The Landlord (1970)
Written by Kristin Hunter & Bill Gunn
Directed by Hal Ashby
Hal Ashby was an unlikely person. His films reflect that, focusing on the buffoonery of the privileged class, always giving the upper hand to the vulnerable, people of color especially. Ashby grew up in a dysfunctional family in Utah that culminated with the suicide of his father. The young Hal dropped out of high school and never got a degree. Years later, when the studio would put out biographies of filmmakers in press packets, they lied and said Ashby graduated from the University of Utah. Unlike his contemporaries, like Francis Ford Coppolla or Martin Scorsese, Ashby had no formal academic background.
He made his way up as a film editor befriending people like Terry Southern and Haskell Wexler, who got him more work. It was his friendship with director Norman Jewison that began on The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, where he grew in prominence. Jewison urged Ashby to try his hand at directing with The Landlord. Ashby was 41 when his first film was released. He was a pot-smoking, long-haired bohemian that was born in the era of the silent film. Hal Ashby was an unlikely person.
The Landlord tells the story of Elgar Enders, a twenty-nine-year-old man living off his parents’ fortune who decides to join the gentrification craze and buys a tenement in Park Slope. The residents have seen what’s happened in the blocks around them and greet Elgar with either hostility or forced hospitality. Elgar has been rebelling against his conservative WASP upbringing, trying to be part of the New Left, woke, and well-educated liberals. Elgar doesn’t necessarily grasp the complexity of the situation he’s in, and things get more complicated when he falls in love with Lanie, a multiracial dancer at a nearby bar.
The Landlord is a film that has faded from view, not ever discussed when referencing films about race during the tumultuous period of the 1960s and 70s. Ashby did not make a film that coddled white audiences or showed how the protagonist could learn to live with these people. What Elgar realizes by the end of the picture is that it’s not about him, these people don’t exist to teach the young man what life is like for them.
Because Ashby is an editor first, he’s using slick cuts and jumps to tell his story. As a result, the narrative can feel jarring. I definitely get what Ashby is attempting, trying to show us what is going through the heads of the white characters, especially Elgar’s mother, Joyce. It’s a very smart device but does feel a little amateurish in its delivery. That said, the story being told couldn’t be more relevant to our own time.
I was recently reading about Democratic presidential primary candidate Pete Buttigieg’s gentrification of South Bend, Indiana. He created a system when neighborhoods that were predominantly made up of people of color got forced out in favor of “revitalization” projects. I’ve seen with my own eyes living in Nashville for years, one particular plan led to a community becoming more paranoid and agitated. Rightfully so when dozens were evicted the first of the months, their belongings and even mattresses were strewn out in the pouring rain. Like many diseases, gentrification took root long ago and has been festering ever since.
Ashby gets fabulous performances from his cast. Beau Bridges is the naive and eventually jaded Elgar. Pear Bailey plays the wonderful Marge, an older resident who gets Elgar on her good side by filling his belly. Lee Smith runs away with the picture as Elgar’s mother, a woman who wants to straddle the fence of being woke and remaining in her wealthy neighborhood far away from anyone different.
The Landlord isn’t Ashby’s, but it was a bold debut for the director, tackling heavy material, topics that were sensitive back then and remain so today. Ashby’s confidence in his actors is evident, and he has a keen eye for not just coverage but shots that make the scene more interesting. Even in the most mundane of moments, he’s playing with lighting and silhouette to create something beautiful.
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