Rewind: Films of the 60s, 70s, 80s – Harry and Tonto (1974)

by RICHARD WINTERS

Harry Coombes (Art Carney) is a 72 year old retiree who lives in a small New York apartment with his pet cat Tonto. He finds out that the complex is about to be torn down and he must leave. At first he moves in with his son and his family, but it does not work out. He decides to take a cross-country odyssey with Tonto where he meets a variety of interesting people in this senior citizen variation of Easy Rider.

One of the great things that sets this film apart from others that deal with aging is that there is no death, dying, illness, or senility here. Instead of learning to adjust to the ending of one’s life, our character instead realizes that old age is just another stage in a person’s existence and full of new experiences and possibilities. I thought it was cool and interesting how he meets a 15 year old teen girl runaway (Melanie Mayron in her film debut) named Ginger and the two set out to try and find themselves as well as search for life’s answers. They share a lot more in common than one might expect and only prove that life is a continual exploration no matter what stage you are in.

Harry is refreshingly laid back and easygoing unlike most elderly characters who tend to be betrayed as stuck in a bygone era. Although he does reminisce about the “old days” with his friends, he does not expound on boring stories of yesteryear with young people, nor act like he has all the answers simply because he is older. He approaches everyone in a non-judgmental way that allows the people he meets to be themselves. He proves to be a lot more flexible and open minded than the other, younger adults in the film including his own children.

There were only a few scenes involving Harry that I didn’t like. One is when he refuses to leave his apartment even as the wrecking ball crew stands outside. The police end up having to be carry him out while he still sits in his favorite chair, which seemed forced and unrealistic. There is another scene where he is at the airport ready to board a plane, but he refuses to allow, for no particular reason, the security people to search the cage that has his cat in it even though it is accepted procedure. This may have been writer-director Paul Mazursky’s way of showing that Harry could at times be set in his ways, but to me it went beyond being simply stubborn and more into the irrational and was not consistent with his behavior in the rest of the film.

The script has a lot of amusing and even touching slice-of-life vignettes as well as characters that are quirky, but not absurd. The scene with Harry meeting an old Indian medicine man named Sam Two Feathers that is played by elderly Indian actor Chief Dan George is well handled. George had no formal acting training, but his raw delivery is an inviting change of pace. I also enjoyed at the very end when he meets a woman with a bounty of pet cats who was played by comedian Lenny Bruce’s mother. Again, she had no acting training, but the scene captures her natural outgoing personality and it’s fun. Mazursky even gives himself a cameo as a gay prostitute who makes a pass at Harry.

I felt Phil Bruns gave an outstanding and overlooked performance as Harry’s older son Burt. The constant nervous and stressed-out expression on his face seemed to be a perfect composite of the middle-aged suburban male overrun with job demands and family responsibilities. Larry Hagman is good as well in a brief, but memorable appearance as Harry’s other son Eddie. He spends the first part of his visit with Harry trying to impress him with how good things are going only to end up breaking down when it becomes painfully obvious that he is desperate and broke.

If the film has any faults it is the fact that it is too amiable. I would have liked to have seen a little bit more action and comic misadventure. I thought it could have been funny and intriguing to see Harry inside a hippie commune, which is where he takes his two teen passengers. Instead he lets them off without going himself, which seemed like a missed opportunity. There is another part where he inadvertently hitches a ride with a high-priced hooker (Barbra Rhoades) who immediately starts to get “horny” when Harry gets in. She drives the car off the road and parks it in the middle of the desert and then the film cuts away. I think this could have been hilarious had this scene been extended. I was also disappointed that the very talented Ellen Burstyn is seen only briefly playing Harry’s daughter Shirley. This was even more of a shame because Burstyn is cast against type here playing a character that is rather edgy and opinionated and there was strong potential for some good drama.

There are a few extended conversations where Harry discusses with some of his old friends their inability to perform sexually and how they hadn’t had sex for well over twenty years. With the advent of Viagra, a product that was invented and manufactured right here in good old Indianapolis, these types of topics are no longer as relevant and make the film seem dated.

Of course the one thing that holds it all together and propels the movie from beginning to end is the outstanding Oscar-winning performance of Carney, who until then was best known as the comic sidekick Ed Norton from the classic series The Honeymooners. Although he seemed perfect for the part he was not the producers first choice and had to lobby hard to get the role. He was actually only 55 years old when the film was made and to help compensate he openly wore his hearing aid, which gets shown a lot, as well as dying his hair gray.

His win on Oscar night in 1974 became a historic upset. He was going up against very stiff competition that night including Dustin Hoffman for Lenny, Jack Nicholson for Chinatown, and Al Pacino for The Godfather Part 2. When Carney’s name gets called the look of shock on his face is very apparent as even he was not expecting it. The moment is worth a look and can be seen on YouTube for those who are interested.

My Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

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Last Time on Rewind: Eating Raoul (1982)
Coming Up Next: The Late Show (1977)

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