Director Paul Mazursky performs a delicate balancing act in Harry and Tonto (1974).
The film is a comedy, certainly, but a comedy shot through with issues of mortality, age, and dislocation. Mazursky, a director with genuine affection for his characters, keeps it all in perfect balance.
Harry Coombes (Art Carney in the role that won him a best actor Oscar) is a retired teacher living in the same Upper West Side apartment he shared for four decades with his late wife. Now his live-in companion is an orange cat named Tonto, who submits to being walked around New York’s streets on a leash.
But change is creeping up on Harry and Tonto. Their building is scheduled for demolition and after an ineffective protest (Harry tries to stare down the wrecking ball), they are relocated to the suburbs and the home of Harry’s son.
But Harry has lived too long amidst the bustle of Manhattan. He announces he’s going to travel to Chicago to visit his estranged daughter.
His bus trip is interrupted when Tonto runs away during a pit stop (in a rural cemetery, no less). From that point on the two travelers will make do with an old blue sedan Harry purchases at a used car lot.
Harry and Tonto is a classic road trip that takes our protagonists from NYC to LA. There’s really no through story, just a series of encounters along the way. But each of these meetings is so cleverly written (by Mazursky and Josh Greenfeld) and beautifully acted by an incredibly deep cast, that the film builds considerable emotional power.
And speaking of acting...Harry and Tonto is crammed with great performers: Ellen Burstyn as Harry’s brittle daughter. Melanie Mayron as a teen hitchhiker. A pre-Dallas Larry Hagman as Harry’s down-on-his-luck Hollywood hustler son. Chief Dan George as the Native American medicine man with whom Harry shares a Las Vegas jail cell. Western actor Arthur Hunnicutt as an eccentric traveling salesman. Barbara Rhoades as a high-priced call girl who gives Harry a lift (in more ways than one).
And especially Geraldine Fitzgerald as the old flame Harry locates in a nursing home, only to discover she’s deep in the depths of dementia.
The film almost didn’t get made. One can understand the studios’ concerns. A movie about an old guy? About death?
“They were afraid of old age,” Mazursky recalled. “I’d hear, ‘It’s a great script , but I don’t want to see a movie about my father.’ ”
Finally Fox agreed to back the project provided that the budget not go over $1 million and that Mazursky cast in the lead an actor with a high-TV profile. That way if the movie wasn’t good enough to release theatrically, it could earn back its cost via broadcast (this was well before most American homes were wired for cable).
Initially Mazursky had wanted James Cagney to play Harry. But the old tough-guy star was happily out to pasture and turned down the role (ironically, he came out of retirement seven years later to make his final big screen bow in Ragtime).
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At age 59, Art Carney was 15 years too young to be playing Harry. Moreover, he was known as a broadly comic actor because of his long-running role as sewer worker Ed Norton opposite Jackie Gleason in TV’s wildly popular The Honeymooners.
In order to play Harry, Carney would have to put aside his well-honed shtick and really act.
On the other hand, he had the high-TV profile Fox was seeking.
Carney wasn’t sure he was up to it. To the actor’s arguments that he was too young, Mazursky cajoled “Art, you’re deaf, balding, you have a bad leg...”
And the director made a prediction: “You’ll win an Oscar.”
As it turned out, Carney needed only to grow a bushy white moustache to effectively look 74 years old. He slowed down his movements. His limp and the hearing aid he wore weren’t actorly affections. Carney really limped and wore a hearing aid.
“I never directed Art,” Mazursky recalled. “I never told him what to do. He’s not a natural. He’s more than a natural. He’s a genius.
The film was shot in sequence as Harry and Tonto made their way across the country. Many of the scenes were improvised.
And, yes, Carney was nominated for an Oscar.
(At this point it’s worth noting that lots of actors in Mazursky films have earned Academy Award nominations, among them Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice), Jill Clayburgh (An Unmarried Woman), and Anjelica Huston and Lena Olin (Enemies: A Love Story).
On Oscar night Carney faced some fierce competition in the best actor category: Albert Finney (Murder on the Orient Express), Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), Al Pacino (The Godfather, Part II), and Dustin Hoffman (Lenny).
With all those heavy hitters, Carney was considered a long shot. But the Academy voters ended up giving him the statuette.
In his acceptance speech Carney thanked Mazursky and Greenfeld, his wife, and his agent of 25 years who, he said, gave this advice:
“Do it! You are old.”
Other films in the series “Road Trip”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- August 4: It Happened One Night (1934) Not Rated
- August 11: Badlands (1973) Rated PG
- August 18: Little Miss Sunshine (2006) Rated R
- August 25: Thelma & Louise (1991) Rated R
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- August 6: Harry and Tonto (1974) Rated R
- August 13: The Straight Story (1999) Rated G
- August 20: Vacation (1983) Rated R
- August 27: Broken Flowers (2005) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.