Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Staircase (1969)

Gosh, that was bleak. Caustically bleak.

Staircase is also a film (based on a play by Charles Dyer) very much of its time. I see it comes in for some criticism now, complaints of both the alleged stereotypical characterisation of an ageing gay couple and of Burton and Harrison's alleged stereotypical performances. 

Personally, I think these criticisms are slightly unfair coming as they do from a viewpoint of today's times and culture. I imagine being homosexual in the late 60s was completely different. I'm not about to go toe to toe with these criticisms as I'm heterosexual and I see quite a few online seem to come from actual homosexuals, but I can say that Burton and Harrison did very much remind me of my grandfather's cousin and his partner who I remember from my childhood in the late 80s as being flamboyantly camp with a defined masculine and feminine role in their relationship, which they had had since the 1940s. 

Of the pair it was Burton who impressed me the most, as indeed he often does. I'd never have guessed he could play such a distinctly femme, vulnerable and tragic role. His mannerisms are spot on and consistent, whereas Harrison's seems less consistent; at times he seems to be fully embracing the stereotype and at others he just seems to be Rex Harrison. It was purported that he despised the film and such disdain for the material may explain why his performance isn't as heartfelt as Burton's. That's not to say Harrison isn't bad, far from it, and it can't help that of the pair his character is the most unlikeable and outright cruel and bitchy.

There's is a very interesting relationship, with Harrison outwardly more liberated, less concerned and less needy, indeed he even brings a blonde rent boy home and flaunts him in front of Burton (though does not do anything with the boy, who I must add was played by Stephen 'Blakey from On The Buses' Lewis who even then couldn't convince as a youth!) though we know instantly he is just as linked to Burton as Burton is to him. Whilst Burton makes no bones about how his life is one hundred per cent devoted to Harrison, despite his behaviour, and his ailing ancient mother who lives with them.

The film is set in London but I believe the majority of it was filmed in France for budgetary reasons, lending it an odd air to the proceedings in much the same way as Deep End's German locations doubling for a similar shoddy area of London did. It was directed by Stanley Donen who does little to open up the material from its stage trappings to work as a distinctive film in its own right. Donen's star of Bedazzled, the great Dudley Moore provides the soundtrack, which has a few typically groovy Dudley Moore Trio flourishes, but in the main the music stays quite sombre and even unsettling as befits the gloomy bitter nature of the piece.

Lastly, the drag act pair opening the film with a two minute song was interminable and rather pointless for me.  I didn't feel it added anything to the movie or set the tone or pace, so I can't quite see why it was there. But then I've never enjoyed drag acts so maybe it's more of an issue for me personally, I don't know.

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