Thirty-five years ago, 20th Century Fox presented “Staircase,” the first Hollywood release where the focus was on a gay couple’s relationship. At a time when the depiction of homosexuals in the movies was limited to presenting gays as unstable and mentally ill deviants, “Staircase” was a giant step forward in concept.
In concept. In reality, “Staircase” was one of the most appalling exercises in homophobia ever put on film. Rather than offer a sympathetic or intelligent depiction of a gay relationship, the film rolled about in the worst possible stereotypes imaginable. Viewed today, the film is nearly unwatchable for its sheer badness.
Key to the problem with “Staircase” was casting Richard Burton and Rex Harrison as the gay couple. Back in 1969, few actors wanted to handle homosexual roles out of fear they would be perceived as being gay in real life. In fact, the cast of the groundbreaking drama “The Boys in the Band” complained for years that they were unable to snag quality roles because of their association with that memorable gay production.
However, Burton and Harrison had staggering reputations as rabid womanizers and both famously married at the time (Burton to Elizabeth Taylor and Harrison to Welsh actress Rachel Roberts), so neither man had to worry about being mistaken for a queer. But rather than play their characters as the virile men they were in their off-screen life, Burton and Harrison decided to mince it up and act like a pair of old sissies. Obviously the concept of a straight-acting gay was alien in 1969, so the actors altered their voices and mannerisms to suggest they were playing fussy old women. Compared to Burton and Harrison, the celebrated Fab Five on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” comes across like a squadron of Navy SEALs.
“Staircase” takes place in the West End of London. Burton and Harrison play Harry and Charlie, a gay couple who’ve been together for three decades. The men run a barbershop (clearly playing on the old stereotype of gays as hairdressers) and they live above their store. Harry’s invalid mother, who is bedridden from arthritis, lives with them.
The duo did not grow old together gracefully. Harry suffered from an alopecia attack which resulted in the loss of his hair. To cover his baldness, he wears a turban made of bandages over his head. Charlie, the nastier of the duo, incessantly berates Harry for his appearance and masculinity — although a quick glimpse in the mirror should remind Charlie that he’s no Steve Reeves.
Charlie’s life is degenerating into something of a mess. He is facing a court appearance on the charge of performing a drag act in public, but he has no money to pay for legal representation. His daughter from his pre-homo existence is coming for an unexpected visit, and he rudely asks Harry to leave their house and take his mother with him before his daughter arrives. Charlie’s aged mother resides in a nursing home and she has never forgiven him for his relation with Harry. When Charlie visits her to seek money for legal assistance, his mother brutally humiliates him.
Charlie further makes things at home worse by callously inviting a hunky young man home for a quick fling. Harry witnesses the arrival of younger stud and locks himself in the bathroom, where he faints. Charlie manages to break down the door and revive Harry, worried that his longtime companion had a heart attack or a stroke. Alas, it was just a blip in Harry’s blood pressure and he’s soon right as rain.
Try to imagine every possible gay stereotype, multiply it by five, and you’ll have some idea of what “Staircase” is like. The film is literally an endless skein of effeminate mannerisms, bitchy insults, immature and selfish behavior, and the chronic inability to offer a genuine romantic or affectionate emotion. At no time during the entire film do the male characters show any true signs of love to one another. There is a scene with the men in bed, but both are wearing loud pajamas and neither shows any signs of being capable of sexual arousal — the scene is clearly meant to ridicule the duo. It is hard to recall another film as epicene as this one.
Veteran director Stanley Donen helmed “Staircase,” based on Charles Dyer’s play (Dyer oddly named one of the characters after himself). Yet Donen clearly had no control over his stars. Burton and Harrison ran amok on camera, hamming in up with atomic fury, and their off-screen lives further ruled the film’s creation. Although “Staircase” took place in London, the production was based in Paris because Burton and Harrison wanted to circumvent the British tax laws regarding income earned outside of the UK. Having to recreate the West End of London in a Parisian studio drove up the film’s budget considerably.
A couple of unexpected artists were musically involved in “Staircase”: Dudley Moore, of all people, wrote the film’s score and Ray Charles performed the song “Life’s Staircase.” But even their contributions to the film couldn’t prevent it from repeatedly hitting sour notes.
“Staircase” was a complete disaster upon its release. Critics savaged the film with gusto and audiences stayed away in droves. Even the nascent gay rights movement, which took shape earlier in the year following the Stonewall riots in New York, refused to have anything to do with the movie.
Over the years, “Staircase” has virtually disappeared from sight. It was never released on home video and as of this writing there are no plans to see it on DVD. It is available for non-theatrical screenings, but I’m unaware of any gay film festival that recently presented it as part of its slate. Even at a time when there is a wealth of gay-related titles available for home viewing, “Staircase” remains elusive. Bootleg videos, however, are not difficult to find and the quality of the bootleg goodies is surprisingly solid.
“Staircase” is a landmark of sorts for addressing the subject of gay relationships. But the film is so putrid that only gay cinema completists are recommended to view it. Truly, this is one gay achievement which deserves to stay in the closet.
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