Last week, completely by coincidence I ended up watching both the first and final films from director Hal Ashby. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. His last film was 1988’s “8 Million Ways to Die” featuring Jeff Bridges…review to come soon. His first film, interestingly enough, features brother to Jeff, Beau Bridges in an intriguing look at attitudes on race and class in the early 70’s. The film is 1970’s “The Landlord.”
Bridges plays Elgar Enders, a rich young man who has been wandering somewhat aimlessly through his life, living off his parents’ wealth. However, he finally decides to do something with his life by purchasing a tenement building in Brooklyn. He plans to gradually evict the residents and renovate the building into a luxury pad for himself.
It doesn’t take long, however, for Elgar to begin to take a liking to the poor residents of his building. The first person he meets is Marge (Pearl Bailey), who greets him with a shotgun, but quickly treats the new landlord to some home cooking. He also meets Fanny (Diana Sands), a young mother with a live in boyfriend named Copee (Louis Gossett Jr). On their first meeting, Copee threatens Elgar with a bow and arrow. Later, when Copee ends up behind bars, Elgar and Fanny end up hooking up.
Elgar’s family is none too thrilled with this “investment” he has made. His mother, Joyce (Lee Grant in an Oscar nominated performance), especially doesn’t understand this latest endeavor. All of his family are very racist in their attitudes and encourage Elgar to quickly get rid of the building’s residents. Later in the film, when Joyce comes to pay Elgar a visit, she enjoys a few too many drinks with Marge and ends up making somewhat of a connection with her.
At the same time, Elgar has also become interested in a dancer named Lannie (Marki Bey). At first, Elgar thinks she is white, but she comes from a mixed background and is a very light-skinned African-American. Things get a bit more complicated for Elgar and Lannie later on when he finds out that Fanny is pregnant with his child. Needless to say, the militant, and free once more, Copee doesn’t respond well to this news.
Hal Ashby, of course, went on to a very interesting career, featuring the likes of “Harodl & Maude” and “Being There” before his early death in 1988. “The Landlord” is as strong a directorial debut as you are likely to find. It’s got that gritty feel that is 70’s cinema through and through. At times it is very funny, and at times heartbreakingly tragic.
Bridges’ approach to his role is spot on! It is interesting to watch the progression of his character. He begins by buying the building to get out of his family’s home, yet, ultimately, he’s still doing it with their wealth. He’s then all too happy to not proceed with his plans of evicting the tenants when he sees how much it rubs his parents the wrong way. Eventually, he truly becomes invested in the lives of the these people. There is a wonderful realism to Bridge’s performance, the type that makes it tough to call it a “performance.” It just feels too natural to label it in such a way.
I’ve gotta give a lot of credit to screenwriter Bill Gunn. The dialogue is tough, honest…but not heavy-handed or preachy. It all unfolds very naturally. The characters don’t come across as concoctions designed to make a point. These are believable characters. The one character who does seem a bit over-the-top at first is Elgar’s mother. However, it all comes together in the truly remarkable scene shared by Lee Grant and Pearl Bailey midway through the film. That moment alone may have earned Grant her well-deserved Oscar nod.
If ever there was a film worthy of being rediscovered, it is “The Landlord.” It’s a movie that remains as intriguing, poignant, hard-hitting, and funny as it ever was…even 43 years after it’s release.