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By John Bleasdale • January 29th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
20th Century Fox

Original release: August 20th, 1969
Running time: 96 minutes

Director: Stanley Donen
Writer: Charles Dyer
Composer: Dudley Moore

Cast: Rex Harrison, Richard Burton


January, 2013 and high powered Hollywood player Steven Soderburgh cannot get a low budget film distributed about a major 20th Century cultural icon starring two major Hollywood stars, Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, because the film in question – Behind The Candelabra – is considered too gay. Aids dramas are okay such as Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993), or tortured tragic love in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountains (2005) and gay best friends abound in rom-coms, but still a movie can be ‘too gay’ for the mainstream.

Which makes it all the more bizarre that a film like Staircase ever got made, but perhaps less surprising that it disappeared and is rarely ever seen. This is a tragedy because the film is fantastic. Rex Harrison and Richard Burton play respectively Charlie and Harry, two gentlemen barbers who live above their shop with Harry’s ailing mother. Harry suffers from alopecia and spends most of the movie wearing a bandage on his head to disguise his bald dome, whereas Charlie has luxuriant locks and a hankering for glamour, marred by the fact that he’s obviously aging, his acting career has ground to a halt with an advert for a casual sports coat and he has an impending court case for soliciting a policeman.

It’s like The Odd Couple but the subtext of that film has become pure text. Their bickering – sometimes hilarious and sometimes obviously hurtful and cruel – seems to have become their main outlet for sex. The world they live in is a dingy one of East End working class greyness, though the film was actually filmed in Paris to avoid tax where the stars were feted by and as royalty. In obvious and stark contrast to the production, Harry’s apartment and shop is recognisable as the kind of grey cramped nowhere seen already in such bleak comedies as Hancock, Steptoe And Son and, later, Rising Damp. Harry’s mother is a bed bound incontinent, crippled by arthritis. This is a dingy life, which has no illicit glamour, or exotic demimonde feel despite the drag queen intro. These are two middle aged men who feel abandoned by their youth, aging in an unfriendly when not downright hostile world. The fact that they somehow manage to retain their fighting spirit and wit is by the end of the film genuinely touching.


Burton and Harrison were last seen together in Cleopatra, the massive epic which almost ruined a studio and launched Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor onto the world as the first all-out celebrity couple. That Antony and Cesar should dump Cleo and shack up in an East End barber shop must have seemed like a joke at first. And yet both actors seem to be enjoying themselves enormously. Harrison’s preening ‘get her’ confidence, his constantly repeating himself two times, two times and his little pouts and minces are more obviously parodic but his character is the actor and so they would be. Burton, however, achieves genuine pathos, as he ponders a life spent caring for other and the tragic joke of being a barber who’s lost his hair. His worries about aging and his vanity are hilariously rendered with the line: ‘I’m wearing tight Italian trousers on the inside’. And yet for Burton to play this kind of character at the height of his career and to play him ‘straight’, to play him not as a grotesque, not as someone to giggle at, but someone who is funny and real is a testament to him as a man and an actor. It’s often said that Burton’s filmography does him a disservice, but this film deserves to be made available once more and celebrated as one of his finest performances.

There are some moments of pure slapstick – a slapping fight over a wig box – but the main joy of the film is the repartee, the flow of insults – ‘you’re head looks like Lady Godiva’s left tit’ – and the way Harry and Charlie’s mutual dependency and affection slip through in-between the spats, the regrets and the recriminations. This film features two wonderful actors playing at the top of their game, scripted brilliantly by the playwright who wrote the play from which it was adapted and directed by the man who made Singin’ In The Rain. And it deals with homosexuality without ever giving you the feeling that it is ‘dealing’ with homosexuality. It deserves to be rediscovered, watched for the first time and championed. Although that said, maybe it’s ‘too gay’ for the mainstream.


John Bleasdale

John Bleasdale

John Bleasdale is a writer based in Italy. He has published on films at various internet sites and his writing can be found, along with blog posts, collected at johnbleasdale.com.

He has also contributed chapters to the American Hollywood and American Independent volumes of the World Directory of Cinema: (Intellect), Terrence Malick: Films and Philosophy (Continuum) and World Film Locations: Venice (Intellect). You can also follow him on Twitter @drjonty.

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