Judge Patrick Naugle wishes he would have taken the elevator.
"Whoops!"—The single most accurate tagline every for a movie
Charles Dyer (Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady) and Harry Leeds (Richard Burton, Cleopatra) are two hairdressers living in a London flat and finding old age a difficult mistress to deal with. The two men care for their aging mothers—and each other—but their twenty years as lovers have put a strain on their already shaky relationship. In the course of a few days Charles and Harry will learn much about themselves, as well as what it means to move up the Staircase of life hand-in-hand.
I had no idea what most of the characters were saying in Stanley Donen's 1969 comedic drama Staircase. Aside of a poorly recorded soundtrack (or at least poorly transferred to DVD), stars Richard Burton (whose head is wrapped in a towel most of the movie, making him look like a mummy) and Rex Harrison mumble their way through their roles with effeminate English accents, making it the equivalent of trying to decipher brail without using your fingers. It sort of sucks the fun out of a movie when you have to strain to clarify what the characters are talking about.
What I did understand, I didn't like. Staircase may be one of the most curdling, sour movies about homosexuality ever made, and I'm including Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s Boat Trip in that list. The story is about two gay aging hairdressers in London, who spend most of their time acting out every homosexual stereotype you can think of. Worse yet, the film rarely moves away from these two characters, sticking with them as they bicker, reminisce, lean over park railings, and ride the bus. They complain about everything from their hairstyles to their partnership to the fact that they've heard each other's stories "a thousand times." Staircase has all the entertainment value of witnessing your parents arguing about the electric bill, only without the comforting familiarity.
Staircase is based on a stage play of the same name by author Charles Dyer, which was originally performed by Paul Scofield and Patrick McGee in 1966 and opened on Broadway (with Tony nominations) in 1968. I make note of this because, clearly, this stage show had some value at some point—until Donen, Harrison, and Burton got their sweaty paws on it. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at the film's shoot; rumor has it Richard Burton was so drunk he had to use cue cards for half his lines. It's too bad one of those cards didn't read, "You're in the wrong movie."
When Staircase was released during the Christmas season of 1969, there were hopes by Fox that it would be so embraced by audiences that half a dozen Oscar nods were a sure thing. The film was critically panned (Roger Ebert slapped it with one star) and floundered at the box office. It's no wonder why: Staircase is a dreary, sluggish mess of a movie that takes two monumental talents—Harrison and Burton—and reduces them to ugly clichés that even Paul Lynde would cringe at. Both actors are so bad at mimicking a gay character you'd think they were intentionally trying to parody the gay lifestyle, annoying lisps and all.
Staircase is presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen. It's hard to believe that in 2013 major studios are still putting out transfers that aren't enhanced for widescreen TVs, considering the majority of households now own them. Considering Staircase has never been available on a digital format before, fans should just be happy it's on DVD. Although this transfer is sub par, the image looks mostly good with solid colors and black levels. The soundtrack is a whole other matter as it's presented in a rather terrible Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono mix. The accents—combined with the poor sound quality—make the film hard to understand for American audiences. Although I didn't like Staircase, I'm sure there is someone out there who does, and for that reason the film deserved a better audio/video presentation than this.
Not surprisingly, there isn't a single extra feature to be found on this first ever edition of Staircase.
There have been many movies made that have offered honest, dramatic, or funny portrayals of those in the gay community; Milk comes to mind, as does The Birdcage, and a dozen others. All are worth far more of your time than Staircase.
One to avoid, unless you like a good train wreck.
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