Time has not only been kind to Staircase; it’s also been illuminating. Directed by Stanely Donen and scripted by Charles Dyer from his play, the entire drama consists of Richard Burton and Rex Harrison playing an old gay couple sniping at each other in elaborately bitchy dialogue—which pretty much describes the currently acclaimed Britcom Vicious with Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi.
In 1969, mainstream critics found the movie tasteless. In the post-Stonewall era, gay activists like Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet found it embarrassing because, in the context of just about zero depictions of homosexuality in cinema apart from cross-dressing psychos and suicidal sissies, the movie relies on the stereotype of the effeminate, limp-wristed, campy, mother-dominated queen instead of a politically preferred image of butch “mainstream” types. It was the era when one character in the supposedly progressive and groundbreaking The Boys in the Band asked “Why do we hate each other so much?” Films like Staircase and Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George were bleak instead of validating, and activists didn’t want that any more than they wanted movies about drag queens (even though there really were drag queens at Stonewall).