Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Art Carney, 1918-2003

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the birth of actor Art Carney. Carney was an Oscar-winner, picking up a Best Actor statuette for the wonderful 1974 movie Harry and Tonto. The basic story involves Carney as Harry, a retired teacher and widower living with his cat Tonto in a New York City apartment. Life isn't so good to him, though, as one of his close friends dies and the owners of his apartment building are trying to tear it down to replace it with a parking lot. Harry doesn't want to leave, but it eventually forcibly evicted.

Thus begins a journey of discovery for old Henry. He first moves in with one of his sons, but finds that that son's family is a bit off-kilter and not really a suitable place for an old man to live. So, Harry and Tonto pack up to go out to Chicago to see another of his kids. And here is where the story really picks up. Along the way, Harry meets a whole host of interesting characters, including a runaway who's heading out to live on a commune; a Jesus freak, a traveling salesman, an Indian, and on and on. As Harry meets each of these people, he learns that he's got life left in him, while they learn a bit about themselves and how to live. There's comic relief, but Harry and Tonto isn't a straight-up comedy. After Harry makes it to Chicago, though, he finds that it's not the best place for him, and continues on his journey to meet his third child, out in Los Angeles.

Art Carney does an outstanding job in Harry and Tonto, running the whole gamut of emotions, shwoing us that although life has its poignant side, there is also joy to be found, and, if you work hard enough, a sense of purpose and triumph too. Perhaps the very best scene is when Harry talks to the teenage runaway about an old girlfriend of his, who separated from him fifty years ago in order to dance with Isidora Duncan. The young girl convinces him to look her up in the midwestern town where she settled down, which he does. Unfortunately, she's gone senile and is in a nursing home, and doesn't recognize Harry. Still, they dance together in what would have been a heart-breaking moment for a real-life Harry.

I've read a lot of people who think that Carney didn't deserve the Oscar, and I can't help but think there's a bit of politics involved in the reasoning. Harry and Tonto is, at heart, a movie with a message that's not political at all; and is definitely of a different cultural norm from three of the other nominees: Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce; Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part II, and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. (For some reason, I always thought Gene Hackman was nominated for The Conversation, another movie obviously involved in consciousness-raising; he wasn't, although the movie itself was nominated for Best Picture.) Carney's performance, though, shines, and makes this little movie a truly memorable experience. In fact, it's a good thing the he won; if he hadn't, Harry and Tonto would probably be largely forgotten today. As it stands, though, it's remembered, and is also out on DVD, and is well worth viewing by grown-ups. The only downside is that, despite the seemingly innocuous plot, it does have enough adult language and situations as to be unsuitable for children.

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