Materializing during the Kent State spring of 1970, with M*A*S*H in release and The Angel Levine, not to mention Where’s Poppa?, on the horizon, The Landlord—revived for a week at Film Forum in a new 35mm print—remains one of the funniest social comedies of the period, as well as the most human.
An indolent American princeling (Beau Bridges) purchases a dilapidated row house in a black, but changing, Brooklyn neighborhood (seemingly Bed-Stuy but supposedly Park Slope), and while not precisely going native, does establish a brief, bittersweet rapport with his hustling, scuffling, half-crazed tenants—even learning something about race and what would be called “gentrification” before retreating back into his money.
This mock bildungsroman, directed by Hal Ashby from Bill Gunn’s adaptation of Kristin Hunter’s novel, is at once broad and nuanced in its characterizations. (Gunn was also responsible for scripting The Angel Levine‘s kindred fable of racial tension in a New York tenement.) The Landlord
received mixed reviews, in part because of its shifts in tone, from the screwball antics of Bridges’s idiotic family to the pathos of Diane Sands’s career performance as the tenant with whom the landlord becomes most involved.
Ashby’s first movie looks forward to his 1975 Shampoo in both its choreographed party scenes and vivid ensemble. Pearl Bailey is ineffably sly as the building’s resident soothsayer (“How do you ofays come into owning these rat traps?” she asks the new haute-WASP landlord. “Do you give them to each other for bar mitzvah presents?”) Bailey steals every scene she’s in and plays a fantastic two-hander with Lee Grant, as Bridge’s malevolently ditsy mother. After Landlord, Bridges would never get a comparable role—swanning through the slum, the good-natured embodiment of privilege, he appears these days as a brutally clueless avatar of George W. Bush.