Jack Nicholson did not win the Best Actor Oscar for "Chinatown." Nor did Al Pacino for "The Godfather Part II." Or Dustin Hoffman for "Lenny." Or Albert Finney for "Murder on the Orient Express."
No, the golden statuette went to stage and TV actor Art Carney, then best known as Jackie Gleason's dimwitted sidekick Norton on "The Honeymooners." He played elderly ex-teacher Harry Coombes, evicted from his rent-controlled New York City apartment, briefly ensconced at his son's middle-class suburban home and then off on a destination-less journey westward accompanied only by his tabby cat, Tonto.
In keeping with the tropes of the road picture, there's not much rhyme or reason to Harry's journeys, other than discovering new places and people. The plot is more or less determined by his encounters, some of them profound, some of them merely amusing, a few depressing. Carney carries the picture as a man of structure who finds that he's grown tired of his confines, and yearns to ramble.
(I do feel compelled to point out that Carney was actually only 55 when the movie came out, playing 70-something Harry. As a result, he became one of those actors, like Alec Guinness and Wilford Brimley, who was actually much younger than the populace thought the was. Carney rode the success of "Harry and Tonto" to a couple more decades of busyness in Hollywood in "old man" roles.)
Director and co-writer Paul Mazursky (with Josh Greenfeld) made movies that were largely about the in-between spaces that most films skip over. He seemed less interested in the big clanging events in life than what happens right before, or after.
His recent passing, along with that of Robin Williams, prompts me to recall the lovely "Moscow on the Hudson," about a gentle Russian who defects to the West. Mazursky was a strange species in Hollywood, an animal who could effortlessly swim in the intersecting tides of sadness, drama and laughter without ever seeming like he was stretching for an emotional crescendo that wasn't there.
His films also eschewed easy stereotypes and simplistic characterizations. Take Harry's eldest son, Burt (Phil Bruns), who takes in his dad after he is forcibly evicted from his apartment so it can be torn down for a parking garage. Normally this sort of guy is used in the movies as a demonstration of middle-class desperation, the hard-working "family man" who finds himself estranged from his loved ones and bereft of his youthful passions. But while clearly high-strung, especially about the fates of his own young adult boys, Burt is portrayed as a loving son who looks out for Harry and genuinely cares about him, even if he can't fathom his motivations.
I also admired the depiction of Harry's grandson Norman (played by Joshua Mostel, Zero's boy), a gentle young man who is experimenting with various aspects of youth culture, including a vow of silence and mild-altering drugs. Harry, forced to share a room with the boy, is entirely non-judgmental about Norman's choices, even asking to borrow the books he's reading so he can better relate to the younger generation.
But ultimately Harry decides it's time for him to move on, especially after his best (only?) friend dies, a Polish radical, Jacob (Herbert Berghof), who angrily dismisses everyone he dislikes as a "capitalist bastard" -- even his own father. Harry's only real social structure was going to the store for groceries and treats for Tonto, good-natured banter with his fellow senior apartment dwellers and park bench conversations with Jacob.
Harry plans to visit his daughter in Chicago (Ellen Burstyn), but refuses to go through security at the airport when they want to X-ray Tonto's pet carrier. Similarly, a bus drive ends abruptly due to more Tonto troubles, so he buys an old jalopy for $250 and commences the road portion of the trip. Along the way he picks up a teen runaway (Melanie Mayron), who embarrasses him by revealing her breasts upon emerging from their hotel shower.
Other adventures include meeting a man who sells New Age-y medicinal health food (and blenders); a drunken stroll through a Las Vegas casino, where he brings an epic win streak to an end; a night in jail with an American Indian healer (Chief Dan George) who admits to practicing both good and bad medicine, depending on how he feels about the patient; reuniting with a long lost love, now wasting away from dementia in a nursing home; a road quickie with a hooker; and bursting through the bluster of his other son (Larry Hagman), a failed real estate broker in Los Angeles.
The cyclical, episodic nature of the story lends a sense of deep perspective and sanguine wisdom gained. Harry flitters from here to there, seeing what each new day brings, and maintaining the same optimistic (but discerning) mood no matter what nature it may hold.
The ending is a little abrupt, and tends to prompt thoughts along the lines of "Well, what was that all about?" In the end, Harry is still Harry, if now in a different zip code and with a broadened outlook on life.
If "Harry and Tonto" doesn't have a big overarching Something Important statement to make, it's out of design rather than happenstance. This is a beautiful tale about following wherever your feet and heart take you, and accepting what you find for whatever it is, rather than what you'd like it to be.