(Editor’s Corner is where Eric talks about overlooked gems, film history, or whatever he wants to talk about because he’s the boss and no one can stop him.)
Have you ever seen the movie where King Arthur and Henry Higgins (or, if you prefer, Mark Antony and Julius Caesar) play a bickering but affectionate old gay couple? Probably not. Hardly anyone saw it in 1969, either, despite Richard Burton and Rex Harrison being two of the decade’s most acclaimed actors and the director, Stanley Donen, being responsible for such beloved hits as On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, Charade, and Bedazzled. A critical and commercial failure, Staircase isn’t streaming anywhere and has never been in regular rotation on any cable channel, not even the ones like TBS that will show literally anything.
But it’ll be on TCM this week for Pride Month, and watching it now is like discovering a forgotten piece of candy in an old coat pocket. A little linty, maybe, but still a tasty surprise. Why didn’t more people eat this?? Oh, right. 1969.
Hollywood grew brazen in the latter half of the ’60s as hit films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate established new boundaries for onscreen violence and sex. But homosexuality was still in the shadows, seldom addressed at all, let alone as the central focus of a Hollywood film. And to play the subject for laughs? When Staircase came around, people didn’t know what to do. The film has no sex, nudity, violence, or major profanity, yet was slapped with an R rating. Much of the publicity around it, as for the 1968 Broadway production of the play it was based on, was preoccupied with assuring people that the participants were heterosexual. Donen was earnest about making a good, respectful movie, and his two stars took it fairly seriously (considering they were mostly doing it for the paycheck and the chance to work together again after Cleopatra), but the studio and the marketing team seemed to be tittering nervously throughout the process.
The movie, adapted by the playwright, Charles Dyer, concerns an aging pair of London hairstylists, sharp-tongued former actor Charlie (Harrison) and neurotic Harry (Burton), as they prepare for two upcoming events: the arrival of Charlie’s 20-year-old daughter from a previous marriage (he describes the honeymoon as a “holocaust”), and Charlie’s legal trial for public indecency (the details are vague). But the movie isn’t about their lives being disrupted — it ends before either of the awaited events happens — so much as it’s about the two discussing, reminiscing, and arguing about the past and the future, speaking in elaborate grammatical constructions (they are proper English queens) and employing much self-aimed caustic humor.
Harry is deeply anxious about getting older, his bald head swaddled in bandages to cover his new hair plugs. His ancient, demented, bedridden mother (Cathleen Nesbit, born 1888) lives upstairs, occasionally asking Harry when he’s going to settle down and get married. (Their ages aren’t given, but Burton was 44 at the time, Harrison 61.) Charlie’s own mother lives in a retirement home nearby (“It’s like a roost of vampires”) and only recognizes her son long enough to yell “Sodomite!” at him.
That word, plus one use each of “poof” and “homosexual” (pronounced “hommo-sexual”), are the only terms used to describe Charlie and Harry. There’s no missing that they’re gay, obviously, but there aren’t many overt verbal mentions of it, no references to any specific acts, no physical affection more intimate than a hug. Today we would criticize the film for straightwashing them like a common Bohemian Rhapsody. Yet we also see them in bed together, fully clothed in suburban dad pajamas, at a time when even straight movie couples had only recently stopped sleeping in separate beds. You get the feeling the sight of Burton and Harrison under the covers — featured on the poster under the tagline “Can this marriage last?” — was supposed to be funny in itself, a parody of heteronormativity.
That’s certainly how critics saw it. One thing that worked against the film 50 years ago that isn’t a factor today is the casting of famous straight actors as gays. We’re used to it now; in the last 10-15 years the attitude has shifted from “He’s so brave to play a gay character! It might hurt his career!” to “So what?” But in 1969, people could not get over it.
Roger Ebert said Donen “exploits the improbable team of Rex Harrison and Richard Burton as a sideshow attraction. We’re not asked to watch a movie about homosexuals, but a movie about Harrison and Burton playing homosexuals.” Charles Champlin (mind the “m”) said essentially the same thing in the Los Angeles Times (dated Sept. 26, 1969): “We cannot will ourselves to forget that these are Harrison and Burton playing at being homosexuals…. Even if [the performances] are good (as they are)… we still look at the craft and not into the tortured soul.” Vincent Canby echoed it in The New York Times: “[The characters] are exploited as freaks, and Staircase … is clearly something of a casting stunt.” (The film was perhaps unlikely to get a fair shake from Canby anyway, who wrote in the same review that “like homosexuality, which confuses one love for another, the film is full of grotesque substitutes.”)
But in 2019, when we are many decades removed from Harrison and Burton’s careers and more comfortable in general watching movies about gay people — and, not insignificantly, have encountered more openly gay people in real life — none of that is a problem. Harrison’s flouncy behavior, which seemed to some like cruel parody then, feels more familiar now. He’s a somewhat campy character, given to silly catchphrases and unwarranted cattiness — but so are a lot of people I could name from my own circle of acquaintances. He’s considerably less flamboyant than anyone in, say, The Birdcage, and at least his catchphrases aren’t all from RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The film was released two months after the Stonewall Riots, when gay rights were starting to be a progressive cause. Some of the contemporary reviews (probably not Canby’s) might have been negative out of a surfeit of compassion: critics who aren’t part of the depicted group concerned that it will be offensive to those who are. I remember some L.A. and New York critics panning Napoleon Dynamite for similar reasons, feeling it mocked Middle America, while Middle America said: Nope, this is pretty accurate. I haven’t been able to find any reactions to Staircase from gay commentators in 1969, but I suspect they’d have had the same reaction: exaggerated for laughs, and too melodramatic at times, but overall pretty recognizable.
How to watch it: Turner Classic Movies will show it on Tuesday, June 18, and have it on the TCM app for a week after that. It’s also on DVD.