When I learned that Rex Harrison and Richard Burton had co-starred as a gay couple in a Stanley Donen film (1969’s Staircase), no force on Earth could have kept me away from it. Many thanks be, say I, to the powers that dreamt up such an unlikely pair for the central couple of a queer picture! With those two in the leads, how could it possibly go wrong? To answer my own question: I suppose it would be a problem if the characters in question were depicted as stereotypical mean-spirited, bitchy old queens being filmically exploited, as Roger Ebert charged in his 1969 review, “as a sideshow attraction” for us to jeer at.
And tragically, such exploitation of gay characters for comedic purposes seemed to me the intent of the picture at the get-go. The movie opens and there’s Rex Harrison in his purple pants and there’s Richard Burton in some sort of head wrap (which we later learn he wears to hide his alopecia), and they’re hairdressers who prance around and constantly bitch at each other. And the prospect of the picture embracing respectful representations of gay characters any time over the next hour and a half is not looking so good. But if you stick with it, if you hear the movie out and if you ignore the implications of the campy score provided by Dudley Moore of all people, you’ll be surprised by how much the movie actually has to say about people like Harry (Burton) and Charlie (Harrison), if they ever existed.
Harry and Charlie live in a world that’s simply not sympathetic towards them. In spite of their obvious, long-term homosexual relationship, they are still expected to marry and to have children– something Charlie did twenty years earlier, but Harry has “suspiciously” not. When we meet the characters, Harry suffers from alopecia which is threatening to ruin his barbershop and Charlie is being put on trial for simply performing in drag in public (or so he says). Yet neither of them can help who they are– that they have alopecia or that they like the occasional bit of camp. So who could blame them for being bitchy? Moreover, why chastise Charles Dyer for writing a play-turned-screenplay in which we meet characters at their lowest point when there is no narrative without drama?
Sure, we could nitpick the thing to death for not being progressive enough, or for certain questionable stylistic choices, such as the jaunty theme from Moore for example, but this is honestly about as progressive a portrayal of gay men in cinema as you’re like to find in the 1960s. The characters may be stereotypically self-loathing and react to one another with almost constant scorn, but at least we’re given reasons for their behavior beyond “they’re gay.” In fact, retrieving my copy of Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet from the self just now, I find Russo himself making a similar argument for the legitimacy of the film’s portrayal of Harry and Charlie. For problematic and stereotypical though the characters may be, the film indeed powerfully depicts characters torn between their own identities and the roles placed upon them by society.
Yet, Russo also reads the film as a castigation of homosexuality itself, asserting that the film positions the characters’ homosexuality as the source of all their problems. Sure, I acknowledge the validity of such a reading, especially when one is trying to be critical of the text. However, I find the alternative reading of the film as a castigation of a society that prescribes often unworkable gender roles to people and thereby embitters them to be just as poignant and relevant as Russo’s take. But these messages persist in constant tension with one another throughout the film, and it’s honestly unclear whether the film is definitively chastising homosexuality or society as a whole. I therefore find it difficult to either praise or condemn the film. It also makes it impossible for me not to recommend the film, because it’s ultimately challenging in all the right ways. It forces us to ask difficult questions about ourselves and our relationships to others, and as such, it can’t be all that bad, can it?
Intrigued? Pissed off? Just have to see it for yourself? Well, lucky for you, Staircase is now available on MOD DVD from the Fox Cinema Archives. The presentation of the film is overall exceptional given that this is an MOD DVD. However, I do have one serious complaint about the release: the film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but it is perplexingly non-anamorphic! That means the 2.35:1 image will be floating there in the middle of your 16:9 screen, surrounded entirely by black. This forces you to blow the image up and it necessarily adversely effects the overall picture quality. It’s irksome to say the least, especially since I have a number of other MOD DVDs that are widescreen and anamorphic, so why it wasn’t done here is beyond me. But this is still the best version of Staircase available to us at the moment, for better or for worse.