“You never really feel somebody’s suffering, you only feel their death.”—— Harry Coombes
When retired, elderly widower Harry Coombes is forced from his New York City apartment, he and his cat Tonto make a leisurely, often improvisational trek across the country toward Los Angeles. To be sure, it’s a somewhat smaller-scale odyssey than that adventure penned by Homer but nonetheless interesting and varied. Along the way Harry is reacquainted with relatives and former loves and meets sundry strangers who counsel and befriend him, and some who even travel with him for a time.
Before and after 1974, when Harry’s story, going under the title Harry and Tonto, was filmed, there have been any number of road movies, a favorite film genre. One of the best and earliest—1934—is It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, a light, carefree comedy which ends happily. Two for the Road (1967), quite differently, is about a bickering married couple (Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn) on a cross-country trip, recalling their twelve-year marriage. As the road pictures progressed, they became anti-establishment and inelegant (Easy Rider in 1969), comically sad and over-long (Rain Man in 1988) and negative and sinister (Thelma and Louise in 1991).
Then, in 2003, came a picture more concerned with an individual’s inner turmoil than with a social protest or a morbid diatribe. About Schmidt concerns another recently retired man (Jack Nicholson) who loses his wife, feels unfulfilled and makes what proves to be an unrewarding road trip in a motor home to try and convince, unsuccessfully, his daughter not to marry a scumbag. Returning home feeling no better for the trip and that his life has been pointless, he opens his mail to find his financial support of a foster child in Africa has been appreciated. Schmidt’s life does have meaning after all.
And so does Harry’s life, only he knows it all along, and wants only “his space” to express and enjoy it.
Harry and Tonto, though open-ended, is a little more uplifting and more humorous than About Schmidt. At film’s end, Harry has reached Los Angeles and is on a beach with a little girl when the fadeout comes. A simpler man than Schmidt but with perhaps less patience, Harry is also a bit more erudite, able not only to quote Shelly’s Epipsychidion and Shakespeare, but he knows exactly what he wants, what is best for him and how to go about achieving it. He is dismissive of those who rub him the wrong way—perhaps there is some anti-establishment element here—or who deny him his needed space, yet grateful toward those who treat him fairly and enlighten him about the world he lives in and wants to discover.
And all this, the divergent curves of Harry’s nature, hidden under a seemingly passive, deceptively unsophisticated façade, is brilliantly realized by Art Carney. “Brilliant,” which suggests flash, glitter and high drama, is too extravagant a word for such a low-key, subtle performance. You come to know Harry only over time, since as an unseen yet observant companion you appreciate him all the more by journey’s end—both his and your journey.
Although the actor’s voice and its inflections may sound familiar—only toned down considerably, sometimes to a self-analyzing mutter—the personality it unveils from somewhere deep inside is, perhaps, the real Art Carney. Eager for release perhaps, it had been lurking there all the time, overshadowed by his typical persona—the gyrations and tomfoolery of The Honeymooners and even, for those who remember, his portrayal of the drunk down-and-outer in “The Night of the Meek,” a 1960 Christmas episode from the original Twilight Zone.
And his soliloquies with his cat Tonto, even if some viewers may think them too frequent (I don’t), carry the weight of both his sincerity and, yes, his loneliness. For Harry is a lonely man. Maybe he survives so well in his loneliness—perhaps here confused with independence and a keen self-reliance—because he doesn’t know he’s lonely, and, even if he did, it doesn’t matter; it’s the way he wants it.
The companionship of family and friends, being around them for any period of time, soon proves unsatisfactory, in one instance after another. At first, deprived of his apartment, he stays with his older son’s family; then, halfway across the country, surprises his daughter with a visit; later seeks out a former girlfriend; and, finally in Los Angeles, he has a chance to stay with his younger son. All stopovers are nothing more than brief interactions, and, for one reason or another, perhaps related to that independence and the desire that the tempo of his life is his own, not someone else’s, he moves on.
As the film begins, fighting eviction to the last and having to be carried from his apartment in his easy chair, Harry is suddenly homeless. His older son Burt (Phil Bruns) insists he stay with his family. Although Harry is assured by everyone that he is welcomed, he finds life there stifling: one of Burt’s sons is a drug addict, another, Norman (Joshua Mostel), is in some kind of vow of silence and there is shouting, much tension.
While at Burt’s, Harry goes to the morgue to identify the body of his old friend Jacob Rivetowski (Herbert Berghof), with whom, earlier, he had had several lively park bench conversations, about the state of the country, sexual experiences and several references by Rivetowski to “capitalist bastards.” Seeing his friend on the slab beyond a plate glass window, Harry has difficulty controlling his emotions.
Harry wants to move on, and at the airport, boarding a flight for Los Angeles, he causes a commotion when he refuses to part with Tonto in the cat carrier in going through security. Outside the airport, taking a taxi to the bus station, he encounters a talkative driver (Muriel Beerman, in her only movie). They discuss cats, and Harry tells her he was one of the last traveling salesmen—selling cats. Just one of his shticks.
On the bus, besides a taciturn seat mate, for Harry is willing to tell any one a story, Tonto refuses to use the facilities, so Harry asks the driver (Clint Young) to pull over. The driver cannot wait any longer—Tonto has run away across a field—and he sets out Harry’s one piece of luggage. After the bus has pulled away, the cat returns. Angry, Harry tells Tonto, “I don’t like your attitude,” then hugs him.
Further down the road, Harry buys a 1950s Chevrolet from a used car dealer (Cliff Norton), and since he doesn’t have a driver’s license, when he picks up two hitchhikers, he asks the young man (Michael Butler) to drive. His teenage companion is Ginger (Melanie Mayron), a runaway. The two hitchhikers had met as recently as their previous lift, and at a gas station he gets a ride with someone who is going in his direction.
At a motel further down the road, Harry and Ginger share a room for the night. While she is undressing for bed, he briefly sees her breasts, which Harry admits embarrasses him. He tells her about the first female he had seen naked, Jessie, a liberated woman, he says, a dancer who went off to Paris. After Harry married his late wife, he tells Ginger, Jessie returned to the U.S., married and moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana. Ginger suggests they look her up.
After reaching the wrong house, whose occupant knew Jessie and provides a lead, Harry and Ginger arrive at a nursing home. Jessie (Geraldine Fitzgerald) gives the impression she remembers him, but she doesn’t. She has dementia. They dance together. End of scene. (Ironically, Fitzgerald would die of Alzheimer’s in 2005.)
Next stop Chicago and the bookstore owned by Shirley (Ellen Burstyn), Harry’s daughter. Surprise! Norman is there, his vow of silence having ended. Harry and Shirley take a walk and the old rancor develops again—arguing—so Harry decides it’s time again to move on.
Norman joins Harry and Ginger on the continuing westward odyssey to California, but soon, somewhere in Arizona, his two passengers head for Colorado. Harry loans them the Chevy and tells Norman, “For the first time in my life I’m west of Chicago, and I love it. It’s splendid. It’s amazing. It’s beautiful. I just want to spend a little time by myself.” He’ll continue to California.
At a nearby motel Harry meets Wade Carlton (Arthur Hunnicutt), a traveling vitamin salesman, who, with a strange parallel routine, says he once sold cats. What a coincidence! Harry joins Wade in his VW van for a while until he is dropped off, but Harry quickly catches a ride with a thirtyish redhead in a Ford Mustang convertible. Harry’s moving up in the world in more ways than one. Turns out she’s a hooker—$100 a trick—and the car shortly veers off the road and climbs a hill, with “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” gushing on the soundtrack. The audience’s assumptions and presumptions about the unseen goings-on would be . . . correct.
Next, Las Vegas. After a visit to a casino, Harry pauses to urinate behind a garbage can, and is quickly arrested for indecency. He finds himself in a cell with a Native American, Sam Two Feathers (Chief Dan George), who cures his bursitis with massages. Sam doesn’t pick up on the connection of Tonto’s name, so Harry has a change to explain the story of the Lone Ranger.
Later, having finally arrived in Los Angeles, Harry is walking the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame when occurs another surprise: his younger son Eddie (Larry Hagman) pulls up alongside him in his Cadillac convertible. Then follows, at first, a joyous reunion. Eddie is exuberant, on top of life, he says, making a lot of money. Back in Eddie’s chic apartment, Eddie suggests his father could live with him. “I’m too old for this place,” Harry replies. “I have to find a place of my own.” The independence—and, yes, the loner—in Harry comes out again.
Come to find out, Eddie is broke and desperate, and breaks down, crying intensely. Harry says he will loan him $1,000 and Eddie accepts without protest. “I just don’t think we should live together,” Harry says and leaves, assuring his son things will improve for him.
When one of the men grouped around a chess board on Santa Monica beach suggests that Tonto “doesn’t look so good,” Harry takes him to a vet where the cat dies. He sings a Scottish song to him and says, “So long, kiddo.” He has trouble suppressing the tears, as he did over his friend Rivetowski.
Back on the beach, seated in a gazebo, Harry meets a woman (Sally Marr) who comes to feed stray cats every morning. Once again the theme of cats appears in the plot. The woman suggests he come live with her: “Two can live cheaper than one. We could be on easy street.” She doesn’t want marriage—he can “chase around a little bit” if he likes—just someone to share the expenses.
Harry politely thanks her for the offer and walks off down the beach, chasing one of the stray cats. He catches it, picks it up. “What’s your name, kiddo?” He pets it, sets it down and it runs away. He sees a little girl (the director’s daughter, Jill) building a sandcastle, and though she sticks her tongue out at him, he joins her in digging in the sand.
The camera pulls back for a long shot of the beach and the sunset. The End.
Old people, though not all that popular in films—understandable in our youth-oriented time—nonetheless appear more frequently than one would think, more than the traffic would usually allow. And, down through the decades, a surprising number of the genre, most often its negative aspects, have been substantial box office successes and recipients of Academy Awards.
I Never Sang for My Father, with Melvyn Douglas, and On Golden Pond, with Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, are about the sadness of growing old, the devotion, or sometimes indifference, of the siblings and the pain of dying. Spread over decades of time, a more recent film starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman is Driving Miss Daisy, involving these themes as well as a touch of humor in the lives of a Jewish woman and her black servant.
In The Old Man and the Sea, Spencer Tracy renders what amounts to a solo performance as a Cuban fisherman who spends three days and nights trying to haul in a defiant fish. Less of a solo, but even more galvanizing in performance, Dame Edith Evans in The Whisperers is a poor, befuddled old woman who, in her paranoia, imagines all sorts of strange things threaten her.
It is something of a wonder, then, that an “old” actor—Carney was just fifty-five, playing a 72-year-old—won the Best Actor Oscar. In 1974, beyond the negative of the elderly role, a further hurdle to Carney winning was a particularly strong year in his category: Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express, Dustin Hoffman in Lenny, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part II.
Perhaps Finney could be discounted as the weakest of the five nominations, for his nod was more for the novelty of his heavily padded attire, the automaton-like movements, the feature-concealing make-up and that quirky French accent. (A bizarre appearance, like an awful disease, appeals to Academy voters.) But Nicholson and Pacino were especially strong competitors. The Godfather film clearly dominated the wins, with six Oscars, including Best Picture.
The only other Harry and Tonto Oscar nomination was for Original Screenplay by its director Paul Mazursky (with Josh Greenfeld); the winner in the category was Robert Towne for Chinatown.
From among the three major stars who had cameos in Harry and Tonto—Fitzgerald, Burstyn and Hagman—Ellen Burstyn won a Best Actress Oscar that year for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.