Retrospective: "Harry and Tonto"

There are certain acclaimed films of the seventies that have become somewhat lost behind the shadow of more famous titles such as “The Godfather” and “Rocky.” Films like Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence”, Ashby’s “Being There” and Mazursky’s “Harry and Tonto” come to mind in this sea of wondrous yet forgotten cinema. The latter of those films is one that I’ve always wanted to see, and I finally decided to fulfill my desire to see “The Honeymooners” Art Carney in the role that brought him his one and only Academy Award. The 1974 film wasn’t too sappy or overdone and it features an extraordinarily moving Carney who displays indisputable lovability and a brilliant relationship with life.

The story is uncomplicated. Carney plays widowed septuagenarian Harry Coombes, a man who lives a simple life and purely adores his cat Tonto. At the beginning of the film, Harry is forced out of his New York apartment. He is literally pulled out by the police, a clever device to show his undying pain of the loss of his wife Annie. This pain is rarely discussed fully through the film, but her loss is undeniably omnipresent. This is where Tonto comes in. Tonto is his safety blanket, and it is their relationship that fashions the film’s tenderness and inarguably blissful nature.

Harry moves in with his son Burt played interestingly guarded by Philip Bruns. The back story between Burt and his father is not developed but is shown through Bruns’ performance and the fascinating way that writer/director Paul Mazursky and co-writer Josh Greenfeld create their dialogue and develop the relationship between Burt and his own family. The term dysfunctional is thrown around a lot in the description of cinematic families, but Burt’s family absolutely fits that definition in this crooked family portrait. His children, albeit almost grown-up, are severely affected by their generation and Burt’s disconnection from their culture. The dinner scene that depicts this rift is intensely affecting.

Burt’s son Norman (Josh Mostel) is especially lost. Paul Dano’s character Duane Hoover in 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine” owes a lot to Mostel’s performance. Like Duane, Norman has taken a vow of silence due to his misguided views of drugs and their even more misguided association to Zen religions. Norman is constantly discouraged in his search for himself. However, Norman is not too misplaced in the world, especially when he develops his relationship with his grandfather. Harry wakes up in the middle of the night and in a very touching scene, he comforts Norman by simply taking interest.

Feeling trapped Harry picks up Tonto and sets off across country to see his other children. He shares a very warm goodbye with his son (a truly heartbreaking character) and enters the airport ready to set off. Unfortunately his inability to part with his cat and his distrustful relationship with law sends him back out the door and into a cab. The cabbie takes him to the bus station where he sets off for Chicago. Again, Harry’s trip becomes delayed when he gets off the bus to let Tonto relieve himself who then runs off. The bus leaves, and Harry must find his way to Chicago by other means. He buys a car for the low price of $250 (showing the age of the film) and finally finds his way to the Windy City.

On the way to Chicago, Harry picks up an oddball 16-year-old named Ginger (Melanie Mayron in her debut film role). Harry is incredibly dialed into the younger generation. As mentioned before Harry makes an interesting connection with Norman, but it is his relationship with Ginger that is especially intriguing. She brings out his youth, a side he has obviously not seen in years. She is adorably naive, and brings out Harry’s spirit and truly engages him. During their hotel stay, Ginger gets Harry to talk about his life before Annie. Harry describes his first love Jessie Stone, a free-spirited woman who he had loved very much until she left him for Isadora Duncan. This back-story is what realizes Harry’s ability to connect with Ginger and Norman. These two are children of the sixties and seventies, a very sexual era. Harry himself is not unaware of this time period, as he has now admitted that he was part of the roaring twenties. He understands much more than the stiff 1940s parental units that these two have been stuck under and break free from.

This conversation leads to the most moving scene in the film. Ginger persuades Harry to go visit Jessie, who is played by Hollywood legend Geraldine Fitzgerald (“Wuthering Heights”). In a very funny sequence that precedes the unwavering tears that follow, Harry finds the wrong Jessie Stone in an overweight black woman who he has never set eyes on. But he soon finds the real Jessie who hasn’t had a visitor in years in the geriatric home and she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Jessie can only remember certain things, but not the most important. Fortunately, Harry’s new appreciation for life brought upon by this road trip tells him exactly what to do. He picks her up and graciously dances with her, creating one of the warmest scenes I’ve ever seen on screen.

The rest of the film creates a full circle in terms of the Coombes family. Harry meets his daughter Shirley (Ellen Burstyn) and Eddie (Larry Hagman). Shirley’s relationship with her father is obviously the harshest out of the three children. But she truly loves her father, even though she doesn’t always necessarily like him. Burstyn (who won an Oscar the same year for another film, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”) only has a few scenes, but her talent shines through and she fits oddly into the Coombes family. The scene introducing Shirley also brings the return of Norman. He is now speaking, and has visibly found himself after separating himself as far as he can from his discouraging mother and father. We meet a more contented Norman, and we feel even happier when he finds a mutual attraction to Ginger. Their relationship blossoms, and when they leave the screen we hardly feel bad for either of them.

When Harry arrives in L.A., we finally get to meet Eddie. Eddie is a mess. Unlike his brother and sister, he is utterly lost. When he’s introduced he is outwardly alright. He drives a nice car, lives in a cool apartment, and he seemingly is comfortable in the California lifestyle. Harry knows otherwise. When Eddie tries to invite his father to live with him and split the rent, Harry questions his son’s money situation and breaks him down. Eddie disappears from the film at this point, somewhat questionably. We yearn for closure, but unfortunately we must be left worrying about Harry’s regrettably lost son.

The film has a hopeful ending, which oddly takes place after the sad but timely death of Tonto. Tonto’s ubiquitous nature in the film must be broken, in order for Harry to finally live his life freely. Harry meets a comical cat lady who offers him a place to stay. One of the cats (resembling Tonto) runs away across the beach. Harry catches him, but then lets him free when he sees a young child playing in the sand. The camera zooms away but stays in a long shot until the very end of the credits. Harry has the looming fear of death throughout the whole film, and with this child he finally makes a connection with himself. He knows that he kind of screwed up his kids, but he doesn’t have to worry about them. Life moves on, and so will his family.

The film truly belongs to Carney, who brings a layered and lived-in performance to the screen. Harry’s love for life is infectious and his warmth is refreshing. Carney delivers a tour de force performance and is simply unforgettable. It is the performance that carries the film. Mazursky isn’t the most original of directors of his time, and comparisons to Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude” must be made. That film was released two years earlier and inspired many directors. Mazursky was obviously one of them. It’s nice to see someone appreciate a filmmaking pioneer, but unavoidable similar styles are a bit distracting. Harry is oddly familiar to the patented character of Maude. His devotion to life is just too recognizable.

“Harry and Tonto” was pleasantly warm and shouldn’t be pushed away in cinema history. 34 years later, it has many themes that are still relatable. Our respect for the elderly is as distant now as it was then and it takes a good film like this one to strike a chord and remind us of our older generations. I found a lot of similarities in Harry to my own grandfather, adding a very different perception to the film from my point of view. I certainly recommend this, and I’m very happy I finally got to meet “Harry and Tonto.”

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Filed under Hal Ashby, Harold and Maude, Harry and Tonto, Retrospective, Review

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