54 (1998)

54 (1998)
  • Time: 93 min
  • Genre: Drama | History
  • Director: Mark Christopher
  • Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Salma Hayek, Mike Myers


Mark Christopher wrote and directed this look back at the Disco Era when the popular Studio 54 was at its apogee in the late ’70s. With obvious comparisons to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) and Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (1998), the story introduces working-class 19-year-old Irish-American Shane O’Shea, who has lived with his father and siblings since the death of his mother when he was 12. Shane quickly rises from busboy to bartender at Studio 54, co-owned and managed in a paternal manner by entrepreneur Steve Rubell. Busboy Greg Randazzo and Greg’s wife, Anita, the club’s coat check girl, become Shane’s new friends, and he encounters the possibility of romance with soap star Julie Black. The story spans the summer of 1979 until the decline of Studio 54 a year later with IRS investigations, followed by the arrest and jailing of Rubell.

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  • Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci. Calvin, Halston, Warhol. Bianca, Mick, Jerry. Designers, supermodels, Hollywood celebrities, drag queens, and John Does. Everyone who was anyone and anyone who wanted to be like everyone flocked to the temple of pleasure known as Studio 54.

    April 26, 1977 marked the return to Eden but this time it was reimagined as Dante’s Inferno. Hearing about the heyday of Studio 54, one can understand cinema’s current fascination with the 1970s. Boogie Nights jumpstarted the revival, The Last Days of Disco followed; the trend continues with 54 and the upcoming Velvet Goldmine. The Seventies was about freedom: “Heaven knows, anything goes” seemed the unofficial mantra and everyone drank, drugged and fornicated like there was no tomorrow. Well, tomorrow came years later in the form of AIDS and the repercussions of that decade’s hedonism quakes still. But this is now, that was then. Studio 54 was the Americanized version of the 1930s Berlin cabarets: decadence was law and for a few short years, 54th Street and 8th Avenue was the epicenter of cool.

    In the beginning, there is a glimpse of that orgiastic bacchanalia in 54, writer-director Mark Christopher’s ode to the famed nightspot. Shane O’Shea (Ryan Phillippe), a 19-year-old New Jersey Adonis, makes his way through the club for the first time. To his left, a half-naked couple is having sex. Above him, a singer performs on a steel bridge. The club’s owner, Steve Rubell (Mike Myers), storms the deejay booth and wishes Truman Capote a happy birthday. A cherub descends from the ceiling and hands Capote a present. Glitter is everywhere. Strobe-lit columns dangle. It is quite a scene but the recreation doesn’t even begin to equal the myth that Studio 54 was and has become.

    The main problem with 54 is its failure to make a grand impression. Rubell is depicted but his partner, Ian Schrager, goes unmentioned. You barely see the drag queens that were the toast of tout New York or the common people who decked out in imaginative costumes. There’s no sense of the outrageousness or debauchery or gridlocked ambitions that prevailed. Worse, there’s no exhiliration.

    A documentary would have been the wiser choice. Instead the audience is relegated to the sawdust-to-glitter rise of Shane O’Shea, who elevates from busboy to bartender. He befriends fellow busboy Greg (Breckin Meyer), who deals drugs on the side, and his wife Anita (Salma Hayek), who dreams of being the next Donna Summer. The film, which runs for 90 minutes, feels slight and lacking; no doubt cuts were made to these characters’ tangled triangle. Shane was originally written as a bisexual conniver; Meyer’s character was to have had a go with both Shane and Anita. Any attraction between Shane and Greg has been excised; as for Shane and Anita, only an unfulfilled promise remains. The film’s other romance, which was boosted in the reworking, lies between Shane and Julie Black (Neve Campbell), a fellow Jersyite and club denizen whose ambitions overtake her morals.

    For a disco famed for its sins, the worst sin depicted is income tax evasion. The film’s strongest moment is rightfully its sleaziest. Rubell, forever hazed by Quaaludes, rolls around the pile of money he’s skimmed for the night. He fixes his heavily lidded eyes on Greg and proclaims his desire to perform oral sex on him. When Greg refuses, Rubell dangles the money and the promise of a promotion. The scene is a bit tricky — it borders on the ridiculous but Myers keeps it sublime. Traces of his Austin Powers persona poke through every so often but, on the whole, Myers plays it straight and successfully melds the contradictory sides of Rubell’s nature.

    Campbell, on the other hand, stubbornly refuses to stray from her usual mannerisms and vocal deliveries. Even in Wild Things, where she veered severely from her Party of Five character, she retained her tics. It’s hostility bottled in a perfume bottle and the scent is beginning to suffocate. I personally cannot wait until the current crop of TV crossover actresses wears out their welcome. (I’ll take Sarah Michelle Gellar but Jennifer Love Hewitt can stay exactly where she is.) The presence of Salma Hayek more than atones for Campbell’s generic screen personality. Hayek is a sizzler, a natural born comedienne with vulnerability and sultriness to spare. In 54, she sings sweetly in one number, lip synchs credibly to another, dances up a storm, goes for laughs and gets them, tickles the heart, and leaves everyone choking on her dust.​

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