Directed by Paul Mazursky
Written by Paul Mazursky and Josh Greenfeld
Starring Art Carney, Ellen Burstyn, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Melanie Mayron, Josh Mostel, Larry Hagman and Chief Dan George
Art Carney was basically a television actor – that was his career and he made a good one out of it. He did something like 76 episodes of The Morey Amsterdam Show in the late 1940s, 39 episodes of The Honeymooners, 180ish episodes of The Jackie Gleason Show spread across it’s two incarnations in the late-50s and the late-60s, not to mention a ton of TV movies. He was so clearly a TV actor that when he starred in Harry and Tonto he was making just his third movie, after a cameo in A Guide For The Married Man (1967) and a small part The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964). Imagine that – a well-traveled actor of 55 being a movie novice.
I used to think it was a big deal that a television actor won an Oscar because in the past, those two mediums just did not mix – you could be a success in one, or the other, but there was little crossover between them. And where there was, it didn’t seem to matter in terms of the box office, or ratings, because one did not reflect the other. After all, a big star like Jimmy Stewart could transition to TV, only to see his projects fail for low ratings, while TV stars like Jackie Gleason could hardly gain traction on the big-screen.
Going into this entry I planned to explore that idea – the lack of crossover between TV and film when it came to the Oscars – as if I could prove it true. Or, find some bigger meaning to it. But the more I lingered on it, the more it occurred to me that while Rod Steiger won Best Actor in 1967 for In The Heat of the Night after previously doing the 1953 live TV version of Marty, Shirley Booth (Come Back Little Sheba), Patty Duke (The Miracle Worker) and Donna Reed (From Here To Eternity) went the other direction, in that they won Oscars and subsequently made a success in TV. In other words, there’s always been success in crossing from one side to the other.
So then I considered whether Carney might’ve been the first who was predominantly known as a TV actor to get himself an Oscar, but then I remembered Cloris Leachman took Best Supporting Actress in 1971 for The Last Picture Show, after doing basically nothing but TV throughout the late-50’s and early-60s. So that approach went out the window.
In the end, while I came here to make one point, I seem to have proven the other – that being a TV star to win an Oscar was not all that big of deal. And so not a big deal that I overlooked other examples, like how Helen Hunt was on Mad About You when she won Best Actress for As Good As It Gets, Patricia Arquette managed to win her Oscar for Boyhood in between her seven seasons – and two Emmy’s – of Medium and two seasons of CSI: Cyber, and Jared Leto is still far-better-known for My So-Called Life than anything he’s done in film, including winning an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club.
So, Carney winning an Oscar after being on TV as long as he was hardly seems like it should matter. And yet, somehow it does. After all, Carney made his name playing a bit of a doofus/side-kick character in his TV appearances, and to have him suddenly flex some dramatic muscle as a leading-man can’t not matter. If anything, Carney’s win seems to emphasize the point that while comic actors are thought to be acting lightweights, they’re often the one’s with real acting chops.
What’s It About?
When his apartment building is condemned and torn town, an elderly widower (Carney) sets off with his cat on a cross-country road trip to visit his children, to find himself a new place in the world, and to finally have the adventure he never really got to.
Worthy of Best Actor?
Pretty much every year somebody takes issue with the Oscar winners – it’s the way of the world. Some years it’s Titanic v. L.A. Confidential. Some years it’s Raging Bull v. Ordinary People. Some years it’s Goodfellas v. Dances with Wolves. Given the pointlessness of these awards in the grand scheme, the debates give them a nice, silly air that I find delightful. So, we all have preferences, and we debate them, and there’s fun in that.
Most of the time, the grumbling is reserved for Best Picture winners, but 1974 might be one of those Oscar years where the grumbling is about the Best Actor winner. And not in a way that sounds like sour grapes, but in a legitimate, they-got-it-wrong kind of way.
Consider who Art Carney had to beat to win his Oscar:
- Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express
- Dustin Hoffman in Lenny
- Jack Nicholson in Chinatown
- Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II
The weak-link in this field is Albert Finney, giving what is basically a gimmicky performance. He’s fine, but better elsewhere. And while Hoffman is credible as Lenny Bruce, it’s hardly the finest performance he ever gave, or the one you’d point to in his oeuvre as being best. Even so, these performances are only made lesser in this race by the presence of Nicholson and Pacino, two heavy-hitters at the tops of their games in Chinatown and The Godfather Part II. Moreover, in those films Nicholson and Pacino almost-certainly gave their quintessential performances. Either one would have been a fine winner of the Oscar for 1974 and would either have won instead of Carney, it would have been a coronation that doomed Harry and Tonto to a massive afterthought – in reality, while the movie is quite enjoyable and deserves attention, it’s only endured as it has because it’s an Oscar winner, not because it’s an all-time classic. But, to get that attention at the expense of Nicholson or Pacino winning the Oscar? I don’t know.
And while I don’t know exactly HOW Carney won – because the Academy isn’t in the business of sharing voting results – we can surmise his victory was made possible by the presence of Pacino and Nicholson in the race and essentially cancelling either other out, so that everybody’s likely third choice, Carney, rise to the top. One can only wonder what would have happened in this race would the Academy done for Best Actor 1974 what it does for Best Picture now, which the ranked voting, etc. But they didn’t, so no point tilting at windmills.
Josh Mostel has a small part here as Carney’s grandson, Norman. Early in the movie Norman is a character struggling to come to terms with himself, to forge his identity, and so has taken a vow of silence until he figures things out. It’s a small part and he gets few scenes, but when he gets them, he shines.
The standout for him comes early in the film, when Norman and Grandpa have a little conversation with one another in the middle of the night. Because Norman has the vow of silence going, when Grandpa questions him, Norman only silently answers. But those answers, given entirely with facial expressions, were so on point they said about as much about the character as a thousand words would’ve – that’s the sign of a superb actor. Then, later in the film, when Norman is speaking again, he’s just as good, playing entirely gentle and wise and understanding.
It was a small part, but in a movie where bigger names stroll in for a scene or two and seem to stick out like a sore thumb – I love Ellen Burstyn, but she’s probably too much for this movie – it was nice to see Mostel turn up, do his work, then get out of town.
Better Than Best
There’s a reason I’m doing an Also-Rans on a Screenplay category for 1974 – it’s because I’ve already seen all five Best Picture nominees. And rather than dig into the Best Director category, as I did with Federico Fellini and Amarcord, or Best Actor, as I did with The Madness of King George, I’m here for Best Screenplay.
That all said, the question is: is Harry and Tonto better than the Best Picture winner, 1974? And blasphemous as it may sound, the answer is both yes, and no. No, because The Godfather Part II is one of the all-time greats and contains literal oodles of classic lines – “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.” – and scenes – Fredo getting capped on the boat at the end. But also, yes, it’s better than the best because if you plunked both films down in front of me and said watch one, right now – The Godfather Part II or Harry and Tonto – I might just pick Harry and Tonto. At the very least, it sparked some joy in me and as I’ve gotten older, I don’t give side-eye to joy.
That all said, Harry and Tonto was a Screenplay Also-Ran, not a Best Picture Also-Ran – it was not nominated for the top award – so the real question is whether it was better than the actual Screenplay winner. In that case, the answer is no. After all, the Best Original Screenplay Oscar of 1974 went to Robert Towne for Chinatown, one of the all-time classic scripts, and as nice and lovely as Harry and Tonto was, it’s hard to beat a classic.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 It’s basically was Paul Dano would later do in Little Miss Sunshine.
 Those are The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, and The Towering Inferno.