"Harry & Tonto"
I don't normally write movie reviews here, but I don't normally see a film like this one. I rented it because it's that rare thing -- a "buddy movie" about a man and his CAT, not a man and his dog. Lots of dog feature films out there. Not so many with a cat. I read that Carney won an Oscar for his performance, but I didn't expect to get the total GEM of a film that this turned out to be.
If you have never seen this, run out and rent it RIGHT NOW. Even if you're not a cat person, rent it anyway. It's not about the cat.
Although shot in 1974, it doesn't feel dated. You could pretend is was made yesterday, but set in 1974. It stars the inimitable Art Carney as Harry Coombes, with an ensemble cast, some of whom had or went on to have stellar careers of their own. (And it's ironic that I'm watching it just a few days after the death of Larry Hagman, who has a supporting role.) Ellen Burstyn is in it, and Phil Burns, Chief Dan George (one of Hollywood's better known native actors of the 60s/70s), and a very cute, very young Melanie Mayron. Most people know Carney best from "The Honeymooners," but this role won him an Oscar -- and it's very much his vehicle. Without such a subtle, talented actor as lead, this film would have flopped.
Yet as a road-trip film, PLACE is as much a "character": as the humans in the film. We move from coast to coast: New York City to Los Angeles, with Chicago and various other destinations in between (Ft. Wayne, IN, somewhere in Arizona, and Las Vegas).
What I love about this film is that it features older people, not just Carney, but his NYC friends, as unique, interesting people with vivid lives-- not stereotypes. They're funny, irreverent, opinionated, sometimes wise, sometimes foolish. In other words, fully human, but with a lot of experience to share for those willing to listen. This is what Elder means in native communities. The character of Harry Coombes was a former English teacher, and as he's talking to the young Ginger (Mayron), he tells about how he once thought about pursuing a career in entertainment after working as a singing waiter while going to college. But instead, he says, education needed him more, and teaching was like performing anyway, holding the interest of one's students. Speaking as a professor, he's absolutely right. Teaching is performance art. And even retired, now a widower evicted from his NYC home and on the road, he's still a teacher ... and more than a little bit performer.
But interacting with the younger people he meets wakes the younger Harry, as well. First is his nephew, Norman (Josh Mostel), pursuing a rather twisted mishmash of Eastern philosophy and '70s drug culture, who's taken a vow of silence. The rest of the family (Harry's eldest son, wife, and another nephew) find the whole thing ridiculous. And, really, it is. But they seem to miss the point. Harry, being on the outside, takes time to ask questions ... and offer some thoughts. And Norman listens. He doesn't change his mind immediately, but it's obvious the fact someone he knows took time to talk to him matters. Interest is a wiser path than deaf disapproval. Even if one may disapprove, or question, without paying attention, it means nothing. (My mother taught me that, long before I saw this film. Because she listened and engaged with what interested me, even if it didn't interest her, I, in turn, listened to her opinion. But that's a blog for another day.)
Harry's tie with the underage, run-away hitchhiker Ginger is similar. He listens, and shares his own experiences ... so she listens in turn. There's an old saying that our Elders and our Children share a special bond because the latter are at the beginning of the circle of life, while the latter are at the end. I think there's a lot of truth to that, and if this film does nothing else, it demonstrates the continued value of our Elders especially to our children. (This reminds me, also, of an lovely song by the very talented indie blues singer, India Arie, "Better People.") And, btw, when Ginger ends up with Harry's nephew Norman (of the silence), it feels quite fitting. Yes, staged for the film, but not forced (there's a difference).
The irony behind all this is that his relationships with his own children are clearly less healthy. He's a better grandfather (and teacher), perhaps, than father. The fact his daughter Shirley (Burstyn) calls him by his given name, not "Pop" (as with the two sons), says a lot.
As with all good Road Trip stories, it's not just about Harry teaching others, but Harry learning along the way. In NYC, one of his good friends is Leroy (played by Avon Long), a neighbor of his generation who happens to be black. When Leroy is invited to dinner at Harry's son's home in the NYC suburbs, some rather funny, subtle critique of honest friendship versus fake acceptance takes place. But when he later goes looking for a former sweetheart and gets the right name but wrong person -- and she turns out to be black -- awkwardness ensues, but of the honest sort and it's not long-lasting because they quickly get beyond skin color and interact as people. This is the very human side the film consistently illumines. It's understated, sometimes funny, sometimes painful, but avoids being preachy even while hitting head-on some of the big social issues of the early/mid-70s. It doesn't avoid them, but it also doesn't dwell. Maybe, in the end, the confusion of parties in Ft. Wayne wouldn't have been any less awkward if the woman had been white, not black. And that's the sort of challenging question this film asks. Get beyond perceptions, but don't ignore reality. We'll come back to this in Las Vegas.
But first, and even before the road trip begins, there is a significant, symbolic encounter back in NYC. Harry has many friends of various ethnic groups, but one is Jacob (Herbert Berghof), a Polish immigrant who, amusingly, goes on and on about "damn capitalists! and "damn Nazis!" His full background is never explained, but we can guess. The two have a casual-intimate relationship forged on a NYC park bench. When his Polish friend dies shortly before he leaves the city, Harry goes to identify the body so his friend can have a proper burial. When he arrives at the morgue, there's a brief issue because he's not family, but as he points out, Jacob's family are all back in Poland. When they ask for Jacob's SS$#, or even his birthday, Harry can't give an answer. They let him in anyway (lacking other options), and he then tells stories to the morgue worker, showing he knew his friend far better than stats could ever reveal. The essence of what makes us human is not our birthday, our ethnicity, our SS#, or any of those census details. It's the story of our lives.
To see a person real. That seems to be Harry's great gift through much of the film ... although, and again ironically, he sees his adult children the least real of all. But he's trying. His encounters with his book-shop owner daughter in Chicago, and later his youngest son in LA, show that he's trying, even if the latter falls flat.
(Almost) all the characters in the film are, ultimately, likeable in their own odd way. (The most distasteful are his eldest son's wife and one of the nephews.) But even while being likeable, they're also human. Some of the scenes were almost painful in their authenticity. I sometimes had to pause the film to think about it before continuing ... as one does with a good book.
One of the more subtly hysterical scenes is when Harry pretends to be a traveling salesman while in a cab in NYC. He claims to sell CATS. The cabby totally buys it, ridiculous as it sounds. BUT, later in the film, Harry meets a real traveling salesman who used to sell ... cats! It's one of the ways the film borders on the surreal, but by that point, we're ready to believe about anything, as if -- once Harry has passed Chicago (the furthest west he's heretofore been) into the "mythical" American West -- ANYthing is possible. And of course, the salesman fellow is a total sleeze, but colorful and fun.
As the film progresses, we watch Harry shed his inhibitions. At one point, he gets a ride from a hooker. Remember, Harry is a widower in his '70s, and when earlier, the young Ginger gives him a free glimpse of her breasts (in a non-sexual setting), he's clearly unsettled. Of course, she's very young, younger than his grandchildren. But he's also still "emerging" into his own. On the road to Las Vegas, the (safely adult) hooker offers a bit more than a glimpse, and he's ready to take her up on it.
(It's all Offscreen. There's some frank discussion of sexuality, but aside from that one mentioned very brief shot of bare breasts, this is not a graphic film. In fact, if that breast shot earned the film its /R/, I'd consider this perfectly safe for anybody 13/14+. It might even be GOOD for younger teens to hear older people talking about sexual activity in realistic, non-romanticized ways ... they're not dead. It's a far better film for teens than graphic violence, IMO.)
In fact, the entire Las Vegas sequence was amusing. Among other things, a drunk Harry is arrested for peeing in public, which is where he meets Sam Two-Feathers (Chief Dan George), a medicine man arrested when a patient died. He says he practices good medicine on good people, and bad medicine on bad people. He heals Harry of his arthritis. But the discussion of Harry's cat is another way in which racism is confronted and dismissed. Harry explains his cat is named "Tonto" after the Lone Ranger & Tonto, a famous radio show. Two-Feathers has never heard of it, says he doesn't own a radio. Harry says he's sorry, (and one can almost hear him thinking, 'Wow, you're so poor/beyond civilization you don't have a radio?'), but Two-Feathers goes on to explain he has a TV. So much for primitive. He also discusses a blender with Harry, and says his wife will be very pleased to have it, when Harry gives it to him. Again, their whole conversation upends stereotypes even while subtly acknowledging them. The real Indian doesn't recognize "Tonto," the most famous (fake) Hollywood Indian of the era. But the real Indian does own a TV and a blender, even while he's a medicine man able to heal a persistent ailment Harry has suffered for years. He isn't a stereotype. He's just a guy, from a unique culture living in the modern world.
In many ways, I found this film better and more honest about ethnic issues than many films made post 2000. It's elegant and clear-eyed. It makes its points so softly, one almost doesn't recognize them until one finds one's self seeing anew. Bravo. All authors (myself included) could take a page on ethnicity issues from "Harry and Tonto."
Finally, Harry makes it to the other coast -- L.A. -- and his youngest son, Eddie (Larry Hagman). Eddie is almost the cliche of Playboy California, but as we discover, it's surface. He's in need of money. His father tries to help him, but the son just disappears once the surface nature of his life is uncovered. He wants help, but only if it's under the table. Being Real isn't something Eddie can do ... even while Being Real is something Harry has gradually perfected.
Harry ends up on his own in L.A., hanging out at the beach boardwalk, playing chess among the older generation and debating philosophy ... not that different (except in setting) from his life in NYC. Different coast, same (sort of) people ... and that's part of the philosophical debate he has with his new friends, in fact ... "We breathe the same air." Indeed, we do.
The ending is both sad and oddly hopeful. I won't give it ALL away, but have a few tissues. The final shot shows Harry with a kid on the beach, who's building a sand castle ... a structure quintessentially impermanent. Like life.
It really is a beautiful film, not to be missed, however "old" it may be. It's not old at all.
Ironically, what caused me to rent the film -- the cat -- was the only "thumbs-down" I'd give. He's a cute red tabby ... but well, he's just there. As a life-long cat owner, I never felt much connection between Tonto (the cat) and Harry. In fact, the cat often looked like he was just putting up with it all.
This may owe in part to the fact Carney doesn't seem to know how to interact with a cat, or even how to carry one properly. The poor cat sorta hangs, clutched in Carney's grip, much of the time. Maybe that was intentional, but it looked strange to a cat person. I know of NO cat who likes to be held with one arm under the chest, rear legs left hanging. I've known cats who ride on shoulders, or half on shoulders, who like to be carried like babies, who hang over two arms outstretched, or who sit tucked in the corner of an elbow (if small enough). But not dangled. It's a wonder the poor kitty didn't bite him! It didn't help that Tonto had little onscreen charisma, and wasn't very vocal.
Perhaps, like the people in the film, the director wanted "just a real cat." Unfortunately, he seemed like a cat chosen at random -- not Harry's long-term companion. He didn't interact with Harry in a way that left a true cat-owner with a sense that this cat loved HARRY. He wasn't Harry's cat. He was a cat hired because he walked on a leash. The fact he was carried as much by other characters as by Harry, says a lot.
If hiring a regular red tabby may have fit the story's general theme, it might have been better to use a "breed" cat known to be people-oriented. Siamese/Oriental short-hairs are more talkative and "human centric" (following "their" people around from room to room). Even half-Siamese will show that characteristic. For that matter, my son's cat Licorice has more personality than Tonto in the film. He's a good example of a very smart, laid-back, but remarkably personable "alley cat." So it doesn't have to be a "breed" cat, it just needs to be a very special cat, able to carry the "animal" part of the film much as Carney carried the human part. Tonto wasn't it.
Perhaps this was a case of bad animal casting, or a case of "actor doesn't really know cats." But the defining relationship of the film -- that between Harry and Tonto -- fell flat for this cat-lover. I wanted to believe it, because otherwise, the film was exceptional ... but I didn't. Tonto felt like a prop, not a character.
And that's too bad.
But don't let that stop you from renting the film. It's absolutely worth your time. Art Carney earned every bit of that Oscar.