“Harry & Tonto” An Appreciation
Between Hurricane Irene and a serious late summer lack of an interesting movie to see, coming up with this week’s column was a challenge. I spent last weekend holed up in my mother’s house, in Westchester, making sure that Mom did not float away with Irene. We watched an excellent movie on DVD, “Harry & Tonto” (1974), starring Art Carney.
Now why write about having seen a 37-year-old movie on DVD? My reasoning is that I often write about much older films when they are re-released to theatres such as Film Forum or Film Society of Lincoln Center. So, why not write about an older movie that is probably better than anything currently in release and that readers can easily get from Netflix?
“Harry & Tonto” has special significance for me. It was the first movie that I ever went to all by myself. I saw it at the Pelham Picture House, in Pelham New York. Since that day, “Harry & Tonto” has been one of my favorite movies. My three top movies for 1974, were “Harry & Tonto,” “The Godfather Part II” and “Lenny.” Even as a cinematically sophisticated 12-year-old I did not know then that I was living in what is now considered to be the last golden age of American film – the seventies. These were just the movies that were playing. The lead actors for my three favorites were all up for the Best Actor Oscar for 1974: Al Pacino for “The Godfather Part II,” Dustin Hoffman for “Lenny” and Art Carney for “Harry & Tonto.” Carney won.
So why is “Harry & Tonto” so great? Carney, Carney, Carney. The man is relaxed, intuitive and in the moment every step of the way. He was 59 years old at the time, playing a man in his seventies. Plus, the movie has story, character, performance and charm. Remember those?
“Harry & Tonto” was written and directed by Paul Mazursky, and co-written by Jeff Greenfeld. Carney plays Harry Coombs, a long time New Yorker, and widower, who has been thrown out of his apartment (no, he does not live in Stuyvesant Town). Harry takes off across the country, with his cat Tonto, stopping to visit his grown children along the way.
In 2009 Robert De Niro starred in lackluster film called “Everybody’s Fine,” (a remake of an Italian movie) in which his character, a widower, also takes a cross-country trip, during which he stops to visit his grown up children. Sound familiar? If “Everybody’s Fine” “borrowed” from “Harry & Tonto” it missed the point. In “Harry & Tonto” Harry is doing much more than just visiting his kids, which is the story’s text. He is looking for his place in the world, which is the story’s subtext. “Everybody’s Fine” has next to no subtext.
In addition De Niro is way too preciously rumpled in “Everybody’s Fine,” while Carney is as natural as can be in “Harry & Tonto.” It is interesting to note that at the 1974 Oscars, when Carney won his for Best Actor Oscar for “Harry & Tonto,” De Niro won the Best Supporting Oscar for “The Godfather Part II.” How the mighty have fallen.
“Harry & Tonto” has a terrific, yet understated, supporting cast that includes, Ellen Burstyn, Larry Hagman, Josh Mostel (credited as Joshua Mostel) and a host of great character actors. The film’s smallest parts – a cab driver, a landlady, neighbors – are performed by actors who are as genuine as can be, playing real people. Even Tonto (actually played by two cats) is great. The DVD also has an informative commentary track with Mazursky talking about the making of the film.