Director: Hal Ashby
Writers: Bill Gunn, based on a novel by Kristin Hunter
Stars: Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Diana Sands, Walter Brooke, Lou Gossett, Pearl Bailey
The Story: A directionless young preppie decides on a whim to buy a slum tenement and fix it up nice, as soon as he can get the deadbeat black tenants out. Instead, he gets mixed up in their lives and comes to realize how callous his own life and upbringing has been. It could have been treachly, but the execution is unsentimental, smart, and surreal.
How it Came to be Underrated: After Easy Rider hit big, a fired-up group of anti-establishment moviemakers swept into power convinced that there were no more rules. They succeeded in creating a great American renaissance on the big screen, but they quickly discovered that they could only push a fickle public so far. There was one big rule that remained decidedly unbroken: Don’t Talk About Race! Certainly not in a morally complex, funny, profane, satirical way. Thankfully, Ashby didn’t know that yet.
Why It’s Great:
- After having proven himself as a great editor, this was Ashby’s directing debut. Luckily, he was able to cope with the great silence that greeted this flop and hone his appeal a little sharper when he got a chance to make a follow-up, Harold and Maude. With that masterpiece, he launched into an amazing run of movies that marks him as one of the best American filmmakers of the seventies. (The eighties didn’t go as well, but we won’t get into that sad side of the story)
- It’s almost impossible to write about somebody who’s privileged, prejudiced and exploitative but still somehow sympathetic. The problem is that, compared to the rest of the world, every American is privileged, prejudiced and exploitative (anyone who’s ever bought a cheap product made in a poorer country, anyway). To casually dismiss such folk as sniveling villains, as most movies do, denies us all a chance to look ourselves in the mirror and assess our own humanity (and lack thereof). This is a movie about the difficulty of empathy, but it’s also an amazing act of empathy, not just towards the lively tenement dwellers but towards that most inscrutable beast of all, the owner.
- Beau Bridges gives a profoundly open and egoless performance as a lost soul trying to grapple with his own blankness, but he rarely got leading roles after this one, shunted aside in favor of his handsomer younger brother, Jeff. The only awards attention this movie got was a well-earned Oscar nomination for Lee Grant as Bridges’ socialite mother, who is icily hilarious.
- I had remembered this movie as being set in Harlem, which would have made the attempts at gentrification somewhat quixotic, but I felt a twinge of pain when I realized that it was actually set in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which means that these residents were bound to lose utterly in the end. Even the white people I know aren’t white enough to stay in Park Slope anymore. Our last two friends who lived there knew the writing was on the wall when a fresh-from-the-oven doggy-treat bakery opened up across the street. The next month their rent was doubled and they, too, were forced out.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Re-watching this, it reminded me of a similarly ambitious movie from a few years ago, Half Nelson. (And of course every Ashby movie from the ‘70s is required viewing, such as The Last Detail or Being There.)
How Available Is It?: Oddly, Netfilx has it available to Watch Instantly only, but not on DVD.
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