A still from Stanley Donen's 'Staircase featuring Richard Burton and Rex Harrison in bed
Image Credit: ‘Staircase,’ Twentieth Century Films

Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” In this week’s column, we revisit Staircase, and early gay comedy that hasn’t aged well—and was spoiled to begin with.

Director Stanley Donen is undoubtedly one of the most influential filmmakers to come out of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Although his name may not be the most recognizable one right away, his filmography includes an impressive number of all-time classics—it is almost unbelievable that a single man could conceive all of them, at least partially.

Just having helmed Singin’ in the Rain should be enough for any filmmaker to call it a day, but Donen also had on his resume the musical adaptations of On The Town (which, like Singin’, was also co-directed with Gene Kelly) and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, the collaborations with then-choreographer Bob Fosse The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees!, and the classic Audrey Hepburn vehicles Charade and Funny Face, to name just a handful. His resume is the stuff of dreams.

However, with almost three dozen films under his belt, not all of them were bound to become timeless classics. Many have fallen through the cracks of time. Some are worth revisiting (for example, the road trip romance Two For The Road, or the musical It’s Always Fair Weather). And others… well, others maybe are better hidden inside those cracks.

His 1969 film Staircase belongs in that latter category.

The Set-Up

This “comedy” (using that term in the broadest and most generous sense, with thick quotation marks around it) stars bonafide movie stars Rex Harrison and Richard Burton as Charlie and Harry, two gay barbers that have lived together for almost thirty years, and whose lives get upended by the arrival of a daughter, a mother that moves in, and a looming court date after one of them is caught having done drag.

The film is one hundred minutes of two of the most acclaimed actors of their generation prancing around in effeminate mannerisms, shouting quippy and mean-spirited remarks at each other in an attempt to…? Create a portrait of what straight people thought gay partnered life was like at the time? Barely humanize two characters that nevertheless come off as only monstrous towards each other? Make people grateful they are not them?

That question, the purpose of this movie to exist, remains a mystery throughout. Yes, it is one of the very few examples of a mainstream, studio-backed Hollywood film of its time that starred two men in a domestic partnership. Yes, it had some of the biggest talents behind and in front of the camera.

It is, in a way, a minor touchstone of queer representation. But maybe it is a touchstone that has mostly gotten lost in time for a reason.

Bitter Old Queens

A still from Stanley Donen's 'Staircase featuring Richard Burton and Rex Harrison in a bathroom
Image Credit: ‘Staircase,’ Twentieth Century Films

Charlie and Harry, although in a long-lasting marriage for all intents and purposes, are nothing but mean, hateful, and resentful of each other. They run a barber shop together, and clearly have built a routine (and one must assume some sort of affection) over time.

But watching the film, it’s perplexing to imagine how two people that clearly despise each other so much could have ever been in love. And it’s not a commentary on the loss of love over time, either. These two men are reduced to the age-old stereotype of the bitter queens—generators of clever one-liners with no humanity behind them.

Queer And Loathing

A still from Stanley Donen's 'Staircase featuring Richard Burton and Rex Harrison in a park
Image Credit: ‘Staircase,’ Twentieth Century Films

The barely-threaded plot of the movie sees Charlie learning that his daughter from a past marriage—who he barely knows—is coming to visit. Harry’s convalescent mother has moved in with them. And Charlie has gotten a court citation because it’s been found out that he performed in a drag act years ago, which sends him into a spiral of self-loathing so deep that The Velvet Rage would devote an entire chapter to it.

Watching this film brought to mind another landmark queer movie that would come out just a year after, William Friedkin’s The Boys In The Band. While that movie also depicts mean homosexuals dealing with self-loathing, shouting quips at each other, and dealing with society’s prejudices, there is a guttural truth to that text that still resonates today. The pain and humanity of those characters are at the core, while Staircase seems to roughly sketch what gays are supposed to act like from afar.

Relationship Troubles

A still from Stanley Donen's 'Staircase featuring Richard Burton and Rex Harrison walking down the street
Image Credit: ‘Staircase,’ Twentieth Century Films

But the most confounding thing about Staircase is how it fits inside Stanley Donen’s filmography. Donen (who co-wrote a lot of the projects he directed, including this one) was particularly good at creating characters with fleshed-out, complicated relationships—particularly partners (romantic or otherwise).

There was Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn dangerous magnetism in Charade; Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire’s alluring chemistry in Funny Face; Audrey Hepburn (once again!) and Albert Finney longing for their lost marriage in Two For The Road; Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor’s friendship in Singin’ In The Rain, or the camaraderie between the soldiers in On The Town and It’s Always Fair Weather.

His best movies are anchored by character dynamics: their history, emotional baggage, and little quirks that they share and discover.

All these are missing in Staircase.

A Sad Gay Story

A still from Stanley Donen's 'Staircase featuring Richard Burton and Rex Harrison in bed
Image Credit: ‘Staircase,’ Twentieth Century Films

One would think that someone that seemed to understand human relationships as strongly as Donen did in his other movies would have been able to make Charlie and Harry’s relationship nuanced, even as a comedy. But it’s just not there. Even as a reflection of the times, and steeped in stereotypes, this is a particularly short-minded depiction of gay men.

Staircase is a cinematic curiosity, and not in a good way. It is a bump in both the filmography of one of the most influential directors in Hollywood history, and in the canon of queer cinema, where its depiction of same-sex “love” as a doomed partnership filled with bitterness and resentment is one that we are still trying to rid ourselves of.

Staircase is not officially steaming online, but it may be found on YouTube and physical copies can be purchased through Amazon Prime.

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