A triumph of naturalistic acting, sensitive writing, and unobtrusive direction, Harry & Tonto is one of the best character studies of the ’70s, a kind-hearted but completely unsentimental portrait of an everyman knocked out of his staid routine. Director and co-writer Paul Mazursky employs his acting background to nudge performers toward interesting behavior that’s devoid of actor-ish affectation, and he orchestrates the simple story with easy confidence, gently accentuating key moments.
The story begins when aging New York City widower Harry Coombes (Art Carney) is forced out of his apartment because the building is scheduled for demolition—police officers literally carry him out to the street in his favorite easy chair, which is not only a memorably sad/funny image, but also a tart metaphor representing the movie’s theme of seniors for whom society has little use. Harry is dead weight, and he knows it, so all he wants to do is be left alone so he can enjoy life in the company of his affectionate marmalade cat, Tonto, to whom Harry sings old-time songs and with whom Harry enjoys nostalgic “conversations.”
After the displacement, Harry and Tonto move in with Harry’s adult son, Burt (Philip Burns), but when it becomes apparent that Burt’s house is too crowded with family, Harry embarks on a cross-country adventure, ostensibly to visit his two other grown children but really to search for a new identity. Throughout the picture, Mazursky sketches Harry’s personality by throwing this rich protagonist into contrast with colorful supporting characters. Although seemingly straight-laced and uptight on first glance, Harry is actually an intellectual with a deep curiosity about human nature, allowing him to bond with everyone from his spiritually confused grandson, Norman (Josh Mostel), who has taken a vow of silence and adheres to a strict macrobiotic diet, to a restless young hippie, Ginger (Melanie Mayron), who left her family to join a commune.
It’s immensely pleasurable to watch Mazursky and co-writer Josh Greenfeld subvert expectations in one scene after another, because the further Harry gets from his old environment, the more he embraces surprises—the simple act of discovering a larger world revives him in a way he never anticipated. Offering a broad tonal palette, Harry & Tonto alternates humor, pathos, and satire, often in the same scene. Harry’s combative visit with his daughter, Shirley (Ellen Burstyn), is fascinating because it reveals what a different dynamic he has with each of his children, and his melancholy encounter with a sweetheart from his younger years, Jessie (Geraldine Fitzgerald), is poignant because she’s lost in the ravages of dementia.
Making Harry’s journey feel organic and purposeful is Carney, who won a well-deserved Oscar. Subtly employing the comic timing he displayed back in his Honeymooners days, Carney is brusque, inquisitive, and warm, portraying Harry as a man who learns to embrace change at an age when change is deeply frightening. It’s a beautiful performance, and Mazursky serves the performance well by crafting a brisk film that never lingers too long on any one sequence, instead building a strong head of emotional steam until the wonderfully bittersweet denouement.
Harry & Tonto: RIGHT ON