‘Staircase’ Is Gay in a Melancholy Way

Unfairly cast aside as tasteless during its time for its depiction of homosexuality, Staircase is a serious film in need of a second critical appraisal.

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 wished “we just didn’t hate ourselves 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).

In today’s broader dramatic context, when we get into less of a snit over nelly-isms, it’s easier to recognize that these films are serious and specifically characterized. They’re also of a piece with the era’s “serious” dramas, especially in Britain after the squalid angry-young-man kitchen-sink phase, which bled into post-Tennessee Williams American drama like Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, also starring Burton. Even advertised larks, like Alfie and Georgy Girl and Morgan, are surprisingly grim, and as for John Schlesinger’s Petulia, please!

Consider: Donen’s previous film was Two For the Road, a bitter dissolution-of-a-marriage piece scripted by Frederic Raphael, and Aldrich’s was the venomous The Legend of Lylah Clare. Heterosexual relations were looking positively scary (sometimes courtesy of queer writers). So in the late ’60s, these pioneering films were saying to the public, “Look, we’re taking homosexuals as seriously as all the gloomy hetero sourpusses.” Sister George, for example, doesn’t blame its unapologetic heroine for the bleakness of her life, and instead shows her living in a strong, not-give-a-damn way and accepting the price in a bad world. It was progress, of a narrow kind, reflecting greater dramatic freedom.

When Roger Ebert (one of the critics who called the movie tasteless) and Gene Siskel devoted an episode of their TV show to homosexuality, Staircase was exhibited as an example of the bad old days, and they repeated Russo’s statement that such films could only be made if the actors were safely famous as hetero studs. Today, this assertion about Harrison and Burton should make us burst into laughter, especially since Elizabeth Taylor and various biographers have revealed that Burton was anguished with fear and self-hatred over his sexual identity. Revisiting this movie is at least as eye-opening as revisiting Rock Hudson in the Doris Day comedies or the Douglas Sirk melodramas. One cannot help but wonder at the interplaying layers of self-aware vs. oblivious ironies.

The bickering Staircasers run their own barber business and face a crisis as one of them is due for a court date for public lewdness (being arrested by an undercover vice cop) that may result in jail time, especially as homosexuality itself was against British law. Amid the insults and mannerisms, they make points about how the law treats them differently and, in the end, how they have only each other for support against a hostile world. Such “depressing” films are both of their time and in one sense ahead of it, because it would be safer to make them now, when teens are watching Glee.In Facing hostility and disappointment from both straight and queer critics, albeit for different reasons that strangely reinforced each other, Donen was brave to make the film when he did.

The on-demand disc from Fox Cinema Archives presents the letterboxed image within the central 4:3 area of the screen (as it used to be shown on Fox Movie Channel, which video mastering this presumably is), so that you must zoom in to see it across your 16:9 screen.

RATING 6 / 10
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