Monday, November 27, 2017

cinema obscura: Hal Ashby's "The Landlord" (1970)

Turner Classic Movies rarely screens R-rated films from the 1970s and, when it does, it's generally at two in the morning. That's understandable. TCM's "brand" is work from the 1930s thru the '60s. Plus, R-rated films embrace such New Wave elements as nudity, liberated sexuality, extreme violence and, yes, dirty talk. Definitely the stuff of After Midnight viewing.

But Hal Ashby's "The Landlord" is one of its few '70s titles, rated R, that Turner plays regularly in prime time and often in the Star Spot - 8 p.m.

And deservedly so.

Arguably the best movie on race relations made in this country by a major studio (United Artists, which specialized in independent films before that phrase was coined), "The Landlord" marked the directorial debut of the late, great Ashby, who started his career as an (Oscar-winning) editor.

The film was one of two back-to-back titles that Norman Jewison had planned to make with his look-alike star, Beau Bridges, the other being 1969's charming "Gaily, Gaily." (It's uncanny; at the time, Jewison and Bridges could pass for brothers.) When Jewison became waylaid by the demanding pre-production work required for "Fiddler on the Roof" (1971), he offered Ashby, who had edited "In the Heat of the Night" (1967) and "Gaily, Gaily" for him, the chance to work on a film as its director.

"The Landlord" is notable for having a rare behind-the-scenes diversity that most likely explains its success as a reasoned, level-headed and yet hugely emotional social study. Its source material is a novel by Kristen Hunter, adapted for the screen by Bill Gunn, himself a filmmaker (1973's "Ganja and Hess"). Both Hunter (1931-2008) and Gunn (1929-1989) were black; Ashby (1929-1988) and Gordon Willis (1931-2014), the film's peerless cinematographer, were white. Its cast, of course, is mixed.

Bridges - in perhaps his finest (and most relevant) performance - is hugely appealing as Elgar Enders, a clueless rich kid who decides to liberate himself from his repressive conservative family by purchasing a run-down apartment building in the Park Slope neighborhood of New York and setting up housekeeping among its black tenants - and this was years before the idea of inner-city gentrification became a dubious reality.

"The Landlord" consists of one memorable moment after another, fueled by a major (and award-worthy) performance by the much-missed Diana Sands (1934-1978) who is at once heartbreaking and wildly desirable as one of Bridges' tenants with whom he has an unwise affair.

There are entertaining supporting turns by Lee Grant (Oscar-nominated here) and Walter Brooke ("The Graduate") as Bridges' parents; Susan Anspach and Will MacKenzie (now a TV director) as his sister and brother; Louis Gossett, Jr. and Douglas Grant as Sands' husband and son; Robert Klein as Anspach's boyfriend; Marki Bey as a dancer attracted to Bridges, and Pearl Bailey (1918-1990), terrific as another tenant. And then there's Grover Dale in a brief, hilarious bit as Grant's personal dancer instructor. (BTW, prior to "The Landlord," Grover Dale and Will MacKenzie appeared in the original Broadway production of the musical "Half a Sixpence.")

Appreciation of "The Landlord" took decades, the renewed interest in it sparked by critic Pauline Kael's belated review. However, in 1970, it was hastily denounced as blaxploitation (!) by critics who simply didn't "get it."

Judith Crist, reviewing for New York magazine, and Gene Shalit, critic for The Today Show as well as Look magazine, both named it one of the year's "10 worst films." Hardly. Crist was a friend and, when I asked her about her harsh response to the film, it seemed to be largely in reaction to one anti-Semitic joke in the script: When Grant finds out that Bridges is dating the light-skinned Bey, she shrugs, "She's probably only Jewish."

Crist was also critical of the artwork for the film (which was obviously inspired by the ads for "M*A*S*H"): A phallic finger poking at two doorbells that resemble breasts.

On the technical side, there's Al Kooper's spot-on song score and Willis' shimmering cinematography - so good that it makes even the film's ghetto setting seem inviting and companionable. It becomes apparent why the Bridges character is so comfortable there. For this occasion, Ashby recruited colleagues William A. Sawyer and Edward Warschilka to edit his film, although I have a hunch that he had a hand in it. Just a guess.

Ashby's next film after "The Landlord" was "Harold and Maude" (1971) which was also initially dismissed before finding a loyal cult audience. Then came an amazing output: "The Last Detail" (1973), "Shampoo" (1975), "Bound for Glory" (1976), "Coming Home" (1978) and "Being There" (1979).

Beau Bridges, meanwhile, always one of my favorite actors, has had an eclectic career with some 200 television and movie credits that are all over the map, but among his films, I especially appreciate the two titles he made for Sidney Lumet, "Lovin' Molly" and "Child's Play," James Frawley's "The Christian Licorice Store," Peter Ustinov's "Hammersmith Is Out," John Schlesinger's "Honky Tonk Freeway," Jonathan Kaplan's "Heart Like a Wheel," Tony Richardson's "The Hotel New Hampshire," Steve Kloves' "The Fabulous Baker Boys," Jack Fisk's "Daddy's Dyin' ... Who's Got the Will?" Michael Ritchie's "The Positively True Adventures of the Texas Cheerleader-Killing Mom," Diane Keaton's "Wildflower," Alexander Payne's "The Descendants"and, of course, "Gaily Gaily" and "The Landlord."

"The Landlord" looms as a template for responsible socio-comic filmmaking at its best, both entertaining and informative. TCM will air it again tomorrow night, November 28th, at 10 (est).


Note in Passing: Whether you're familiar with the film or not, the next time you watch it, pay attention to the first few seconds of the film.

It's a quick shot of Ashby's real-life wedding to actress Joan Marshall who, under the name of Jean Arless, played Emily/Warren in William Castle's seminal 1961 cult film, "Homicidal." The "love-in"-style wedding - Ashby was an old hippie - was attended by the film's producer, Norman Jewison, and its cast. That's title star Beau Bridges (above) in the yellow tee on the extreme left. If you look closely, glimpsed directly behind the bearded Ashby is Diana Sands and behind her is the film's ingenue, Marki Bey.

And that's Jewison getting kissed (below) by Marshall. It was Joan's personal experiences which she related to scenarist Robert Towne that became the basis of perhaps Ashby's biggest commercial hit, "Shampoo."

Hal Ashby died in 1988.

Bonus Picture: Bridges with Gossett and Sands in a musical dream sequence ultimately cut from the film:

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* * * * *
(from top)

~Beau Bridges in the opening sequence of "The Landlord"

~Publicity shots of Hal Ashby and Norman Jewison

~Diana Sands and Bridges in a scene from the film

~One-sheet posters for "The Landlord" and Fox's "M*A*S*H"

~The pre-credits wedding of Ashby and and Joan Marshall (aka Jean Arless)

~Bridges with Gossett and Sands in the musical dream sequence deleted from the film.

~photography: United Artists and Twentieth Century-Fox (1970)©


Joe Dante said...

Beau Bridges won a well deserved Emmy Award for his lead performance in my HBO movie THE SECOND CIVIL WAR.
I found him one of the most dedicated, prepared and committed actors I ever worked with.
I only wish the movie and his great work in it were better known.

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Joe. You don't have to sell me on Beau, whom I've met several times and who always struck me as someone unconcerned with stardom, just acting. He may not have had the award-heavy, leading-man career that his brother Jeff has enjoyed but that's because Beau is simply a solid character actor. Perhaps not so simply.

Bonnie said...

Great stuff! Thanks. Always loved "The Landlord." Now I understand that opening scene. (Like "Homicidal," too.)

Marvin said...

My favorite line in THE LANDLORD was uttered by the fantastic Lee Grant. After getting drunker than a skunk at a "party" at the landlord's apartment building, Grant throws herself into a taxi and states: "Home, wherever THAT is!" Joe, I know that identical feeling. -Marvin

Brian Lucas said...

Good movie! Still can't believe the Academy found room for Grant but not Sands. Nothing against Grant, of course.

m.h. said...

Joe, thanks for the terrific article on THE LANDLORD. And thank you so very much for that listing of the Bridges' films that you admire. I would like to "re-visit" all of them! I think you really "nailed" the difference in Jeff's career versus Beau's career. But I bet if you ask someone who had the "better" career, most people would say JEFF. I would merely state that their careers were "different" from each other's, and leave it at that.

john said...

Never heard of it before. Will keep an eye out for it.

wwolfe said...

I would add Beau Bridges' remarkable work in the cable series, "Masters of Sex," to your list of his career best. His work as a closeted homosexual university dean is heartbreaking, as is Allison Janney's performance as his frustrated wife.

Vanessa said...

LOVE IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!