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Landlord, The (DVD Review)

26 Apr, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Available now via Amazon.com CreateSpace
$19.98 DVD
‘PG’ for.
Stars Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Diana Sands, Pearl Bailey.

Jeff Bridges just got his Crazy Heart Oscar, but Hal Ashby’s race-based comedy gives us an opportunity to give brother Beau his due — back when he had hair and quite a lot of it.

Other than the pair’s teaming in 1989’s The Fabulous Baker Boys — which, in fact, had a great gag involving Beau’s bald spot — Ashby’s directorial debut gave the elder Bridges perhaps his best big-screen showcase (though I like him a lot in Heart Like a Wheel, and then there’s also Norma Rae). The Landlord was also the third film photographed by the incomparable Gordon Willis, who just got the career award that ABC-TV’s Oscarcast couldn’t find the time to let us enjoy, even though he also shot Klute, All the President’s Men, the three “Godfather” films and a slew of great Woody Allens.

This one is a Black Power or at least Black Pride comedy that was cutting-edge for its Hollywood day, telling of a rich kid (29, named Elgar and still living at home) who buys a run-down tenement he intends to spiff up in Brooklyn’s Park Slope area, inhabitants of color be damned. Instead, he ends up making repairs for the sake of it and befriending his tenants and — one in particular played by Diana Sands (the best screen role of her career, three years before her death at 39 from leiomyosarcoma).

Most of today’s comedies either look bright and beautiful (the It’s Complicated syndrome) or intentionally (I think or at least hope) hideous like the recent Greenberg. The Landlord isn’t pretty, but it has a distinctive style that makes the eyes stand at attention: bright and antiseptically white in the scenes with Bridges at home — and dark (sometimes cozily so, though at other times, just dark) in the new milieu that turns out to be Elgar’s true element.

Much of the comedy is broad: Members of Elgar’s family skeet-shoot in the backyard with at the aid of a black servant, and Bill Gunn’s script finds a way to get actor/comic Robert Klein into blackface. But it’s also seriously mindful of the million or so changes that were going on in the country at the time. Beyond Sands, others in the supporting cast are aptly chosen: Pearl Bailey (toting a shotgun), Louis Gossett Jr., Susan Anspach (playing a pot-smoking aristocrat just as year before she scored heavily in Five Easy Pieces) and especially Lee Grant.

Oscar-nominated for 1951’s Detective Story, Grant was just coming back from the Blacklist when she appeared in the opening episode of TV’s Three Plays by Tennessee Williams (see The Fugitive Kind review). She did a lot of TV in the ’60s and was just starting to re-emerge on the big screen, including an appearance in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night (edited by Ashby and directed by Norman Jewison, producer of The Landlord).

Her performance as Bridges’ mother hits the right note: she’s bigoted, rigid and a smothering mother, yet in a three-dimensional way — someone we sense her son even likes at times. Grant got her second Oscar nomination here, then eventually won the supporting award for Ashby’s Shampoo five years later.  

As for Ashby, he followed his debut with the kind of iconographic winning streak that almost never happens anymore: Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There before he burned out in a flurry of personal problems before his death at 59 in 1988.

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