Friday, March 30, 2007

cinema obscura: Stanley Donen's "Staircase" (1969)

Given its pedigree and subject matter, it's a bit of a surprise that "Staircase" has all but disappeared. Never a truly great movie, it is exactly what you'd think - a filmed play, adapted from the stage by the playwright, Charles Dyer, himself. On stage, it starred Eli Wallach and Milo O'Shea as a long-time, aging gay couple, now given to bickering endlessly and usually about day-to-day minutia - and, presumably, it was autobiographical, as one of the two main characters is named ... Charles Dyer.

For the occasion of making it into a movie, 20th Century-Fox went all out, reuniting its "Cleopatra" stars - Richard Burton and newly-minted Oscar winner Rex Harrison - to play the couple and putting them in the hands of no less than Stanley Donen, a filmmaker who moved comfortably from musicals ("The Pajama Game") to romantic comedies ("Indiscreet") to observant social dramas ("Two for the Road"), always locating elegance and sophistication in his varied material.

Labeled an "important movie" (read: Oscar bait), "Staircase" was given an entitled Christmas '69 slot but, greeted by clearly disappointed critics, it faded quickly and was no longer remembered when the 1970 Oscarcast rolled around.

Part of the film's problem, as I remember it, is that it was in conflict with itself - an essentially small "kitchen sink" piece, mixing comedy with the requisite dreariness of British theater of the time, done up in wide screen and color and generally fit for Radio City Music Hall.

Charles Dyer and Harry Leeds (played by Harrison and Burton, respectively) have been a couple for two decades, living in London's West End and working as hairdressers at Chez Harry, Harry's establishment. Each man is still attached to his mother - Cathless Nesbitt as Burton's mother and Beatric Lehmann as Charlie's mom - a matter that interfers with an already troubled, flailing relatinship.

Harrison and Burton both play stereotypes here, with Charlie representing gay flamboyance and cynicism and Harry behaving as his disapproving auntie.

The film has its moments, thanks to the director and his stars who transform the material into something more universal, addressing the everyday evasions and deceptions that define most of our lives. Had the material been kept small, as it was conceived to be, perhaps it would still be remembered today for its modest honesty and it's genuine warmth and empathy for the human condition, instead of not being remembered at all.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Two posters for Fox's "Staircase")

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Sharon Yaeger said...

I always thought of "Staircase" as a gay "Virginia Woolf" and thought it was neat that Burton appeared in both. You're right, though, this film is missing in action. I don't think I recall it ever being on video.

Daryl Chin said...

"Staircase" alert! TCM will be showing "Staircase" in June as part of their focus on gays in Hollywood cinema series. (Other movies include "The Fox", "The Boys in the Band", "Advise and Consent", as well as a number of pre-code rarities.)

joe baltake said...

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