Art Carney

Harry and Tonto – Directed by Paul Mazursky.

I somehow missed Art Carney in the '70s. I was fairly young and the two films he's most remembered for from this period, The Late Show and this one weren't exactly aimed at my demographic. They both slipped under my radar until just recently. Harry and Tonto is a road movie of sorts. It's only during the second half of the film that Harry actually hits the road but the film itself is about his journey, both physically and metaphorically across the States. Carney plays a vibrant widower in his '70s who is evicted from his family apartment and forced to temporarily move in with his son. His constant companion is an old tabby cat named Tonto and the two undertake a journey from New York to Chicago (and ultimately on to California) to visit his two other adult children. Harry meets a variety of characters along the way and what unfolds is a truly engaging experience of mid-'70s Americana.

This film is right in the meat of writer-director Paul Mazursky's best years (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Blume in Love, Next Stop Greenwich Village, An Unmarried Woman, etc.) and Harry and Tonto might be his best. Even so, the film belongs to Art Carney in an astonishing performance that won him an Oscar. Carney portrays Harry with dignity and compassion but without bitterness. When was the last time that happened? Virtually every film I can think of with an older character seems to have as its central premise the goal of recapturing some youthful moment. Not here. Mazursky and Carney are happy to simply tell the story of a man satisfied with his life and his past. There are moments of reflection peppered through Harry and Tonto but none of regret.

I gather that part of the story here is about the United States itself. The founding father visiting his three children in New York, Chicago and L.A., each child somewhat representative of the place where they live. His journey is from east to west, like the expansion of America itself and the ever-expanding spaces that unfold. He friends and acquaintances include an older Polish New Yorker, a Black janitor from his building, a Puerto Rican grocer and he meets a veritable cross-section of Americans on his westward journey.

Harry is the wise, contemplative and open man I think we all want to become in time. I know it'll be tough to get any of you youngsters to watch this but I think you'll be surprised by how effective and sincere a film it is. At the very least, you'll get to see a once-in-a -lifetime performance by a great actor who obviously shared an affinity with this character. My highest recommendation.


the coelacanth said...

i enjoy the little of mazursky i've seen, and carney was a real treat in the late show, but i'm ashamed to admit i've never even heard of this one, even though, as you mention, it netted carney an oscar. your description of the film sounds kind of like about schmidt...similarities?

i'll check this out for sure, even though i may not count as one of the youngsters you were hoping would do so (i hope i do, though).

La Sporgenza said...

Harry and Tonto doesn't have the same melancholy that About Schmidt had with Harry's journey more haphazard and unscripted. I can't quite think of a movie like this one, maybe The Straight Story or Kotch with Walter Matthau. We've only got this in the west end - it came buried in a Best Performances boxset.

the coelacanth said...

cool - thanks for the heads up, i'll look for it.

Dropkick said...

i was thinking About Schmidt too, but if this is along those lines without the melancholy then sign me up. A film starring an older person who isn't in a crisis or trying to find themselves? Instead they are content with a cat?
i really would like to check this one out.
thank sporet

the coelacanth said...

kris, i miss you already.

the coelacanth said...

i watched this last night and entirely agree with what you've written. what a beautiful (but not maudlin) portrayal of a man who has lived a full life, and lived it well. like ginger says to harry in the car, after harry asks if he can get personal, "sure, but no lectures". the whole film came across very much like that: personal, but without that insulting, preachy tone that often comes across in these sorts of films. and such a perfect, bittersweet ending. life goes on. can't recommend this one enough. thanks for letting me in on the secret, sporge.