The Best Actor Oscar nominees for 1974 included Albert Finney for Murder on the Orient Express, Dustin Hoffman for Lenny, Jack Nicholson for Chinatown, and Al Pacino for The Godfather Part II. The winner was Art Carney, immortalized as the character Ed Norton on TV's The Honeymooners, for Harry and Tonto. Carney's win was not undeserved, even if Pacino and Nicholson each delivered performances among my favorite EVER. If I voted, I'd still go with Pacino by a hair over Nicholson, but that shouldn't detract from the superb work by Carney in this wonderful film
Harry Coombes (Carney) is a retired teacher and widower in his 70s. When he is forced to leave his apartment because the building is going to be demolished, he goes to live with his oldest son's family. Those living arrangements don't work out either, so Harry hits the road with Tonto to visit his other children. He encounters friends both new and old along the way.
Harry and Tonto is a film filled with lovely moments. Director Paul Mazursky has fashioned a gentle movie with many gorgeous shots. Mazursky clearly loves people as he finds extras with fascinating faces to put onscreen. Some of the scenes are amazing, and the script is excellent. Harry's friendship with Jacob Rivetowski (nicely played by veteran thespian Herbert Berghof) before he leaves New York is richly rendered. The scenes where Harry re-connects with his daughter Shirley, a thrice-divorced bookstore owner on Chicago. speak volumes on life. Ellen Burstyn creates a marvelously-nuanced Shirley in just a few lines.
The best part of the film finds Harry with a teenage hitchhiker named Ginger, who is quietly played by a young Melanie Mayron. Harry becomes protective of Ginger, and she urges him to look up Jessie Stone. a dancer who was Harry's first lover. She is reportedly in Indiana, which is sort of on the way to Chicago. After hitting one dead end, they find Jessie in a nursing home. Jessie has dementia, but she remembers Harry a little. Harry is moved, and is very tender towards Jessie. She then invites Harry to dance and the result is screen bliss. Geraldine Fitzgerald is truly award-worthy in her one scene as Jessie in the film.
Carney is superb as Harry. It's hard to imagine that he was only 56 when he made the film, as Harry is at least 15 years older. Carney's performance is layered, quiet, and thoughtful. With the afore-mentioned performances by Hoffman, Nicholson, and Pacino, 1974 truly had a plethora of great Best Actor nominees. (I find Finney's performance as Agatha Christie's detective Hercule Poirot to be too over-the-top for my tastes.)
There are other notable actors in the movie. Cliff de Young has an early career role as Harry's angry grandson Burt Jr. Josh Mostel is memorable as Harry's weird grandson Norman. Larry Hagman plays against type as Harry's son Eddie, who is failing at life and nearing desperation,. Eddie looks to Harry to bail him out. There is a great scene where Harry finds himself in jail with an Indian who has been arrested for practicing medicine without a license. The medicine man is played with humor by Chief Dan George, and the scene where he treats Harry for bursitis manages to be both warm and witty.
Throughout the movie, Harry interacts with his cat Tonto, but the film is about Harry embracing life among the humans he encounters. It's a message that resonates well after the movie ends. Mazursky's direction is outstanding. This is an example of the type of early 1970s cinema that I love, before the studios stopped making such thoughtful fare on a routine basis. Before the advent of the blockbuster. Despite a brief rough start near the beginning of the film, Harry and Tonto is one of the best quiet dramatic films that I can remember. I love this movie. Grade: A.
I originally saw Harry and Tonto edited for commercial TV in the late 1970s or early 1980s. I didn't remember much of it -- mostly the Ellen Burstyn and Larry Hagman scenes. It is much, much better than I remembered. I watched the movie this time via Netflix Streaming on January 31, 2013. It won't be another 30 years before I catch it again!