January 16, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

Thelma Houston, the disco diva who 20 years ago begged us not to leave her this way, stands — bedizened in silver sequins — on a narrow platform hovering 30 feet over a dance floor. Her lilac-lined eyes take in the set of 54, an upcoming film that revisits the scene of the infamous Manhattan nightclub Studio 54. As Houston looks down at the 100 or so bell-bottomed extras waiting for her performance, she clutches a microphone with her sparkly talons and closes her eyes. She forgets she’s on a Toronto soundstage and remembers Studio 54, Christmas Eve, 1979.

Halfway through an aching rendition of ”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” with the cameras rolling, Houston starts to weep.

”I began to think about all my friends who aren’t here anymore,” she says later, ducking disco balls to find a safe spot leaning against 54’s mirrored bar, ”and how that’s a direct result of all the freedom we had in the ’70s. That’s the price we paid.”

Houston’s feelings about the 1970s seem to be infectious. While the bell-bottoms-and-disco era has spawned mostly fond recollections during the past few years, a time in which T-shirt designers capitalized on smiley faces and the movies mined The Brady Bunch for camp laughs, Hollywood is now looking back darkly. And filmmakers too young to have experienced the sex, drugs, and partying that the ’70s had to offer are both wary of and fascinated by the pre-AIDS era of experimentation and permissiveness.

Following on the platform heels of last year’s Boogie Nights and The Ice Storm, which chronicled the postcoital malaise of the sexual revolution (and whose respective Golden Globe nominations have put both dramas in the Oscar race), no fewer than five films set in the disco days are on the way:

54, written and directed by Mark Christopher, 36, stars Ryan Phillippe (I Know What You Did Last Summer), Salma Hayek, Neve Campbell, and Mike Myers as the late Steve Rubell, the colorful impresario (who died from AIDS in 1989) of Studio 54, the sex-and-drugs hot spot that came to define the era. It’s slated for release this summer.

Velvet Goldmine, directed by Todd Haynes (Safe), 37, stars Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting) as a sexually ambiguous rocker. Miramax’s surreal foray into the glam-rock world is due this fall.

The Last Days of Disco, from director Whit Stillman (Barcelona), 45, sends an angst-filled group of recent college grads into the waning New York disco scene (technically, the early ’80s). The Castle Rock production is scheduled for a May release.

—A film from the 1991 biography Simply Halston, about the designer who died of AIDS-related cancer in 1990, will begin shooting in April. Rupert Everett is set to star in the film, cowritten and directed by Daniel Minahan (cowriter of I Shot Andy Warhol).

—A biopic about the formation of those seminal voices of the ’70s, the Village People, is currently being written for Columbia by Scott Alexander, 34, and Larry Karaszewski, 36.

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