Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Landlord

You rarely see movies like 1970's THE LANDLORD anymore.  Even in that decade, with so many ground-(and taboo-) breaking films gracing theater screens, Hal Ashby's directorial debut was an unusually candid and honest social drama.  A real taking to task of cultural hypocrisy. Strangely enough, it disappeared from consciousness very soon after its limited release.  To this day, the film is rarely screened or discussed.  It is all but lost among the director's other, far more well known works like COMING HOME and BEING THERE. But THE LANDLORD should not be missed; it contains some of Ashby's most masterful, unobtrusive direction.

Beau Bridges is Elgar Enders, a privileged Long Island brat, almost 30, who continues to lounge around his parent's mansion. His siblings are far more ambitious, and his father is greatly embarrassed. His mother (Lee Grant) balks when her son abruptly decides to purchase a crumbling Brooklyn tenement. His plan is to drive out the current residents, 100% black, most of whom are well behind on their rent, and convert the dump into a bachelor's paradise, complete with a huge skylight and chandelier. The neighborhood is Park Slope, at that time of filming still a very working class, African-American area. Today, the gentrification this film predicts has long since come about.

It's no surprise that Elgar's plans begin to derail after he gets to know his tenants. THE LANDLORD, however, does not play into a cozy fantasy of "getting to know you" or "Hey, we're all the same!" feel-good pap. Elgar's first meeting with Marge (Pearl Bailey) is at the wrong end of her shotgun. But within minutes, he's upstairs, enjoying her ham hocks and conversation. Marge loves to cook. She even later invites Joyce up for the same and some pot water.

Elgar also meets Francine (Diana Sands, who is wonderful), a friendly but melancholy middle-ager whose troubled, confused activist husband Copee (Lou Gossett) is often in prison. Professor Duboise (Mel Stuart), who teaches very advanced youngsters also lives in the building and seems to see through Elgar's facade from the beginning. If there was ever acting in the eyes, Stuart achieves that.

One night at a club, Elgar meets Lanie (Markie Bey), a dancer he mistakes for being white. Lanie explains her origins and the frequent discrimination she suffers from blacks and whites over her appearance. I can't recall too many films which explore the light-skinned black issue with as much insight, other than Spike Lee's JUNGLE FEVER. Elgar and Lanie begin a relationship which will be tested after it is revealed that Elgar got Francine pregnant after a one nighter (following a "Welcome the Landlord" party).

THE LANDLORD, at the risk of trotting out a cliche, is a real breath of fresh air. An adult film that deals with adult issues. These days, films examining similar events are very contented to have neat, easy resolutions. What's especially revealing about this movie is how self-observant it is. While many barbs are directed against "the Man", that Man may well be a liberal. To wit, Joyce sums up the point by stating how it's all fine and good to have progressive views, but not to get all in it, too close. The Enders family are shown to be real buffoons, but never just caricatures. Some scenes jump head first into scathing, uncomfortable satire, particularly a dinner which ends with a bowl of soup dumped over the butler's head.

Another illustrative moment: the tenants at the party face the camera and discuss what it means to be black, how it is not merely the new fad, presumably directed at Elger, one of those liberals who endorse integration because it's of the moment. Each comment is more lacerating than the last.

THE LANDLORD should be screened for a group ready to discuss the evolution of race relations. It was shot in an era when school integration was finally reaching the South, when many mainstream attitudes were still rigidly in the old school. The movie may shock some latter day viewers. But the story moves confidently and logically, right to its abrupt and uncomfortably realistic finale.

P.S.: THE LANDLORD would make an interesting double feature with STAY HUNGRY, another insightful film on class relations, with Beau's brother Jeff playing the upper class child.

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