How desperate was Hollywood in 1970? It let Hal Ashby make The Landlord, a crazed, profane racial satire written by negroes. It was the dawn of the New Hollywood. Studios that had failed to pull Americans away from their televisions with colossal epics like Cleopatra targeted the youth market with relatively cheap flicks by new filmmakers. Ashby, the Oscar-nominated editor of In the Heat of the Night, must have seemed like a safe bet, even after he grew a long, shaggy beard and expressed hippie sympathies. The support of Ashby's commercially successful mentor, Night director Norman Jewison—who signed on as the film's producer—surely helped.
Little did United Artists know. Thirty-seven years on, The Landlord is still shocking, but not because it's salacious or cynical. The film is shocking because of how tenderly and patiently Ashby attends to certain transgressive moments while asserting that in a sane, just world, they wouldn't be taboo at all.
The film starts off in rapid-fire, farcical mode as 29-year old Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges) contemplates finally leaving his rich parents' home to purchase one of his own. Ashby cuts between Elgar's future residence, a rundown Park Slope brownstone inhabited by poor black folks, and Elgar's musings on this matter as he plays squash and relaxes in his parents' backyard. Elgar wants to renovate the building and evict the rent-delinquent tenants, but something else happens: He falls in love with them. Like Ashby's second film, Harold and Maude, The Landlord is about a spoiled white boy who breaks free of his stifling family by pursuing a forbidden love. In this case, his new love is The Black Community, in all its ragged beauty.
It definitely ain't love at first sight. Beyond clueless in his preppie gear and plush convertible full of floral arrangements, Elgar arrives at his new home to a welcoming committee of shit-talking Brothers who send him running down the street shrieking. A chain-smoking little kid, a black militant professor, a shotgun-toting mama, and a crazy activist Copey (Louis Gossett Jr.) are among the tenants who give him near-constant grief. Back at the Enders' estate, Elgar's family resists the idea of his housing blacks in a Park Slope “slum.” His casually racist mother (Lee Grant) and arch-conservative father (Walter Brooke) treat his real estate ambitions as just another childish diversion. Even his hippie sister (Susan Anspach), who cheers him on, says she couldn't “stomach” dealing with blacks herself. Elgar's brother (Will McKenzie) and future brother-in-law (Robert Klein) are just passive and aloof. In each case, the family member makes his or her feelings known in broad, theatrical, screwball dialog. Elgar gets so fed up with them during dinner one night that he announces to his sister's fiance that the Enders are octaroons. All hell breaks loose.
The first half of The Landlord cuts between these two surrealistic cartoon worlds—one black, one white—before getting down to square business. Raucous ensemble scenes give way to some lovely duets: Elgar befriending and flirting with the activist's loopy, frustrated wife Francine (the amazing Diana Sands); a series of arguments with his mother that reveal more emotional complexity in their relationship; Elgar winning over a standoffish mulatto club dancer (Marki Bey) with his boyish sincerity; Mrs. Enders and the shotgun-carrying tenant, Marge (a sly, luminous Pearl Bailey) drinking and laughing together in Marge's cramped apartment. Hardcore realism comes crashing in when when Copey gets some bad news that sends him on a rampage-turned-nervous breakdown. Gossett takes the film to a haunted place in a confused, self-hating black man's heart that I haven't seen since the end of August Wilson's stage masterpiece Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. It tore me up.
Such scenes make one miss the unpredictable way people fought, bonded, grieved and made love in the great '70s films. Ashby allows the most important interactions to occur in gorgeous stretches of what feels like real time. When Elgar and Francine find themselves alone in her apartment, struggling with their attraction for each other, Ashby lets the moment draw long, sensuous breaths. Has any mainstream American film before or since let an honest moment like this pass between black and white characters of opposite genders? In Monster's Ball, Black Snake Moan and Jungle Fever, scenes of mixed-race intimacy are footnoted by history, politics, symbolism, paranoia and mutual resentment; you can sense the filmmakers crowding the room, not even as voyeurs (that could be hot), but as sober lecturers. Here, though, Ashby stops time, stops the world, to let Francine be a woman and Elgar be a man. His cinematographer, Gordon Willis, heightens the poetry with a wash of red lamp light that paints Elgar and Francine roughly the same color.
Oh, man, Gordon Willis. Even though The Godfather series, Alan J. Pakula thrillers and Woody Allen flicks were still in his future, The Landlord, with its use of naturalistic lighting and underexposure, might be his wildest adventure. Rooms and faces have an “unlit,” documentary feel, but what modest light there is lends a warmth and ruminative feeling in perfect step with Ashby's stealth seriousness. Impenetrable shadows fall in precisely jagged sheets, swallowing up figures like tar pools. In the Enders estate scenes, Willis goes bright and flat, but the brownstone interiors are visual Soul.
What saves all of this fine craftsmanship from becoming Dances with Negroes (a white man's extended vacation in an exotic, therapeutic culture) is the rich, searching material it serves. Kristin Davis, a black woman, created the Elgar Enders character in her novel The Landlord. The visionary black filmmaker Bill Gunn (Ganja and Hess) wrote the screenplay adaptation. So we get a sheltered white male character's impressions of black folk as imagined by a black female novelist and mixed-race filmmaking team. What an exquisite filter system.
With so many brilliant collaborators and points of view, whose movie—whose dream—is it anyway? Ashby seems to say it's all of ours. At the film's heart is baby-faced Bridges, playing Elgar as a sensitive boy through-and-through. He's foolish, impulsive and painfully ignorant, but that doesn't stop him from diving into the eye of the storm to see what it's all about. He might get laughed at, beat up, ostracized, but his emotional generosity and curiosity about other human beings is unstoppable; it makes him fearless. For this and a thousand other reasons, The Landlord now looks like a more ambitious and audacious debut film than Citizen Kane. You heard me right.
The Landlord runs through Tuesday, September 25 at Film Forum in New York City. Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism.