Staircase (1969) Bring on the Queens C-

DIRECTOR: Stanley Donen
BOTTOM LINE: Richard Burton and Rex Harrison are Harry C. Leeds and Charles Dyer (anagrams of one another), an aging gay couple who own a barber shop in the East End of London. The shop is always empty, but that’s the least of their problems. Charles is about to go on trial for dressing as a woman in public. The movie is essentially a two-hander, adapted by director Stanley Donen from Charles Dyer’s play. Although it has been “opened up” to include the character’s mothers (Kathleen Nesbit as Harry’s bedridden mum and, in a horrific piece of overacting, Beatrix Lehmann as Charles’ mother from hell) and various passers-by, the film consists mainly of the two leads discussing their loving but often volatile past together and pondering their possible futures without each other. They have their tender moments, but they mostly bicker, and while the same could be said of the gay couple played by Hume Cronyn and John Randolph in “There Was a Crooked Man,” the two relationships are light years apart. You immediately fall in love with the two old queens in an Arizona prison circa 1883 and believe in their love for one another. Not so with this relationship. Harrison’s performance is all affectation and condescension. Burton does better. His character has alopecia, and he spends the entire movie wearing a turban, which is funny. He has the occasional moment. Unfortunately, the film is never really taken seriously by its director, a man who showed such a light touch throughout his career from “Singing in the Rain” to “Funny Face” to Charade.” That touch is missing here, and the souffle falls flat. What a pity!


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