It’s been almost two decades since Mark Christopher’s 54 debuted to a wretched bag of reviews. But thanks to the magic of director’s cuts, it's actually returning to theaters as it was originally intended. The production process for this Studio 54 film was a tumultuous timeline of events. The then Disney-owned Miramax cut down its explicit gay and drug themes until the film looked nothing like the original, which ultimately led to its poor reception. As Christopher and his star Ryan Phillippe look back on this film, as the director’s cut screened at the Berlin Film Festival, it seems that the final nail in the 54 coffin came after one fatal test screening.
Vulture recently published an in-depth look at the history behind this film and its unprecedented move to return with a director’s cut. Among the details, a test screening of the film at a Long Island mall was described. Those in attendance reportedly called the characters "irredeemable," and the scene in which Breckin Meyers and Phillippe kiss as "loathsome." As a result, Disney and Miramax hired a new editor and a team of writers to cut 40 minutes worth of footage from the 106-minute-long film and replace them with 30 minutes of new scenes. The gay content and drug use were deemed ill-suited for mainstream audiences, and this particular kissing scene was one of the casualties.
Though Christopher’s original vision for the film will see the light of day, the entire handling of his brainchild is still a sore spot. As he said:
This was a dark movie and it shouldn’t have been tested in those places. Audience test-screenings are blunt instruments. You hear about things that 'test through the roof' and no one goes to see them. Boogie Nights tested terribly. But New Line left that movie alone and let it be its dark self.
Though 54 was considered scandalous for the time, bootleg versions of the director’s cut were making the rounds at the time, which culminated in a cult-like fan base. For years Christopher campaigned for Miramax to allow a release of the director’s cut on DVD. While he made no headway for quite some time, his co-producer Jonathan King pitched 54: The Director’s Cut to Miramax’s Zanne Devine in 2014, and she finally gave the go ahead. Those who saw the restored version at Berlin, like The Guardian and Towelroad, are already calling it "an act of jubilant resurrection" and a possible "lost gay classic."
Ryan Phillippe said that "this kind of resurrection doesn’t happen," which makes the 54 director’s cut a sign of the times. If it wasn’t for Christopher’s push to release his original take, it would never have happened on its own. But at the same time, with LGBT representation becoming more widely accepted, now is the perfect moment.