Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Watch the Landlord Get His

(Hal Ashby, US, 19-
70, 35mm, 114 mins.)

There's no worse career move
in Hollywood than dying. Hal
is now largely forgot-
ten because he had the misfor-
tune to die at the end of the
'80s, but he had the most remar-
kable run of any '70s director.

-- Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Few things are sadder than the director who makes one good film be-
fore passing away (see Bill Sherwood, Parting Glances) or disappear-
ing from view (see Neal Jimenez, The Waterdance). That's to say noth-
ing of one-shot director Charles Laughton (The Night of the Hunter).

More commonly, there's the director who makes one good film--and
a bunch of bad ones (too many to name). Fortunately, Hal Ashby
(1929-1988) avoided every one of those depressing categories.

Yet his biography is ultimately a bummer. At least that's how Peter
spins it in the irresistibly dishy Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
(David Thomson goes so far as to dismiss him as a "sad casualty").

Not having read much about the man elsewhere, I found Biskind per-
suasive regarding the filmmaker's passive-aggressive battles with
producers, problems with women and drugs, and agonizing death from
cancer. But along the way he worked with the biggest stars (Jack Nich-
olson, Warren Beatty, and Jane Fonda), directed several hits (Sham-
, Coming Home, and Being There)--and one certifiable cult classic
(Harold and Maude)--and even garnered a few awards (including an
Oscar for editing mentor Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night).

The Landlord, which is finally receiving a theatrical re-release, was
his first feature film. Being There (1978) was his last really good one.
Then he lost his way. The IMDb notes four more movies, one concert
film, one straight-to-video effort, a tele-film, and an episode of Dennis
Franz's Hill Street Blues spin-off, Beverly Hill Buntz--his final credit.

If Ashby's debut got overlooked upon release, it offered contributions
from some of the brightest talents around. The film was produced by
Jewison, shot by Gordon Willis (The Godfather) and Michael Chapman
(Taxi Driver), and scored by Bob Dylan associate Al Kooper with the
Staple Singers. The cast includes Beau Bridges, Susan Anspach, Pearl
Bailey, and Academy Award winners Lee Grant (Shampoo) and Louis
Gossett, Jr.
(An Officer and a Gentleman). As Bridges demurred to The
New York Times
earlier this year, "I was just doing my best. I was in
there with some giants." (His brother, Jeff, presided at Hal's memorial.)

Though Harold and Maude would secure his reputation the following
year--once it caught on, that is--Ashby's first film proves he was a natur-
al. Without such storied collaborators, his ability might not be so readily
apparent, though most of them weren't as well known as they are now.

Like Harold and Maude, The Landlord manages to be simultane-
ously dated and timely--and I don't mean that in the pejorative sense.

It isn't just a product of the counterculture, but it takes that very cul-
ture to task, which means that Ashby revels in the signs and signifiers
of the time--marijuana, miniskirts, etc.--but it isn't an exploitation pic-
ture like Easy Rider or a morality lesson on race relations like Guess
Who's Coming to Dinner
, the product of a little playful ribbing.

The film draws from the two forms, possibly why it didn't make more
of an impact; it was harder to classify, its audience harder to identify.

Of course, the director and the star were virtual unknowns, which didn't
help, although Bridges couldn't be better as Elgar Enders, a wealthy New
Yorker who fancies himself hip and open-minded--with a name uptight
and righteous at the same time: a blue-blooded spin on Medgar Evers.

His white-gloved mother, Joyce (Oscar nominee Lee Grant), also thinks
she's got it together, and her uncomfortably close relationship with her
son anticipates the male-female dynamic in Harold and Maude. Not
that that film depicted an incestuous union, but the age gap suggested
a mother-son/grandmother-grandson relationship. There isn't--thank
God--any hanky-panky between Elgar and the still-beautiful Mrs. En-
ders, but it's clear that her clueless coddling has stunted his growth.

At 29, Elgar still lives at home, the lazy recipient of his croquet-
playing family's largess. As the movie begins, he's just acquired a
Brooklyn tenement with plans to restore it, and live like a king. The
thing is--it's still occupied. And located in an all-black neighborhood.
Elgar doesn't let that stop him. He isn't a racist. He's just never
been around (non-deferential) African Americans before.

So, he's scared...and fascinated. His neighbors, on the other hand, are
wary and disdainful. If this was a big-budget production, Elgar and his
tenants would learn from each other and live happily ever after (cue
"Ebony and Ivory"). The Landlord isn't quite as naive as its central
character, but nor is it completely cynical. (The script, an adaptation of
Kristin Hunter's novel, was written by black actor-director Bill Gunn of
Ganja & Hess
fame.) Instead, mistakes are made, feelings get hurt, and
some of the lessons learned are just as quickly un-learned (Elgar's rel-
atives seem to change, but their prejudices are too deeply ingrained).

Did I also mention that it's painfully, almost surrealistically funny?
If you're familiar with Ashby's early work--particularly the profan-
ity-laced The Last Detail--this should come as little surprise.

By the end, Elgar has knocked up one tenant and fallen for a mixed-race lovely. Nowadays, that wouldn't seem so strange. Even in 1970, "shocking" might've been a bit much, but it probably did seem subversive, since Elgar sleeps with Diana Sands' married hairdresser (Gossett Jr. plays her militant husband), while seeing Marki Bey's dancer/art student. These encounters are complicated by class and gender as both women lack El-
gar's range of options. I'm not sure I buy the ending--which means to please all three--but I like the cautious optimism it represents.

According to Biskind, Ashby and Jewison fell out over that ending (Jewi-
son was set to direct until Fiddler on the Roof came along). This is fitting.
Elgar finally breaks from his bourgeois background, while Ashby frees
himself from his spiritual paterfamilias (Ashby's father, an uncompromis-
ing farmer, committed suicide when he was 12; he discovered the body).

It's tempting to describe The Landlord as great since it hasn't hit the
big screen in years, and Ashby is one of those rare helmers who oc-
cupies the sweet spot between cult figure and award-winning auteur.

In truth, it's closer to really good--Elgar's asides to the camera are lar-
gely extraneous and the cutting can be distractingly busy (Ashby did, af-
ter all, edit Jewison's split-screen caper The Thomas Crown Affair)--but
"really good" is no small feat for a first film. Plus, Judith Crist and Gene
Shalit denounced it as one of 1970's worst! How's that for incentive?

Ignore those cranks. The Land-
belongs on the list with 20-
07's other long-lost debuts, like
Killer of Sheep
and Permanent Vacation, which also capture a time when anyone could afford to
live in the now-hot neighborhoods
of Park Slope and SoHo. And
don't wait for the DVD--enjoy the
artistry of Ashby, Willis, Chap-
man, Kooper, and cast (including
Robert Klein, Mel Stewart, and
Hector Elizondo)--on the silver
screen. And weep for the ongo-
ing gentrification of the great-
est city in the world.

It's kind of an imperfect film because it was Hal's first, and he kind of
honed his craft as he went along, but I'd like people to know about it.

--Beau Bridges to The New York Times

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

The Landlord plays the Northwest Film Forum from 11/23 - 29,
Fri. - Thurs. at 7 and 9:15pm (plus Sat. and Sun. at 4:30pm). The
NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill between Pike and
Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629.
Images from the The Passionate Moviegoer and Senses of Cinema.


  1. The scene between Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant is wonderful. It's the best non-musical moment Bailey ever was given in a movie. I'm sure her stage career was more personally rewarding, but it really made me regret how movie-makers missed a great opportunity in casting her.

  2. Agreed. There are some great lines in that scene. My favorite is "Drink your wine before the ice melts." (It is, naturally, fortified wine.)