Harry and Tonto

December 9th, 2009

S: Back in the day, I read all of the Carlos Castaneda books, the first ones about peyote and then later about self-actualization without an altered conciousness. In his third book, “Journey to Ixtlan,” he talks about being impeccable, about living an impeccable life… being exactly who your are, without confusion or pretense. Being here now – as the philosophers of the time suggested. I always wondered what that really meant, what was it like to be impeccable. Then I saw this movie and I finally understood what Castaneda was talking about.

In some ways it’s a road movie/buddy movie. Harry is an old man who is being ejected from everything he knows – his comfort-zone is literally destroyed. Tonto is his best friend and is, at times, his most sane companion, even though he is a cat. Harry is forced out of his home by a wrecking ball. A long-time resident of New York City, he has worn a path from his apartment, to the market, to the park and back, never veering off of his course. He looks and feels old. You get the feeling that someone would have found him in his apartment dead for 3 or 4 days and wouldn’t have missed him or noticed. But, he is forced out, and forced to move on. It seems a disaster to him and he refuses to go – even though in the end I think it is the best thing for him. One of my favorite moments is when they are ejecting him from his home – he’s sitting in his easy chair with the cat in his lap while the cops are bringing him outside (carrying him in the chair) just as the wrecking ball starts to tear down his home. And in some ways, it’s a bit prophetic as he shouts, “Blow winds, Crack your cheeks” from King Lear, because Harry has three children and his journey will take him to each one in turn. (I also love that he quotes Shakespeare a lot)

As in any road move, there is a journey. Harry’s physical journey is to move in with his son, then – due to some unpleasant circumstances – he moves on to his daughter in Chicago, and then on to his youngest son in California. He and Tonto have many adventures along the way, hitchhikers, getting thrown out of an airplane, thrown into jail, off of a bus, reminiscing about his wife – he’s a widower, and his old girlfriend Jesse. When you read that last sentence, you might think this is a screwball comedy and it does have it’s funny moments. But Harry’s journey is a profound one. It’s an emotional journey that he takes as he faces each of his children. He has to come to terms with his own aging, accept who he is, and also accept who his children have become. In some ways, he realizes that his children are not going to save him and in doing that he comes to terms with his parenting mistakes and the imperfections of his relationships. It’s like he reconnects with each of them, just to be able to let them go, and move on with what’s left of his life.

And what a life it is. Harry is one of the greatest characters in any film I’ve ever seen. Harry is played by Art Carney. I was never a big “Honey-Mooners” fan and all I ever thought when I heard Art Carney’s name was goofy Ralph Cramden. Harry is nothing like Ralph. He is funny, angry, and real. He’s not always nice, but he is always fair, and Carney’s performance is subtle and perfect as he moves from being a grouchy set-in-his-ways old man, to someone who is really alive. He won an Oscar for his performance and it is well-deserved! The film was directed by Paul Mazursky and it is funny at times, poignant at others, and always emotionally rich. To me, Harry seems to get younger as he moves West and when you see him playing chess on the beach in California and talking about Buddhism he hardly seems like the same man thrown out of his home at the beginning of the story.

His oldest son is played by character actor Phil Bruns and Josh Mostel plays his nephew Norman (who has taken a vow of silence, LOL). His feminist daughter is played by Ellen Burstyn, and his youngest son, the sad swinger, is played by Larry Hagman. Hagman in particular is amazing and nails his performance. Again, when I think of him I think of JR – but his performance in this film is a revelation. Some of the best scenes in the film are between Harry and his son Eddie.

This is one of those films I would take to a desert island with me. I can watch it again and again, crying and laughing, but always feeling like I’m in the presence of something meaningful and lovely.

Director: Paul Mazursky
Harry: Art Carney
Eddie: Larry Hagman
Released in 1974 (I saw it on HBO in the late 80s)
Bill Conti wrote the score and Paul Mazursky wrote the screenplay

Trivia from IMDB: James Cagney was originally offered the role of Harry. Other people considered for the role were Sir Laurence Olivier and Cary Grant before Art Carney was finally cast. Paul Mazursky’s words to Carney were “You’ll win an Oscar,” which turned out to be prophetic.

Sadly it is hard to find on DVD – but there are used copies around. I recently picked it up on my DVR from TCM.

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