A First Look at Harry and Tonto...38 years Later
I watched "Harry and Tonto" on TCM during its "Oscar movies" promotion. Its from 1974, and famously won Art Carney the Oscar versus a slateful of hot youngish talent(Nicholson, Pacino,Hoffman, and Albert Finney in old-age make-up as Poirot.)
I did not see "Harry and Tonto" on release in '74, though I was very much around and saw the Nicholson, Pacino, Hoffman and Finney pictures. I caught "Harry and Tonto" in bits and pieces and scenes over the years, usually on cable TV.
Sitting through it in one sitting was a number of things.
Nostalgic, mainly. 1974 was famously "the downer year of movies"(tragedy befell the protagonists of Chinatown, Godfather II, Lenny, The Parallax View, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Earthquake...EVERYTHING.) And yet , it was " a very good year" and "Harry and Tonto," is part of that very good year. Not to mention, versus the "downers," though a bit tragic at the end, is actually quite life-affirming. I wish I saw it THEN.
"Harry and Tonto" was the second Oscar year in a row that Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino had to "wait their turn" while a veteran actor got the Best Actor nod. In '73, the choice was a bit more expected: Jack Lemmon in the super-depressing "Save the Tiger" beat Nicholson in The Last Detail and Pacino in Serpico. But Jack Lemmon's Best Actor nod was a long time coming -- 14 years since Some Like It Hot, with The Apartment, Days of Wine and Roses and The Odd Couple along the way.
Art Carney winning seemed more negligible -- he was hardly a big movie star like Jack Lemmon(though Carney originated Felix Unger in The Odd Couple on the stage) and was most famous as Jackie Gleason's dopey sidekick foil Ed Norton on The Honeymooners.
But it all worked out, as the Oscars oftimes do. Art Carney's performance was more than deserving in "Harry and Tonto," and Nicholson, Pacino and Hoffman would get their wins later(Nicholson, the very next year, Pacino almost 20 years later!) Only Albert Finney (to date) never caught up.
Art Carney had a very celebrated career on Broadway and in dramatic TV roles. And Ed Norton was a comic work of art. All of Carney's talent was well on display in "Harry and Tonto." He was 56 playing 72, for one thing. But he had an incisive way with a line, and with a facial expression, and we found ourselves totally WITH and liking Harry Coombes, his every reaction to every charcter he meets precisely communicating how Harry feels about these people.
Director Paul Mazurksy was in the middle of a "sixties-seventies roll" of character-based study of the angst and neurosis of two generations facing the sea change of the counterculture. He'd been there with "I Love You Alice B. Toklas"(Peter Sellers, hippies and pot brownies), the famously titled "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice," the hallucinatory "Alex in Wonderland," and the incisively hip divorce drama "Blume in Love." With "Harry and Tonto," Mazurksy chose to look at the travails of the New Age through the eyes of a hip old codger, and the results were very sweet.
The movie opens with a montage of REAL old people, walking the dirty, aged but oddly homey streets of tough New York City circa 1974. From them, emerges our elderly hero: Harry, widower, ex-teacher, philosophical tough guy. And the cat Tonto, whom Harry -- as so many alone-but-not-lonely people have done since time immemorial -- has turned into a "friend" to hear one-sided dialogue without responding at all. (Later examples would include the volleyball Tom Hanks talks to "Cast Away" and Jack Nicholson's unseen African adoptee "Ndugo" in "About Schmidt.") Harry sings old songs to Tonto -- asking him to guess the artist -- and Harry dotes on Tonto's diet and bathroom needs to the expense of society at large, getting kicked off a plane and later a bus because of his devotion to his cat child.
A tale of a lonely old man and his cat would be huggable from the get-go, but Mazurksy is after tougher game in "Harry and Tonto." Harry is evicted from his apartment building of many decades(it is to be torn down for a parking lot) and embarks on a cross-country trip to check in with -- and consider living with -- his three grown children.
The grown children are the "anchors" to the story, but it also a dyed-in-the-wool "road movie," quite popular in the 70's(Two-Lane Highway, Vanishing Point, Scarecrow) the 80's(Midnight Run) and recently in two works of Alexander Payne: "About Schmidt"(which shared an elderly widower hero played by the man Carney beat in '74, Jack Nicholson) and "Sideways."
Mazurksy's rather tough point is that, however bright and caring Harry seems to be...his children are generally messes. And yet, everybody is pretty nice and everybody is "experiencing the counterculture" one way or another. The eldest son (Phil Bruns) has the suburban Long Island home(near enough to the city for Harry to visit old friends), the wife and two sons situation, and it is close to normal, except one son has taken a vow of silence and the other has taken every drug known to man and Harry's eldest son explodes in fury against wife and children from time to time(the possible permanent presence of Father Harry in the house looks to tear it apart.) The eldest son has the closest thing to a regular family life, and clearly loves his father for his father's "stability", but Harry sees it just won't work living with him. So Harry heads on to Chicago and his daughter -- played by Ellen Burstyn just months after "The Exorcist" and in the same year she'd win Best Actress(to Art's Best Actor), 1974. Ellen's was for another road movie of sorts, "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," which is actually a good gritty slice-of-family life companion piece to "Harry and Tonto."
But Ellen's character in"Tonto" as Carney's daughter is four-times-divorced and clearly a confrontational type. (Her nephew, shorn of his vow of silence and come to "rescue" Harry, says he loves his aunt even if she is a b--.)
And all the way out in sunny Los Angeles -- where Mazursky lived and hung out -- Harry encounters his youngest child, Eddie. Its Larry Hagman, four years before his "Dallas" superstardom and some years after "I Dream of Jeannie" and using roles like this one to surprise us with their small gem-like emotional power. Eddie lives in a happening LA apartment complex("Hey," he remarks looking at a flyer, "Esalen weekend this weekend..great way to get laid, dad") and talks the good talk about selling insurance and real estate, but tearfully reveals to his father Harry that "I'm on my ass," broke...and desperate for his dad to move in and split expenses.
Harry's entirely loving but entirely tenous relationships with his messed-up adult kids seems to mean SOMETHING. Mazurksy is using a man from a simpler time(Harry) to contemplate what the pressures and freedoms and fissures of Baby Boomer life did to the next generation. But at no time do we feel that these family members don't love each other. They're family.
"Harry and Tonto" takes us from New York to Chicago to Denver to Arizona to Las Vegas to Hollywood to the Santa Monica coastline. The story moves from freezing cold to warm California sunshine, from a montage of elderly people to a near-final shot of a happy little girl. Though something very sad happens at the end(Tonto dies), there is an admirable sense of "late in life rebirth" for Harry. He's come in out from the cold and he seems better equipped than his grown children to have some happiness. Even with only a few years left. And he will try to help his children.
The other vignettes along the way-- Harry meeting a 16-year old(or is she 15, or is she 18?) female runaway to a Denver commune; Harry re-meeting the old flame of his youth in an old folks home(She's Geraldine Fitzgerald and you can see the gorgeous young dancer she WAS -- Harry must have been hot stuff); Harry meeting a vitamin salesman played by Arthur Hunnicutt of "El Dorado"; Harry meeting a pretty young Vegas-bound hooker who(we're pretty sure) makes him young again for a few hours; and perhaps above all, the recently minted scene-stealing Native American Chief Dan George as Harry's most noble and mystic Vegas cellmate. I even had some regard for the toupee-wearing used car salesman in the Midwest who sells Harry a vitally needed car to drive and reveals that, at 62, "I have to take strychnine to get it up."("Harry and Tonto" makes a rueful study of how old men and women must rely on memories of passion from long ago...but maybe not. Its a "pre-Viagra movie.")
Art Carney holds "Harry and Tonto" together so totally, so scene-by-scene, so expression-by-expression and line-by-line that I'd probably have given the Oscar to him over the others even without the "he's getting older this is his last shot, guys" element.
And "Harry and Tonto" is a strong entry in Paul Mazurksky's salutory attempt to "capture the zeitgeist" of the seventies, with movies centered in(or in "Harry"s case, combining) two cities in which Mazursky lived: New York and Los Angeles(he'd return to New York for the 50's period piece,"Next Stop, Greenwich Vilage,"in '76, and then perhaps his biggest hit, "An Unmarried Woman" in '78.)
Mazurksky started as an actor("The Blackboard Jungle") and has acted a lot in recent years, but he appears only for a brief moment in "Harry and Tonto": as the Hollywood gay street hustler who silently pitches flirtatious woo at a flabbergasted Harry. And that's Mazurksky's little girl in the final scene. Wonder what she looks like now.
Anyway, 38 years was worth the wait. "Harry and Tonto" is worth it on its own terms as a good movie, and worth it as a "time machine" back to a very interesting time in America. And there is some closure in thinking about how with Art Carney winning when he did, Nicholson('75, '83,'97), Hoffman('79,'88) and Pacino('92) all eventually got their own Oscars and lived their own lives in movies out to where they are still with us today.
And now Nicholson, Pacino, and Hoffman are as old as Harry Coombes. At least.