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In the early seventies, Hollywood studio executives began to realize there was a huge untapped market for films dealing with Afro-Americans - a situation made obvious by the unexpected success of Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), an action comedy based on the Chester Himes novel about two black cops, Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) and Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge). In the ensuing rush to capture this previously ignored audience, the "blaxploitation" film was born, but the majority of these films were urban crime thrillers like Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972). Films which attempted to explore racial issues or feature complicated black and white relationships were a rarity but one unique exception was The Landlord (1970), which was virtually ignored by the public when it opened.
A fascinating mix of social satire, urban drama, and high comedy, The Landlord tells the story of an affluent young man, Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges), who purchases a tenement brownstone in Brooklyn with the intention of converting it into a swinging bachelor pad with all the necessary psychedelic trappings. What he doesn't anticipate is the opposition he faces from his current black tenants. So, he abandons his master plan to devote his full energies to playing the landlord, becoming intimately involved in the lives of his boarders. But his naivete creates unforeseen problems and raises the question of whether true harmony can exist between people of such varying social and ethnic backgrounds.
Hal Ashby, the Oscar®-winning editor of In the Heat of the Night (1967), made his directorial debut with The Landlord, a film originally scheduled for Norman Jewison. But Jewison, who had a full schedule, admired Ashby's talent and wanted to give his protege a well-deserved break. After all, they had worked together successfully on five films, including The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Unfortunately, the two men fell out over creative differences during the making of The Landlord and were never to work together again.
Seen today, The Landlord is remarkable for its outstanding ensemble cast which includes the late Diana Sands as Fanny, who has an ill-fated affair with Elgar, Louis Gossett, Jr. as Copee, Fanny's enraged husband, Marki Bey as Lanie, a mulatto artist and dancer who becomes Elgar's girlfriend, and Pearl Bailey as Marge, the resident fortune teller who introduces Elgar to soul food. The real surprise is Lee Grant who practically steals the film as Elgar's racist, high society mother. (Her performance received a Best Supporting Actress nomination that year at the Oscar® ceremony).
Equally impressive is Bill Gunn's perceptive screenplay for The Landlord which was based on the novel by black writer Kristin Hunter. Gunn, one of the most eloquent interpreters of African-American life in America, was a true Renaissance man; he was a stage and television trained actor, a playwright (Black Picture Show), an author (Rhinestone Sharecropping), and a director (Ganja and Hess , a vampire tale incorporating African mythology with issues of cultural identity, is a rarely-screened cult film).
Producer: Norman Jewison, Patrick J. Palmer
Director: Hal Ashby
Screenplay: Bill Gunn, based on the novel by Kristin Hunter
Production Design: Robert F. Boyle
Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Costume Design: Domingo A. Rodriguez
Film Editing: William A. Sawyer, Edward Warschilka
Original 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).
by Jeff Stafford