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The Forgotten: Staircase to Purgatory

David Cairns
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"I should rub-a-dub!"
The late work of Stanley Donen presents difficulties. The Little Prince (1973) strikes me as a kind of masterpiece, just not a very good one. As a children's film, it's wasted on children. As an adults' film, it's frustratingly childlike. But beautiful. Perhaps Lucky Lady (1975) has some interest as a meeting of old and new Hollywood (American Graffiti writers Huyck and Katz provide the skeleton, Liza Minnelli, Gene Hackman and Burt Reynolds add flesh: yet the cadaver does not rise from the slab), and Movie Movie (1978), the musical comedy equivalent of Grindhouse, has its sympathisers, but I've yet to meet a wholehearted fan of Saturn 3 (Martin Amis writes sci-fi; Kirk Douglas, aged 63, takes his clothes off; Farah Fawcett keeps hers' on) or Blame it on Rio, a 1985 sex farce with Michael Caine.
If that list of the damned and the damp gives you a strange, queasy feeling (this filmmaker, partnered with Gene Kelly, once gave us Singin' in the Rain!), hang onto your hairpiece because things are about to get even more uncomfortable.
In 1969, Donen was just coming off a relatively successful run of disparate but interesting films, which saw him working with British and European talent, in British and European settings, with America money. The sixties were a great time for this kind of cross-fertilisation. Hollywood cinema might appear moribund, but a lot of the more savvy US auteurs were reinvigorating their approach by absorbing the influences of the Nouvelle Vague and the British new wave, among other flavours. Donen had found some gifted technicians in the UK - Christopher Challis, who shot all the later Powell & Pressburger films, came on board for Arabesque, Two for the Road, and Bedazzled, as did James Bond titles designer Maurice Binder. Although I find that middle film somewhat nauseating, all three movies used interesting UK performers and experimented stylistically in a way that was certainly fashionable at the time, but rarely done with such grace and panache.
Then came Staircase, a film maudit if ever there was one.
"I'm still beautiful inside. I'm wearing tight Italian trousers inside, Charlie."
In adapting his theatrical two-hander, original author Charles Dyer has "opened it out," like a soothsayer laying bare the entrails in search of a vision, but killing the beast in the process. The original scenes are fragmented, with speeches continuing across scene transitions to try and hold the thing together by sheer verbiage. It's a rather discredited approach nowadays, since it sacrifices Aristotelian unity in search of mere sensation: the opportunity to get out the house and walk about a bit. And when the dialogue is as rich and florid and curlicued and envenomed as Dyer's, exposing the words to natural light is a risky undertaking.
But none of this need have been exactly fatal. What's inevitably fatal is the casting. Dyer's story tells of a middle-aged gay couple in London. Charlie is an out-of-work actor, bitchy and extrovert. Harold, his partner, has given him a home and a job in his barber shop. Harold suffers from alopecia, so he permanently wears bandages on his head. He's insecure and put-upon, but also required to give moral support to Charlie, who's dreading a summons to appear before the magistrate on a trumped-up charge of "behaving in a manner liable to cause a serious breach of the peace," in this case dragging up in a bar and sitting on another man's lap.
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"Another goose from my ever-loving mate. It's like living on a vampire's pogo stick."
To play these two characters, gay stereotypes to be sure, but tricked out with a number of individual and colourful character traits, Donen has selected two of the most obviously and notoriously heterosexual actors, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton. Despite "Sexy" Rexy's ladykiller reputation (women were always literally assassinating themselves over him), I hadn't really noticed how intensely, inescapably butch he is, until I saw him attempting to play fey. True, he's English, posh, suave and a skilled light comedian, but he's in no way light on his feet. Burton of course is an absurdity, his casting perhaps only a gag to allow for the advertising tagline, "Can this marriage last?" over a still of the two men in bed together. (Crass, perhaps, but preferable to the other piece of copy, the simple, plaintively evocative "Whoops!") It's as if Donen had decided to film the Martin Luther King story with a cast of white actors smeared with burnt cork.
The effect is to turn a parody (Dyer's beautifully overwritten cross-talk) of a parody (the camp mannerisms of real-life gay men, a stylised version of a stereotype, a kind of uniform, private language and mating dance all in one) into a rather clueless parody of a parody of a parody. It's one parody too many.
As if to twist the knife, Donen extracts the action from its London setting and films the whole thing in France, on a bustling recreation of a London street that smacks of Oliver! When the boys go for a walk in the park, the dappled lighting evokes Auguste Renoir and the cavorting "Brits" smack of Seurat. Some kind of inescapable Gallic miasma intrudes whenever the door is opened.
"Oh, blood, bowels and bestiality!"
What can be done? Well, Burton and Harrison are great actors and comics (Burton is severely underrated in this regard), so the play, staked to death at birth, sometimes shows signs of galvanic response. Unbelievable as homosexuals, the two men somehow manage to suggest some kind of couple, and their pain at aging, their fear of being alone, their egotism and possessiveness, are evoked, sometimes movingly. If the actors can't convincingly evoke the characters, they can at least say the lines with all the skill that innate talent and years of treading the boards supplies. Burton actually seems to do better at times: of course, he has to try harder, as there's absolutely nothing in his makeup to equip him to play this part. He's not even a Londoner, but he adopts a kind of Dagenham dialect presumably copied from the film's composer, Dudley Moore (carrying on from his brilliant work on Bedazzled!, but like the actors, he hasn't got a camp bone in his diminutive body).
The good work is hampered by Donen's lethal injections of grotesquerie and sentiment. Closeups of a knife skinning a dead chicken's neck, Burton feeding his senile and disabled mother (Cathleen Nesbitt) with a massive spoon smeared all over with matter, seem to suggest that Donen views the whole story as an opportunity to wallow in awfulness, vice and degradation. When he shakes this off, he has the other trap to fall into, and leaps in with both feet, and so we see Rex and Richard gazing mopishly through a rainy window at a straight couple making love in the park: exiles from the Elysian Fields of heterosexuality. Of course, the play is a product of a time when self-loathing and self-pity were, to some, appropriate reactions to the "curse" of same-sex preference. But there's no need to rub it in.
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"Did you ever see that nature programme on television where they showed you moving pictures of the whole reproductive system of a ferret?"
Incomprehensibly, on some kind of mangled level, the film starts to actually work. Donen and Challis are still a great team when it comes to mise-en-scene (making you wish they'd kept more of the play as a play) and the writing and playing slowly cut through the setting and casting. Beatrix Lehmann turns up as Rex's mum, incarcerated in a gothically overdone old folk's home, part Charenton, part Tower of London. Pursuing her despised son through the crumbling corridors like a vengeful death camp zombie, she screams, "Put Satan behind you!" "I am doing!" Harrison yelps back as he hot-foots it out of there. (Oddly, both protagonists' mums are culled from the cast of The Passing of the Third Floor Back.)
In the film's best moment, as Charlie/Rex's trial looms, Harold suffers a fainting spell and Charlie prays he'll be OK. Harold, wearing his jet-black wig for the first time, is appalled by the new, saintly Charlie, and urges him to return to his acerbic, brutally witty self. He simply must insult the wig. "Give me one of your cruel thrusts." Hesitantly, Charlie obliges, asking where he's going to keep it at night, in a cage? Harold grins, basking in the abuse. He urges Charlie to continue. "Well...it looks as though you'd spat ink on a hot boiled egg." Harold is mortally offended and storms off.
Here, in this bizarre but very human scene, the film does actually reach us, and attains a balance of humour, wickedness, the grotesque and cruel and tender.
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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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