Bianka Farmakis caught 54: The Director’s Cut at the Sydney Film Festival and saw the film the way it was meant to be – unapologetically camp instead of conservative, with a whole lot of glitter.
Studio 54: a club synonymous with A-list celebrities, Columbian cocaine and the time right before the sexual revolution sat panicked in a doctor’s office awaiting their HIV test results. Mark Christopher’s 54: The Director’s Cut presents a harrowing celluloid memory of New York’s most notorious nightclub, delivered through the perspective of bartender and Jersey teenager, Shane O’Shea (Ryan Phillippe). Originally released in 1998, the film’s stark portrayal of drug abuse and homosexuality was cut to appeal to a broader, commercial audience. It has now been re-released, premiering in Australia at the Sydney Film Festival this year.
Based on the experiences of former Studio 54 bartender, Tieg Thomas, the initial conservative reaction to the film oversaw a “family friendly” version debut on screens, suffering critically for its cheesy portrayal of an iconic fixture of US culture. Thankfully things have changed since 1998 and the film has been properly restored, uncut and R-rated.
From the opening scene of the film, ambient music and retro footage of glamourous socialites are jarringly interrupted by silent black screens, jutting erratically between contrasting images to mimic the pulsating heartbeat of the disco era. The beginning is paramount to capturing the paradoxical nature of the film. It leaves you excited and calm, erratic and stable, vibrant and jaded, with your heart racing so intensely that you remain completely fixated, still in silence, and watch a black screen utter “This… is a fucked up city at a fucked up time,” with a husky Jersey drawl.
The film’s exploration of raw sexuality tackles critical social concepts, touching on the absent depiction of male bisexuality in mainstream culture, intergenerational conflicts and the subversion of sexual gender roles at the start of the 1980s. The film displays the emotional connection of homosexual relationships, rather than merely pawning them off as sexual experimentation and depicts women in dominating, if not domineering positions as sexual powerhouses, prowling the glitter-stained floors of Studio 54.
Above all, 54: The Director’s Cut is a search for meaning. It is a young man’s desperate movement away from what is phony, to find what is genuine amongst the manufactured drugs, synthetic beats and artificial lights of New York City. Christopher’s exploration of the empty idealism that underpins the motivations of his characters touches on things universally experienced – a want of eternal youth, irresponsibility, lust and freedom – and cruelly destroys them shot after shot by the conventional realities of contemporary America in 1979. 54: The Director’s Cut presents an opportunity to experience the tension between fantasy and reality in Studio 54, to witness “an 80-year-old disco queen dance till dawn… models mingling with mechanics, plumbers dancing with princes.” What lingers constantly, in amongst the neon lighting, Amii Stewart’s “Knock on Wood” and bottomless chalices of champagne, is the expiration date that exists on any promise of a good night, in this case being the 146 minute duration of the film.
Shane O’Shea’s journey is interwoven with the experiences of his best friend Greg (Breckin Meyer) and his wife, club singer Anita (Salma Hayek), as they each subvert their morality to advance in the glitz and glam industry of pseudo-celebrity. The real focus of the film falls on the confronting performance of Mike Myers as homosexual club owner, tax cheat, deviant, and above all genius, Steve Rubbell. Myers does not act – he exaggerates. He takes his inner quirky persona and cool exterior and increases it to become the psycho-sexual, predatory club owner, whose fetish for sucking (literally) the innocence out of his employees and voyeuristic endeavours amounts to international notoriety and a bed full of cash. If the stellar cast isn’t enough, what’s a film without a brief cameo from Mark Ruffalo?
Somewhere in between the lavish party sequences, Ryan Phillippe’s chiselled everything and drug use on par with a tic-tac addiction, the ending of the film leaves you feeling empty. The cathartic closing scenes focus on re-established friendships and a return to morality. They aren’t intended to encourage a life of complacency or conservatism, but to leave you pining, nostalgic, for what happened behind the now permanently sealed doors of Studio 54. Christopher creates less of a feature film and more of a snapshot into the elusive depths of Studio 54, manifesting the potent sexuality and disco carnage that typified 1979.
So if you’re still on the fence about viewing, a quote from the film should be enough motivation:
“Sometimes I think I’ll stay home. Then I come to my senses and give myself a huge kick up the ass.”
Written & Directed by: Mark Christopher
Starring: Ryan Phillppe, Mike Myers & Salma Hayek
Production Company: Miramax Films