Gentrification in 1970s New York in Hal Ashby’s “The Landlord”

Posted by Michael Gibbons on 5.27.2011

 

Quite a few cinephiles we contacted about our Norman Jewison: Relentless Renegade series are fans of Hal Ashby’s 1970 film The Landlord. It was Ashby’s first film as a director (the project was originally Jewison’s, but he stayed on board as a producer) and after its 1970 release it was largely forgotten - until recently. Find out why this sharp comedy about gentrification strikes such a chord so many years later at our screening of The Landlord at the Walter Reade Theater on Monday, playing as part of our Norman Jewison: Relentless Renegade series.

“Set on the Promenade and in the scruffy part of Park Slope off Flatbush, it should be Annie Hall for Brooklynites: instead of Jews, gentiles and analysis, it’s about blacks, whites, and gentrification,” writes Miriam Bale in a capsule review for The L. “Ashby’s best film is his first; after his years as a cutter, the editing is experimental and tight. Plus Pearl Bailey in a tour-de-force, a great soundtrack, and genius Lee Grant as a ‘liberated aggressive butch American broad.’”

A 2007 article from The New York Times explains how the film came about: “In the previous two years [Jewison had] brought United Artists a ton of money and six Academy Awards with In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair. So he had the leverage he needed to get the studio to back an experimental, satirical film, from a script by an unknown black screenwriter, about a wealthy young white man who decides to buy a Brooklyn tenement and ease out the black tenants so he can gut it and move in. But Mr. Jewison didn’t have time to make it himself.”

Dan Callahan from Alt Screen weighs in: “The Landlord strikes a visual balance between the vanilla ice cream-white world of a wealthy WASP family and the rich, dark shadows that pooled in the rundown tenements of Park Slope, 1970. (This was the beginning of the era of Gordon Willis, cinematographer on The Landlord and countless other landmarks, a period in which comedies were allowed to look like Rembrandts). In general, Ashby likes to view his characters from a slight distance. He saves his close-ups for privileged moments when he needs to establish greater intimacy, such as the slow emotional striptease done by The Landlord‘s Francine (Diana Sands) where she confesses to rich boy Elgar (Beau Bridges) that she was once crowned 'Miss Sepia 1957.' Her mother made a lamp out of her trophy, she says, and then sighs, 'I liked it better when it was a cup.' Ashby photographs the burgeoning relationship between Bridges and Sands with a red light that submerges their faces and surroundings in its warmly saturated depths. It’s the one time that the depressed electric light in an Ashby film actually does anyone some good. It’s also the most romantic scene Ashby ever filmed.”

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