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Hollywood went slumming into the gay demimonde of London with the 1969 film Staircase. The result was a fascinating mess. Producer-director Stanley Donen had started out to make a small film about the human need for relationships in even the most desperate times. With the casting of Richard Burton and Rex Harrison as aging gay lovers, however, it turned into the kind of Hollywood tribute to "the little people" that inevitably comes off phony. There was too much talent involved for the film not to display moments of insight, but as a whole, the picture left audience members, like New York Post reviewer Archer Winston, wondering just who was the intended audience for it.
Charles Dyer was a former vaudeville comic who had achieved some success in the early '60s for writing Rattle of a Simple Man, a play about a shy soccer fan who falls in love with a London prostitute. When Staircase was produced at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London in 1966, many critics felt he had achieved a major breakthrough. Critics praised the play's sense of confinement as the two men traded barbs through one long night in the barber shop where they both worked. They also noted that Dyer had named one character, a part-time actor about to go on trial for propositioning a police officer, after himself, while the other's name, Harry C. Leeds, was almost an anagram for the playwright's. Dyer's mordant wit was compared to Edward Albee's (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) while audiences warmed to the sense of humanity found beneath the characters' insults.
Donen felt the same way after seeing the original London production starring Paul Scofield and Patrick Magee. Not only did he go after the film rights, but also he hired Dyer to do the adaptation himself. With the decline in film censorship, Hollywood was opening up to films about homosexuality. Whereas previous literary properties with gay characters had been avoided or "straightened out" by the big studios, by the late '60s such prominent works as D.H. Lawrence's novella "The Fox," Carson McCullers' "Reflections in a Golden Eye" and John Herbert's play Fortune and Men's Eyes were all brought to the screen with a certain degree of faithfulness. In that spirit, 20th-Century-Fox agreed to take on the film version of Staircase.
First, however, the play had been optioned for a Broadway run. When it opened in New York in 1968 it drew mostly positive reviews but closed within two months. In his book The Season, playwright William Goldman suggested one reason for this. He had been appalled that all of the key creative biographies in the program - for actors Eli Wallach and Milo O'Shea, director Barry Morse and the playwright - had gone to great lengths to make it clear that all involved with the production were straight. Moreover, he found that attitude reflected in the production, which he said treated " a homosexual play as if it were [heterosexual romantic comedy] Mary, Mary" (Goldman, The Season, 1969). The fate of the New York production should have been a warning.
At first, however, Donen seemed to understand what Staircase needed. Although he and Dyer opened the script up to show more of the East End London area in which the characters lived and expanded the action to cover 10 days, he felt that it still captured the humanity of the original production. To maintain that, he offered Paul Scofield, who had just won the Oscar® for Best Actor for A Man for All Seasons (1966), the chance to re-create his role on film. Scofield declined, however, feeling that he could not do the role justice without the chance to interact with a live audience.
By this point, Donen had already interested 20th Century-Fox in financing the film. When he called Richard Zanuck about his casting problems, the executive asked who else could star in the film. Half joking, Donen suggested Rex Harrison and Richard Burton. Only Zanuck didn't think it was a joke and told him to send them the script. Harrison, who by all accounts was rather homophobic off-screen, agonized over whether or not to accept the role. He finally gave in at the promise of $1 million and a percentage of the box office and the thought of re-teaming with Richard Burton, his co-star in Fox's Cleopatra (1963). Later each would say he signed when the other said "I will if you will." Much of the publicity surrounding their casting focused on their supposedly unimpeachable reputations as heterosexuals (some biographers have suggested Burton may have had some affairs with men, and he himself stated he had one gay encounter while in the military).
With two expensive stars (Burton's fee was $1.25 million) as headliners, Staircase was no longer an intimate little drama. Moreover, each actor was promised a lavish living allowance. And because each was fighting Great Britain's tax laws, they insisted that the film be shot in Paris. Adding to the expense for Fox, their current film with Burton's wife, Elizabeth Taylor, also had to be shot in Paris, so the couple could be together. So, while Donen and his crew were creating duplicates of London streets along the Seine for Staircase, director George Stevens and his crew were busy building Las Vegas for The Only Game in Town (1970).
The presence of such major stars, particularly Burton, brought an air of the circus to the set. Both Fox productions were frequently visited by members of international society, and Burton, in particular, got caught up in a whirl of parties. According to Donen's memoirs, Burton had difficulty remembering his lines, forcing the director to shoot his scenes in short pieces and have cue cards hidden inconspicuously on the set. When the director begged him to get one particular scene, in which Burton had a one-page monologue, memorized over the weekend, Burton showed up on the set claiming to have spent the weekend on it. He then delivered his lines perfectly...for the wrong scene.
Through it all, however, Zanuck kept cabling that each day's rushes were sheer genius. He was convinced the film was going to be a huge hit and garner Academy Awards® for all involved. In retrospect, Donen realized that they were expecting a very different picture from the one he had planned. They thought Staircase would be a light comedy with the actors spoofing their gay roles. The press seemed to share the studio's approach. During a press junket to the set, reporters repeatedly asked the actors how two actors famous for their love affairs with women could so easily play homosexuals. One even asked Burton how he was going to disguise his justly famed stage voice to play a gay man. The actor later asked columnist Liz Smith, "Are they even vaguely aware that some of the greatest voices in the theatre belong to homosexuals?" (Quoted in Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet, 1981).
When Fox got the finished film, they continued to treat it as a camp joke. The advertising campaign featured two tag lines. Over a shot of the stars in bed, the posters asked, "Can this marriage last?" Another showed Burton and Harrison doing a dance step under the word "Whoops!" Still convinced they had a winner on their hands, Fox rushed Staircase into a Christmas release, only to be met with some of the worst reviews of the year. The New York Times dismissed it as "essentially a stunt movie," while Roger Ebert called it "an unpleasant exercise in bad taste...[Donen] gives us no warmth, humor or even the dregs of understanding. He exploits the improbable team of Rex Harrison and Richard Burton as a sideshow attraction." As a result, the film lost most of its investment. The gay audience that might have supported a more modestly budgeted production was turned off by the suggestion that the stars were simply camping it up. Fox responded by completely ignoring the film after it opened.
In fairness to Donen, there are elements in Staircase that work very well. The color palette he developed with cinematographer Christopher Challis created a vivid sense of the film's setting, combining underlit shots of the aging neighborhood with stabs of color to reflect the life still going on there. Dudley Moore's sparse score includes clever uses of hymn tunes, from a snatch of "All Things Bright and Beautiful," with its final line, "The Lord God made them all," to a Salvation Army Band's off-key rendition of "Yes, Jesus Loves Me." And stage veterans Cathleen Nesbitt and Beatrix Lehmann provided strong, upsetting portraits of the leading characters' mothers (some critics claimed they stole the show). Even though the stars seem more often to be playing caricatures than human beings, they each have memorable moments, particularly when they come to some kind of understanding at the end. Despite the trouble he had remembering his lines, Burton in particular manages to go beyond the suggestion of stunt casting at times to create touching moments of humanity. But they were hardly enough to save a film that now lives on primarily as an example of how not to treat homosexuality on screen.
Producer/Director: Stanley Donen
Screenplay: Charles Dyer, based on his play
Cinematography: Christopher Challis, Philippe Brun
Art Direction: Willy Holt
Music: Dudley Moore
Principal Cast: Richard Burton (Harry Leeds), Rex Harrison (Charlie Dyer), Cathleen Nesbitt (Harry's Mother), Beatrix Lehmann (Charlie's Mother), Stephen Lewis (Jack), Gordon Heath (Postman), Pat Heywood (Nurse). C-96m. Letterboxed.
by Frank Miller