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Harvey’s Hellhole: 54

Welcome to Harvey’s Hellhole, a monthly column devoted to spotlighting the movies that were poorly marketed, mishandled, reshaped, neglected or just straight-up destroyed by Harvey Weinstein, during his reign as one of the most powerful studio chiefs in Hollywood. Since June is Pride Month, this month’s column is about the time Harvey Weinstein took the gay out of a movie.

54 was supposed to be Miramax’s big summer blockbuster for 1998. It boasted a sizzling-hot cast: Ryan Phillippe, the studly young thespian fresh off his role in the slasher hit I Know What You Did Last Summer; rising, buxom, Latina screen siren Salma Hayek; Neve Campbell, the Party of Five star who became a screen queen when he she headlined the Scream movies; and Mike Myers, Austin Powers himself, in his first dramatic role. With a cast like this, it’s no wonder Harvey Weinstein opted for a wide release, making sure it had a place in multiplexes across America. And the subject matter was juicy: legendary New York nightclub Studio 54, the mega-exclusive spot where the famous mingled with the fortunate, and hedonism and decadence reigned supreme.

It’s obvious that Weinstein wanted his own ‘70s movie out there, especially after Paul Thomas Anderson’s porn epic Boogie Nights was an indie smash the year before, making a movie star out of former rapper Mark Wahlberg (as well-endowed star Dirk Diggler) and giving Burt Reynolds (as director/father figure Jack Horner) his first-ever Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. So, Weinstein got with writer-director Mark Christopher, who had a Me Decade-era script all ready to shoot.

Christopher described 54 as “a disco American Graffiti,” focusing on three young people — Jersey boy Shane (Phillippe), aspiring singer Anita (Hayek) and her husband Greg (Breckin Meyer) — looking to make a name for themselves in the Big Apple, circa the late ‘70s, while working at the ultra-glamorous club run by the tax-evading Steve Rubell (Myers). 

And yet, when 54 debuted on the last Friday of August, audiences didn’t exactly flock to it. On opening weekend, it landed in 4th place, behind Blade, There’s Something About Mary and Saving Private Ryan. Ultimately, this $13 million film ended up grossing $17 million. The reviews also weren’t kind: 

“Decadence has rarely looked so pathetic, lethargic and dispiriting…” — Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times

“It’s a flat, clumsy piece of filmmaking.” — Charles Taylor, Salon

“All glitz, no glory.” — Richard Corliss, Time.

It seemed people sensed that 54 was a movie that was bruised and beaten by you-know-who before it hit the screens. Around the time of the movie’s release, Entertainment Weekly published a report that confirmed it, stating that Harvey Weinstein demanded cuts and reshoots after suburban test screenings didn’t approve of the movie’s amoral tone. 

Christopher, a queer filmmaker who directed the gay-themed shorts The Dead Boys’ Club (1992) and Alkali, Iowa (1995) before making 54, had no problems throwing some LGBTQ subject matter into the already sexually-adventurous mix. He made Shane bisexual, getting it on with both women and men. He even kisses Greg and, immediately afterwards, has sex with Anita in a bathroom (while Rubell watches). 

All that lascivious behavior apparently didn’t win over middle-American moviegoers. Weinstein forced Christopher to tone things the hell down, killing the whole love-triangle angle. He also wanted to play up a budding romance between Shane and a soap-opera actress (Campbell). “We wanted to shoot a dark movie,” Christopher told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2015. “In the studio release, they pumped a bunch of light into it.” The whole experience made Christopher step away from Hollywood, opting to teach film and television at Drexel University in his later years.

There is a glittery, silver lining to this story. Christopher did make his own cut, which he transferred to VHS and sent to cast and crew. Of course, that cut found its way out into the world, playing at several LGBTQ film festivals over the years. (According to Christopher, when it played at a film fest in Italy, a riot broke out because it was oversold.) At the same time, Christopher’s producer Jonathan King kept hitting up Miramax for the possibility of releasing a director’s cut on iTunes, which the studio — Weinstein-free since Bob and Harvey started the Weinstein Company in 2005 —finally agreed to in 2015.

Truth be told, even with all the reshot footage removed and 40 minutes of original footage put back in (some of it from dailies found on videocassette), Christopher’s cut is a flawed first try. It still suffers from a cliched clunkiness that not even all the orgiastic fervor can cover up. 

But at least Christopher managed to get his uninhibited vision back into the film. For people who were actually around Studio 54 back then, seeing all that sexy sordidness brought back memories. Former Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott wrote the movie will “give you a great feel for the ecstasy whirl under the pleasure dome of 54—Salma Hayek spinning on stage is a peak moment—and it englobes a unique, un-recapturable precipice moment of degeneration and regeneration.”

Most importantly, the 54 director’s cut is a damning example of how Harvey Weinstein tried to mostly scrub the gay away from a movie, so mainstream audiences still unnerved by the sight of dudes kissing wouldn’t get turned off. There are still some gay moments in the theatrical version — mostly brought out by Myers, who actually got the most raves as the horny, pitiful Rubell. But that version also inadvertently makes the argument that engaging in anything LGBTQ-related is the ultimate sin, and whoever indulges in it pays the price. (Don’t forget that, both in the movie and in real life, the late Rubell had his nocturnal paradise taken away from him by the IRS, and he also did jail time for tax evasion.) No matter how much Phillippe’s lunkheaded lothario is seen as homoerotic eye candy (he spends a bulk of the movie shirtless), he’s still straight as an arrow. Even when he has to get medication for a hella case of the clap, at least he got it from the ladies, gotdammit!

While we’ll never know if ‘90s audiences would have welcomed Christopher’s more bi-curious cut of 54 with open arms, we do know they immediately dismissed the heavily-Weinsteined version. Even Joe and Jane Moviegoer were not gonna waste their hard-earned money on a movie that was obviously shredded to bits by Good Ol’ Harvey Scissorhands.

Both versions of 54 are available to rent or buy.