Even today, it would be audacious for a studio to make a major motion picture tightly focussed on the existential angst and complicated history of an aging, insecure gay couple. Now imagine how bold it was back in 1969. Factor in lead performances by two of the biggest movie stars of the 20th century, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison—one of whom just so happened to be half of the most famous heterosexual couple this side of Antony and Cleopatra, whom they just so happened to play in the film that brought them together—direction by Singin’ In The Rain’s Stanley Donen, and a score by an actor with a sideline in music named Dudley Moore, who starred in Donen’s Bedazzled just two years earlier. It sounds like a film destined to be remembered, if not treasured.
Yet Staircase was doomed to become neither a cherished landmark for gay film nor an epic fiasco of Myra Breckinridge-level proportions. It was barely remembered at all, despite the film’s remarkable pedigree and bold subject matter. The film is finally being released on home video not by Criterion or Shout! Factory or some other loving curator of pop culture’s past, but by the MOD wing of Fox, which has released the film with no special features and a terse, just-the-facts summary: “Based on Charles Dyer’s Broadway play about a gay couple, Staircase stars Rex Harrison and Richard Burton as a pair of aging hairdressers. Directed by Stanley Donen, with original music provided by Dudley Moore.” That’s it.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see why the film failed critically and commercially at the time of its release and has been more or less forgotten since. Remove the movie stars, daring subject matter, and the famous director and composer, and all that’s left is an exceedingly talky, stagebound piece about two bitter, aging men sniping at each other for 96 leisurely paced minutes.
Donen tried to open up the two-person play by bringing additional characters into the mix, like the protagonists’ mothers. He also included some weird interludes, like heterosexual sex scenes for the protagonists to gawk at—because apparently even a film about aging homosexuals benefited from female nudity in 1969—but the result feels less like a film adaptation than a recorded play.
Burton and Harrison’s pair of hairdressers are at a personal and professional crossroads in London in the late 1960s. Harrison plays Charles Dyer (not coincidentally the name of the author of the play and screenplay), a failed actor who masks his bitterness and disappointment over a life chockablock with failure behind a facade of eviscerating wit. Burton plays Harry Leeds (an anagram of Dyer’s name as well), the subject of Dyer’s vicious barbs as well as his life partner and soulmate. The film’s thin plot finds Dyer anxious about an upcoming visit from a wife and daughter he has not seen in 20 years, and despondent over having to appear in court over charges of soliciting a police officer. But mostly, Dyer and Leeds shadow-box a past filled with sadness and regret and a terrifyingly uncertain future, as they talk and talk and talk and then talk some more.
Though he veers close to the regressive archetype of the tragic queen luxuriating in self-hatred, Burton lends his character a poignant vulnerability rooted in both his emotional dependence on Charles (who is just as dependent upon him, but far less liable to admit it) and his raging insecurity over his looks and age. Harry spends much of the film with his head wrapped in bandages to hide his alopecia, a counter-productive act of vanity that has a huge emotional payoff in the reveal of his bald, sickly looking scalp. Charles often treats his long-suffering lover and caretaker with astonishing cruelty and viciousness, using him as a scapegoat for all of his own frustrations. But there’s an underlying tenderness to their relationship that makes the nastiness and cruelty palatable, yet never quite as entertaining or bitterly funny as the film would like to imagine.
The tonal shifts between acidic comedy and maudlin melodrama can be similarly jarring, but Harrison and Burton give the central relationship a lived-in quality and a gentleness that can be devastating in the film’s rare but welcome quiet moments. Like Robert Aldrich’s similarly bold, unsentimental 1968 show-business melodrama The Killing Of Sister George—another British film adaptation of a play directed an American filmmaker around the same the time—Staircase respects the gay relationship at its core enough to depict it in all of its frustrating complexity and frequent ugliness.