At the beginning of 1975, the second sequel to “The Godfather” by Francis Ford Coppola triumphed at the Oscars, winning six awards, but Al Pacino was again bypassed in the selection for the best actor. The Oscar for the best male role ahead of not only Pacino, but also Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown”, Dustin Hoffman in “Lenny” and Albert Finney in “Murder on the Orient Express” was won by veteran Art Carney for the lead role in Paul Mazurski’s humanist comedy drama . Carney is 72-year-old Harry, a retired teacher from New York who, accompanied by his cat Tonto, will embark on an adventure across America after being evicted from an apartment in a building slated for demolition.
A parking lot will be built on the site of the old widower’s building on the Upper West Side, as it should be, and the original plan to move in with the eldest son Burt (Philip Bruns) in the suburbs of New York will backfire. He will decide to head for Chicago where his daughter Shirley (Ellen Burstyn) lives, and in the end he will end up with his youngest son who lives in Los Angeles. It is interesting that Carney was only the fourth choice for the role of old Harry, and before him it was rejected by acting legends in the “golden years” such as James Cagney, Laurence Olivier and Cary Grant, and even though he was only 55 years old at the time of the filming of the film, Carney brilliantly impersonated the character of an old man who lost his quiet corner.
In fact, already in the opening scenes we see that Harry is a real New Yorker, a pensioner who knows everyone in the neighborhood, who after the death of his wife is used to solitude and his only company is a cat that he leads around the city on a leash like a dog. Harry is also a proud man and the only thing he really wants is a quiet corner for himself where he won’t be a burden or a nuisance to anyone, and if his children don’t mind in principle taking him in at least temporarily, he is aware that this is not the happiest solution either for him or for them. “Harry and Tonto” is also an interesting social criticism that shows the lack of empathy for older people in today’s society and how it is actually cynical towards them.
When the film that earned Mazurski and Josh Greenfeld a nomination for best original screenplay, almost turns into a road movie and when Harry embarks on a journey across America where he will meet various characters, “Harry and Tonto” also turns into a film about generation gap and misunderstanding between new and old America. Harry is a typical representative of that old America that was formed sometime before the Great Depression of the thirties and a man who has somewhat archaic views on life and the world that has changed completely in the meantime, but he was not affected by those changes.
Thus, the most interesting parts of the film are his encounters with people during his journey from east to west, such as a 15-year-old girl who ran away from home or a prostitute who doesn’t mind an adventure with him. However, by far the strongest asset of the film is Carney as Harry, a calm man with a subtle sense of humor who accepts everyone no matter how different they are from him and a man who is in no rush to get anywhere and who has accepted this accidental adventure as a kind of settling accounts with life and an opportunity to try to correct something that has been bothering him all his life.