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Classic Movie Blog - Harry and Tonto
Considering my love of movies, and especially my love of 1970′s films, which is considered the last great decade of American film-it is surprising that I hadn’t seen Harry and Tonto before now. When I was young, and obsessed with movies (like I am not now?) I remember checking out every possible book I could find on movies and especially the Academy Awards that the Flower Memorial Library had. There was one book I checked out often and it had photos of all the Oscar winning performances up to the publication date-sometime in the mid to late 70′s. I vowed, at that time to see every Oscar winning performance, including Art Carney’s subtle turn in Harry and Tonto. Later, I had a book, titled They Didn’t Win the Oscar, which spotlighted great performances only nominated, or completely ignored by the Academy. But it also highlighted performances that won, they considered overrated. Art Carney was on this list, with the author of the book livid and chalking his win up to the old guard of Hollywood and bias toward young Hollywood. Three of the greatest American film actors were nominated and ignored the year Carney won: Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson. All three of them were rebellious and had a “I don’t care about Hollywood or award shows” attitude. Most people looking back are appalled that a tv actor playing a character 20 years older than himself (Carney was only is his mid 50′s) could winner over iconic performances in The Godfather Part II, Lenny and Chinatown. Today a man in his seventies would play a man in his seventies. I expected to be disappointed, but this is a terrific bittersweet story of an elderly man’s journey with his cat. Carney is affable, credible and understated – a moving performance without ever being showy.
Bette Davis is quoted as saying old age is no place for sissies, and the struggles widowed Harry faces as an elderly person are just as poignant and relevant forty-six years after the film was made. Evicted from his NYC apartment because the building is being torn down, and refusing to accept alternate housing, Harry most say good-bye to his beloved neighborhood and life as he knows it. Literally carried out into street with his beloved cat Tonto by cops, he begins a journey that involves finding his new home. Along the way he visits or stays with his very different children: Burt (Phil Burnes), Shirley (Ellen Burstyn) and Eddie (Larry Hagman). This film is so old the late Larry Hagman wasn’t yet famous as JR Ewing yet.
Along the way he meets new friends, gets kicked off public transportation for carrying a cat, has a rendezvous with an old love, and finally finds his new place and life. Director Paul Mazursky is famous for his intimate films about people and authentic relationships, and this little gem has a breezy, warmth that you don’t see much anymore. It is totally unpretentious and never once drifts toward any thematic grandstanding. It is filled with terrific people.
And let’s face it, the cat is terrific, and adorable.
side note research: did you know there as an acting award called “The Carney” named after Art Carney - for actors who are great character actors, chamelons? Check out their website