These days, I'm feeling guiltier than usual about one of my all-time guilty pleasures. The movie is Mark Christopher's 54, which is back from the dead via a bootleg director's cut that screened below the radar at Outfest a couple weeks back (GOOD NEWS: Landmark will revive it for two more screenings later this month, tentatively midnight on Aug. 15 and 16 in NYC at the Sunshine Cinema).
54, for those who don't remember, was Christopher's glittery not-quite-cautionary tale of Gotham club life. When the film came out in August '98, I was a junior in college, every bit as starry-eyed about the prospect of such a place as Studio 54 as Jersey-boy hero Ryan Phillippe was onscreen, so it didn't take much for me to fall into the film's glittery disco swoon (I moved to New York after graduating, so revisiting the film now puts me in Christopher's position, looking back with a sort of finger-wagging nostalgia).
Writing for my college paper, The Daily Texan, I gave 54 one of its only raves (its current Rotten Tomatoes score is a dismal 13%). My friends still tease me about it. But I'd read about Christopher's clash with the studio over which cut to release, had heard that Miramax was snipping a male-male kiss from the film, and I believed with my generous, closeted soul that a work of art was lurking somewhere on the editing room floor.
Now I know...
I haven't seen the original in ages, so you'll forgive my memory here, but most of those hookups are new and suggest a different kind of lead character entirely. Shane is ambivalent about sex, leveraging his good looks to get ahead without understanding the consequences of his carelessness. Before the screening, Christopher explained that even between the theatrical release (which petered out under $17 million) and DVD, Harvey started putting material back into the film (Shane's betrayal in sleeping with Salma evidently made the DVD), and European versions were treated to even more footage.
Now, Christopher has outlived the regime that forced him to compromise his film, but he clung to the digital tapes and assembled this cut in an effort to recreate his original vision. The print he showed at Outfest is rough, faded and too low-grade to master to DVD (then again, Harvey bumped up the brightness on many of those club scenes for the theatrical version so audiences could see those things more alluring when left to one's imagination and the dark), but it could serve as a blueprint for a proper re-edit.
To Harvey's credit: He knew he had gold in Mike Myers' crash-and-burn turn, cutting very little of the performance from the film. A decade later, his take on Steve Rubell (a character soon to be revived for Showtime) remains the best work of the Love Guru's career. Phillippe, too, is at his peak, and the movie leverages his shortcomings as an actor (that dumb, oblivious quality he does so well) to the role's ultimate advantage.
It remains to be seen whether anyone agrees to foot the bill for a proper recut and restoration -- surely there's money to be made putting this thing out on Blu-ray. My only regret: That awesome disco cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" doesn't exist in Christopher's version. Then again, neither do STDs, last calls or the real world -- but it's a pretty good party all the same.