The Landlord (1970)


(director: Hal Ashby; screenwriters: Bill Gunn/based on the novel by Kristin Hunter; cinematographer: Gordon Willis; editors: William A. Sawyer/Edward Warschilka; music: Al Kooper; cast: Beau Bridges (Elgar Enders), Lee Grant (Mrs. Enders), Diana Sands (Fanny), Pearl Bailey (Marge), Marki Bey (Lanie), Louis Gossett, Jr. (Copee), Walter Brooke (Mr. Enders), Melvin Stewart (Professor Duboise), Susan Anspach (Susan Enders), Robert Klein (Peter), Trish Van Devere (Sally), Stanley Greene (Heywood the Butler); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Norman Jewison; MGM Home Entertainment; 1970)

“An uneven comedy of manners that bears checking out for its on the money painfully poignant moments.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A good-natured but tasteless freewheeling social satire on race relations that mixes sharp social commentary with dull TV sitcom comedy, resulting in an uneven comedy of manners that bears checking out for its on the money painfully poignant moments. Former editor Hal Ashby (“The Last Detail”/”Shampoo”/”Harold and Maude”) does some good things with the messy message material in his debut directorial effort, pointing the way for a Hollywood film that was ahead of its time but arrived on the scene just when America was radically changing. It’s based on the novel by black writer Kristin Hunter and written by black actor Bill Gunn.

Sheltered 29-year-old white boy Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges) lives with his bigoted conservative parents (Lee Grant & Walter Brooke) on a Long Island estate and decides it’s time to assert his independence by buying on his own a dilapidated tenement in the black ghetto of the Park Slope section in Brooklyn. The self-indulgent Elgar plans to evict the tenants who don’t pay rent regularly anyway, and ‘gentrify’ the neighborhood with a remodeled brownstone and live there in a swinging psychedelic bachelor pad.

The naive Elgar soon realizes he’s dealing with human beings and the soft-hearted lad doesn’t have the will to carry through his plans. Instead he begins to act like a real landlord but grows fond of his tenants when he gets to know them. They include the friendly strong-willed and sharp-tongued Marge (Pearl Bailey), a fortune-teller, who tells the WASP lad “How do you ofays come into owning these rat traps? Do you give them to each other for bar mitzvah presents?”; Professor Duboise (Melvin Stewart), an angry black segregationist teacher; and the Copee family (Louis Gossett, Jr. & Diana Sands). Elgar falls for a light-skinned mulatto art student and dancer Lanie (Marki Bey) he meets at a disco, who has a black father and an Irish mother. Elgar decides to marry Lanie but their plans are put on hold when he learns he has gotten his married tenant Fanny (Diana Sands) pregnant while her black militant hubby was in jail. It’s all resolved with some life-altering changes.

The film received only mixed reviews and a poor box office when it opened, but today is viewed in a better light as a trendsetter film on race relations that delivers a humanistic social commentary.

Lee Grant was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, while the sly Pearl Bailey steals every scene she’s in.