We recently caught Harry and Tonto on TCM. I thought it was going to be an over-rated trifle, but I was always curious about how Art Carney won the Oscar in 1975 over Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Albert Finney. After watching the movie, it made total sense and then made me wonder how Lenny, the dreariest commercial/art movie of the ‘70s, and The Towering Inferno, the most unintentionally hilarious celebrity snuff disaster film ever, were nominated over it for Best Movie. Director Paul Mazursky always made romantic comedies, not in the contemporary sense that they were about love and relationships, but rather in the traditional heroic sense that they were about a search and journey – sometimes physical, sometimes emotional – and they always ended with the protagonist(s) in a new world view.
|Art Carney as Harry with Tonto the Cat|
very active cat. (We can only wish Dexter would walk on a lead and ride in a car, though he paid attention to parts of the movie). Their adventures as they are forced from their apartment in a dilapidated part of the Upper West side of Manhattan to a new home near Venice Beach are funny, touching, wild, discreet, and honest.
Carney is a wonder as he embodies a decent, intelligent, clear-eyed survivor who comes to realize that he still has something to contribute to the future. The final image is not so much sentimental, but symbolic as he helps a young girl build a sand castle while she jokingly makes faces at him. (In these times of ‘stranger danger,’ the girl has nothing to be worried about since we’ve already seen Harry deal with youngsters in the most scrupulously ethical fashion). Harry’s last scene with Tonto is poignant and his scene with a bawdy, flirtatious retiree played by Sally Marr, Lenny Bruce’s mother, sums up the life view of a generation that was the last, great wave to come through Ellis Island and came of age during the 1920s.
Currently, such a scene would utilize raunchier language and would be played either more broadly or flatly, but wouldn’t be able to reproduce the complex texture. Mazursky and Josh Greenfield’s screenplay was deservedly Oscar nominated, but Mazursky’s direction was not recognized and that is another head scratcher because it’s the direction that makes it sing.
|The Final Scene of Harry and Tonto|
|The Cast of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice|
Mazursky is the type of director that loves actors and knows what to do with them. I imagine him working in an almost Socratic dialogue with them whereas Woody Allen would be more like a Freudian. Both of them cast terrific working professionals that they had some connection with because of New York and a number of those performers finally earned the greater recognition they deserved while some others became stars. Allen has made a film every year; there is no American director more prolific. Mazursky, however, had a run of films from 1969 to 1989 that was pretty amazing. I saw some of the weaker ones (Willie and Phil – his American hippie take on Truffaut’s between the World Wars Jules and Jim, Moon Over Parador – a little too whimsical in its depiction of a Central American dictatorship and its uncomfortably close relationship with “U.S. interests”), but they weren’t duds. The major works – Blume in Love, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, An Unmarried Woman, Moscow on the Hudson, Down and Out in Beverly Hills (his updated version of Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning), and Enemies: A Love Story look stronger now than they did in their own time. Allen has had an extraordinary run for the past forty years, but I don’t think he made as many purely entertaining movies that said so much about America during that same period.
Interestingly, Allen is a former stand up comic who is recognized more for his direction whereas it is writing that is his secret weapon, while Mazursky, as an intermittently working actor, was recognized more for his writing whereas it is his directing that is his bread and butter. Allen has consistently taken risks in form by parodying many different subgenres whereas Mazursky was more concerned with going deeper emotionally and responding to what was happening in the U.S. during the rise and predominance of the counterculture. In terms of tone, Mazursky is the yang to Allen’s yin. Mazursky embodies warmth, inclusion, and wisdom whereas Allen embodies wit, exclusion, and intellect. What goes against Allen is that some of his themes seem repetitive and even impersonal, but what goes against Mazursky, and this is why he is not revered as I think he should be, is that his work looks period-bound – even dated – because we’re not far enough away from that era.
Many actors in Allen’s movies have been nominated or won awards. Mazursky, however, guided many actors to equally great performances. Art Carney has already been mentioned. Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon became stars because of B&C&T&A and were the templates for their performing personas for decades afterwards. George Segal had already been a star, but was both hilarious and shocking in Blume in Love. Lenny Baker, a potentially huge talent who died young of cancer, and Ellen Greene were the epitome of the fresh, hip, pre-Beatnik Silent Generation in Next Stop, Greenwich Village that actually transformed the American cultural landscape for which the Baby Boomers loudly take credit. Shelley Winters’ mid-career image as the mother from hell reached its zenith here and she’s both vitally compassionate and repugnant.
What more can be said about Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman except that the role and her performance brilliantly epitomized the ‘70s – divorce, feminism, equality, self-discovery and realization. Robin Williams sets my teeth on edge, but he was charming, funny, poignant, sad, and believably Russian in Moscow on the Hudson. Nick Nolte was ragged, suicidal, intelligent, believably sexy and compassionate in Down and Out. The entire cast of Enemies was extraordinary and both the movie and Ron Silver in the lead are forgotten treasures of the 1980s. Unlike other Holocaust works, it examines what happened to European Jews after they’d survived and made it to the U.S. It’s also one of the best literary adaptations ever.
Maybe they'll remake Harry and Tonto and I can try out for it!
|Jill Clayburgh as An Unmarried Woman|
Maybe they'll remake Harry and Tonto and I can try out for it!