and—at 5’9”—physically unassuming, Phillippe had just enough latent mischief in his smile to devastate anyone susceptible—boy-band adherents, especially. This is what made him such a hot item for everyone of a certain age and persuasion in 1997, following his turn as the prey of a hook-handed murderer in the teenage revenge slasher I Know What You Did Last Summer. Many didn’t know or weren’t ready for it, yet, but the same genetic and generic principles that made him a poster-ready heartthrob made him equally suited to the role that Mark Christopher, a rising gay filmmaker, would ask him to play the following year: Shane, an erratic, bisexual bartender and denizen of the iconic Studio 54 in the 1998 flop 54.
Many an actor can perform more than one role, play to more than one cultural fantasy, at once. It depends on the fantasy and, of course, on the actor. For Phillippe, this was ostensibly a role against type. Antiheroes weren’t “in” yet: it’d be a mere handful of months before the debut of The Sopranos and less than a year before Phillippe’s own gesture toward the archetype in Cruel Intentions, an amusingly tragic Upper East Side adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons that exploits the double-edged fluidity of his look with more suggestion than even 54. Sexually speaking, though a mainstream actor could win an Oscar in the ’90s for playing a gay man with AIDS, he had to have AIDS (and die from it) and he had to uphold the melodrama of the binary; drug-addled bisexuality without tragedy was its own category and its own threat.
With cultural politics like this, who needs enemies? It’s unsurprising that test audiences would largely reject Mark Christopher’s original vision, as is by now legend. What happened from there is even less of a shock, though no less disappointing for its rote familiarity. Harvey Weinstein, then the head of Miramax, 54’s distributor, had reportedly been so pleased with the production as it progressed that at one point increased its budget. But he would cave to the negative feedback from the test screenings, demanding over twenty minutes of reshoots, cutting the original by forty minutes, and more or less completely undermining what was original about the original.
The changes were damning. Gone was almost all trace of same-sex desire in the plot and the images, the boy-boy grinding as well as the remarkably modest gay angle of a love triangle between Shane and two other employees, a fellow bus boy and the bus boy’s wife, a coat check girl. Gone, too—literally washed out—was the intentionally dark, slightly seedy aesthetic befitting the film’s subject. And gone was a shot of Ryan Phillippe’s butt perched high against the New York skyline at sunset. (Bummer.)
It was an unmitigated disaster, a critical and commercial flop that embarrassed all involved, including audiences, for the wrong reasons. We wanted to shift in our seats from all the sexual suggestion, the seedy ’70s as imagined through familiar pop faces of the moment— Phillippe, Salma Hayek, Neve Campbell, Mike Myers—performing seemingly out of their element. What we got was a teen-friendly morality play. I daresay we should have expected as much.
The original cut was lost to the dust heap and the rumor mill, secretly preserved on the black market in bootleg copies of the early cuts and video dailies from the first shoot. Now, with the support of Miramax’s current leadership, Christopher’s original vision, recut and somewhat restored, is back in the mainstream (or streamable, anyway) after debuting in February at the Berlin International Film Festival. This is glorious news, not least because we can now curtail the speculation and suspense and say, with 17 years of hindsight to our advantage, that 54 might still have been a disappointment. As it turns out, Christopher’s original vision for the film wasn’t that good or titillating to begin with; the subsequent watering-down only made its deficiencies all the more obvious. And conversations about those deficiencies detracted from the true point: bad or not, important or not, the original 54 was at least interesting enough, compared to its theatrical recut, to have the littlest bit of lisp.
As art, the resulting re-release is a mere curiosity, less radical than the decade-plus of whispers led us to believe and barely more visionary; Christopher’s vision was apparently always self-consciously commercial. But as an act of restoration, it’s a startling artifact, patched together from frames as ephemeral as the lifestyles they depict. The old video footage alternates conspicuously with the clean, clear images that were either reused from the first theatrical release or recovered from a less precarious archive than the video dailies. The digital restoration of the once-lost footage is suggestively circumspect: to watch the film now is to be interrupted, pretty frequently, by reminders of the film’s contentious history. Christopher makes sure you notice the fissures wrought by that history.
In the new release, two men in the darkened club will kiss or grind and, suddenly, the image will brighten, the genders will straighten and, like Dorothy coming home, we’ll slowly recognize a return to the familiar, to footage from the 1998 release. The effect is a damning reminder of Weinstein’s conspicuous tampering with the seedy aesthetic of the original. More than that, it alerts us to the confusion of two competing visions.
The most intriguing additions, drawn from underground copies of the video dailies, are even more jarring, intentionally unsubtle inclusions of what could easily be mistaken as someone’s grainy home videos or a cheap bootleg recording in the theater—you half expect to hear popcorn shuffling and muted coughs. But these fissures, too, are instantaneous and short-lived, sometimes only as long as the mere flicker of a few frames: a single gesture, a quick joke, or even simply a look between men. That these formerly discarded scenes are largely the bits involving intimacy between men only makes their emergence from the depths of who-knows-how-many closets all the more poignant. This re-release of 54 is not simply a new edition of 54: it’s a coming out.
It’s these material differences that really distinguish the two versions of Christopher’s film. The theatrical release did a bit more handholding and pretends, in an unnecessarily revised ending, that what we’re here to talk about is moral redemption. But both versions play out with similar predictability. In 1979, while other boys his age are dreaming of Olivia Newton-John (or John Travolta), Shane, a nineteen year old from Jersey City, dreams of the soap star Julie Black (Campbell, fresh off the successes of Scream, Scream 2, and Wild Things), a Studio 54 regular, with her own aspirations for making it. This dream incites Shane’s leap across the Hudson. Hand-plucked from a crowd of desperate nobodies by lecherous 54 co-owner Steve Rubell (an uncanny Myers in an unprecedented “serious” role, right on the heels of the first Austin Powers), Shane gets his start as 54’s newest bus boy/toy, a career pit from which the only way is up. Not everyone makes it, but Shane’s got the looks—rather, Phillippe does. He soon becomes a Rubell favorite, graduating first to bartender, then to “It” boy and, as the story goes, becoming a drug-addled overspender whose sex life is an occasion for too many montages and his first STI. The aspirations and failures of Shane and the other wannabes working and getting worked on 54’s sticky floors are flies in the soup of the club’s true clientele, the established cultural elites, but Shane et al. don’t know this yet. Like some of the actors playing them, they believe 54 is the start of something.
The restored film takes greater pleasure in Shane’s excess than does the theatrical release, but the bar remains low. When Shane begins to become a “thing”—“Shane 54”, as he’s called in a deliciously vapid Interview spread—Christopher’s camera mimics a controlled spiral, panning slowly to the right as an image of the busy dance floor spins in a surprising fit of something like hazy ecstasy. I like this moment. But there’s a flaw in the sense of control Christopher displays here, his inability, even in a moment like this, to risk his gaze becoming too haphazard, too overtly subjective. Disco is ripe for cutting loose with expressive cinema—Saturday Night Fever taught us that; The Last Days of Disco suggestively undermined it—but Christopher isn’t a visionary. It’s enough to suggest that his film has caught the fever, even if all it has is a mild cold.
Perhaps the test audiences felt differently: this already too-brief gimmick, with its nod toward druggy symbolism, was abbreviated in the theatrical release. To make up for the lost time of this and the other cuts, the theatrical edit buttressed what remained of the initial shoot with an after-school-obvious IRS investigation into Rubell’s books, driving home the easy moral takeaways that Christopher, to his credit, had largely avoided: pay your taxes, keep it in your pants, listen to your father. (In a direct rebuke to this, the new cut extends the painfully quaint Jersey City scenes by only as many lines as it takes to establish Shane’s father as a bigot. There goes that.)
Part of me wishes that the camera in that moment had kept spinning, that the original test audience, whose negative reaction to the film was devastating enough as is, had been flung even further afield from its corny values. The persistent tameness of the restored cut makes it difficult to understand those early objections. There is no Marilyn Manson here, nor any other monster of the late ’90s cultural imaginary. There’s remarkably little race-mixing of interest for a disco film co-starring Salma Hayek, and Miramax cannot to my knowledge be blamed for that, though a general trend in disco films can. There’s no titillating sex, but things admittedly get a little interesting when, in one scene, Rubell spies on Shane getting it on in the bathroom, and Shane, instrumentalizing his sex appeal, lets him watch.
The film still needs more of that: more awareness of the sexual potential of its actors, and of disco, and a greater desire to make use of that awareness. It’s as if the culture of Studio 54 was thought to be too far removed, so foreign to contemporary American experience that not even the film’s somewhat tired gloss on the inability of Horatio Algeresque aspirations to survive late capitalism unscathed, a subject that’s also of interest to the 54 contemporary Boogie Nights, could save it from playing like a horror film. (Boogie Nights, a better film by a slimmer margin than my friends would like to admit, apparently tanked its test screenings, too.) The only true horror here, though, is the setting: God, were the ’90s lame.
The new 54 is an event, less for what it is than for the fact that it is, and even that fact has its caveats. It’s strange what our culture deems “too far” in the art of a given moment, but it’s clear that part of the mystery is in the iconography of those involved. The guiding presumption of the studio’s theatrical edit is that 54’s stars, some (like Phillippe) having only recently earned that status, could not be seen getting their hands, mouths, and butts dirty. Their butts remain unsullied. Now, at least, the film is complete: dark and inconsistent, smudged with the gazes, if not the sticky fingerprints, of the many people who fought to preserve it, 54 is not that queer but, finally, it’s here.
ContributorK. Austin Collins
K. AUSTIN COLLINS is a writer and crossword constructor from New York.