Judge Ryan Keefer now understands why The Lone Ranger changed his name, as Harry and Tonto just wouldn't have done the trick.
"I think I remember the past too much. You know, the strangest thing about being old is that all your friends are dead."
The list of Best Actor nominees in the early 1970s read like a virtual who's who of top shelf acting talent, with Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino leading the pack. Anyone who was nominated against either actor could possibly be looking at failure. In 1974, Pacino was nominated for The Godfather, Part II, Nicholson for Chinatown, Dustin Hoffman for Lenny, and Albert Finney for Murder on the Orient Express. So how did the guy who played Ed Norton on The Honeymooners top them all, and is his performance deserving?
Facts of the Case
Harry Coombes (Art Carney) is a man in his seventies, living in New York City and is evicted by the City, who wishes to tear the building down. Harry and his cat Tonto are forced to live with his oldest son Burt (Philip Bruns), but Harry finds this arrangement uncomfortable. Even though he manages to connect with Burt's younger son Norman (Josh Mostel, Knockaround Guys), he moves out and decides to travel West to see his other children. He attempts to fly to Chicago, but is turned away when he refuses to part with the carrier that holds Tonto. He tries riding the bus, but when Tonto is unable to relieve himself, he decides to buy a used car and drive there. The story continues as Harry meets his other children, but also some strange and interesting characters, with Tonto in tow.
Well, the film is based on the performances in it, and for those who are used to Carney's television work will be amazed by this performance. With some small alternations in appearance, Carney plays a man fifteen years older than his age at the time (which was 56), and using an injury Carney suffered in World War II, his limp also adds a degree of authenticity to the part. Harry is a guy that is simply looking to explore and enjoy life. His children are loving, but at the end of the day, they are hindrances in Harry's attempt to enjoy the winter months of his life. Burt is a nice man, Harry's daughter Shirley (Ellen Burstyn, The Exorcist) feels that Harry is wasting his life, and that he should be teaching at a school. When Harry finally gets to LA, his youngest son Eddie (Larry Hagman, Primary Colors) seems to be the most affable and accepting, but his visit quickly turns towards Eddie's financial problems.
Written and directed by Paul Mazursky (Down and Out in Beverly Hills), Harry and Tonto is a film that has helped grow a small but emotionally affecting class of films. Those are films that feature older actors in roles of self-discovery or enlightenment. They travel across the country, or a state, as part of an undertaking. The end result isn't as entertaining as the experiences the journey provides. Harry picks up a young girl along the way who is hitchhiking (Melanie Mayron, thirtysomething) who helps him to find an old sweetheart along the way (played by Geraldine Fitzgerald, Arthur), who is in an old age home and doesn't entirely remember Harry. He meets a man who used to sell cats but now sells alternative medicines, and later runs into an Indian who helped relieve Harry of a case of shoulder bursitis. Through all of this, Harry also talks about his late wife with Tonto, a cute and very responsive cat that Harry frequently walks with a body harness. At its core, the film is a touching story about life, and put within the context of the 1974 Oscars, Carney's win is still amazing, but a lot more justified now that I've finally seen the film.
Mazursky provides a commentary track for the film that is equal parts humor, melancholy and sentiment and is one of the better I've listened to for awhile. He discusses previously offering the part to Lawrence Olivier and James Cagney, and even recalls a funny story as to how Cary Grant turned the role down. He mentions that working with Carney entailed very little direction; almost all of what was done was by Carney. Even though he recalls cast and crew members who have passed, Mazursky also discusses his family and children, and other topics bigger than the film. This is how a commentary is supposed to be. His information complements a good film that looks great after all these years.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I think, if anything, perhaps the story could have been re-written to flip the roles of Hagman and Burstyn. One could almost miss her in the brief time she spends in the film. While the children are given scant screen time in the film, she was already an accomplished actress by the time she appeared in the movie, and she seems vastly underused.
Harry and Tonto is one of those films that is enjoyable to watch for the performances in it. A touching movie about life and one person's place in it, Carney's award is much deserved, and hopefully this new release helps to celebrate one of the more underrated careers in Hollywood.
Mazursky and Carney are found not guilty, and Fox has done a long forgotten, award-winning film right. All parties are free to go, and court is adjourned.
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