Thursday, April 27, 2023

The Cat Came Back: “Harry and Tonto”

Hard to believe that Art Carney, best known for playing Ralph Kramden’s blue-collar buddy on TV’s The Honeymooners,  beat out some of Hollywood’s finest for the Best Actor Oscar of 1975. His competition? Jack Nicholson for Chinatown, Al Pacino for The Godfather, Part II, and such also-rans as Dustin Hoffman (playing Lenny Bruce) and Albert Finney (as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express). Roman Polanski’s Chinatown nabbed eleven Oscar nominations that year, though it won only for Robert Towne’s scintillating screenplay. It had the misfortune of being up against Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather sequel, which won five statuettes, including Best Picture, out of a possible eleven. By contrast, Carney’s Harry and Tonto was nominated only for its original screenplay and for Carney’s performance.

 The win for Carney came as a surprise to many, including my former boss Roger Corman, who was reveling in the fact that so many of his B-movie alumni (including Nicholson, Coppola, and Towne) were nominees that year. He was quoted as joking that Nicholson’s loss had spoiled his personal sweep.  It’s certainly possible that Nicholson and Pacino, both playing intensely dramatic roles, cancelled each other out in the voting. But Carney’s victory also indicates the Academy’s affection for the fifty-plus-year-old veteran, despite the rise of a generation of Young Turks.

 As a film, Harry and Tonto isn’t much. Directed and co-written by Paul Mazursky, it’s one of his typically modest offerings (see also Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, An Unmarried Woman, and Moscow on the Hudson) that take up a timely topic and treat it in a low-key manner. In Harry and Tonto, the subject is the plight of the elderly. Harry, a rather dapper retired schoolteacher whose wife died years before, is being thrown out of his New York apartment because the building is being “improved” into a parking lot. With his ginger cat in tow, he is taken in by a son in the suburbs, but is well aware he's disrupting a family already near its breaking point. The bulk of the film is his odyssey first to Chicago (and a daughter with whom he can’t help sparring) and then to Los Angeles (where his youngest son is overtly needy). There are interesting stops along the way, including a visit to a first love now in the throes of dementia, and he connects while on the road with some colorful characters, like the good-hearted fifteen-year-old runaway played by Melanie Mayron. But basically the film is on Carney’s shoulders. By the end of Harry and Tonto, we know him well: his gruffness, his surprising erudition, his quiet live-and-let-live generosity of spirit, his overriding desire not to be beholden to the younger generation.

 It’s not a long movie, but it IS a slow one, and some critics have complained about its pacing. Personally, I admit to getting restless . . .  but it was worth it to see (pleasant surprise!) Harry finally find happiness on his own terms.  I had dreaded watching a film in which the elderly are made to look both creaky and cute, and I’m happy that Harry is portrayed as very much his own man, still smart, and without a shred of self-pity. Stand-outs in a stellar cast include Ellen Burstyn as Harry’s daughter (she won her own Oscar in 1975 for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and Larry Hagman as his younger son. I particularly liked Chief Dan George, as a philosophical Native American whom Harry meets in jail.

 And then there’s Tonto the cat, who fittingly won the Patsy Award as the year’s best animal actor. 


Tuesday, April 25, 2023

A Jamaica Farewell to Harry Belafonte

My mother considered herself the #1 fan of singer/actor/activist Harry Belafonte, who has just died at the age of 96. All of her adult life she adored Belafonte’s singing, his acting, his political stances, and his dusky good looks. And, of course, she passed on this passion to her children.

 There was a time when Belafonte regularly brought his electrifying stage show, complete with backup singers and dancers,  to L.A.’s outdoor Greek Theatre. When the dates were announced, my mother would quickly order two sets of tickets. On one night she’d attend with my father. On another, she’d bring my young sister and me to see the great man in person. I mean this literally—one year she figured out where the entertainers parked their cars, and stationed the three of us where we’d be sure to meet her hero. It worked. Belafonte emerged, and graciously greeted the dressed-up little girls. (He had some of his own at home, so he knew how to talk to kids.) When he complimented me on my pretty dress, I proudly explained that my mother had bought it on sale. It became a family story that was told many times over. Years later, he was equally ingratiating when I (then a young journalist) met him at a record industry luncheon. Someone snapped a photo, which you can see below. It became a prominent feature of my mother’s kitchen bulletin board.

 Belafonte studied acting before he became known as a singer of calypso tunes. One of his earliest films, Carmen Jones (1954), was a musical in which he didn’t get to sing a note. This  all-Black version of Bizet’s Carmen,  adapted from a hit Broadway show, required operatic warbling, and both he and star Dorothy Dandridge were dubbed. Later in the decade, he starred in screen dramas that always had a racial element at their core. A Caribbean-set political and romantic drama, Island in the Sun,  allowed him to bare his torso on-screen and to romance—with serious consequences—the very blonde Joan Fontaine.

 The Belafonte film from the 1950s that I remember best is an imaginative apocalyptic story called The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959). It’s set in Manhattan, in the aftermath of some sort of nuclear disaster that has rid the city of virtually all its inhabitants. The only survivors in this New York ghost town seem to be Belafonte (a mine inspector who was deep underground at the time of the blast), a pretty young Caucasian woman played by Inger Stevens, and a crusty older sailor (Mel Ferrer). What we’ve got here, as the survival of the human race seems in question, is a potential love triangle with strong racial overtones. The film was the first offering of Belafonte’s own production company, dedicated to portraying the African-American experience on-screen.

 In later years, as he began to emphasize social activism over acting, Belafonte took on fewer film roles, though he did appear in movies directed by his close friend, Sidney Poitier. These included 1972’s Buck and the Preacher and the 1974 comedy Uptown Saturday Night, in which his crime-boss character, Geechy Dan, is a wicked send-up of Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone. As he aged, he continued to take on occasional roles in films that had personal meaning to him, like Bobby, about events surrounding the assassination of Robert Kennedy.  His last film appearance was a powerful one, in Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansmen (2018) He was over ninety when he played for Lee a civil rights activist describing in horrific detail a Klan lynching.  May he rest in peace.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Four Degrees of Kevin Bacon

Six Degrees of Separation is a 1993 film, based on a hit Broadway play, in which a wealthy, cultured, and liberal-minded couple (Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland) welcome a personable Black man (the young Will Smith) into their posh Manhattan condo. He’s articulate but bedraggled, claiming to be the victim of a Central Park mugging. After some coy evasions, he admits he’s the son of superstar Sidney Poitier. Of course they urge him to spend the night.

 It all smacks of a con—especially after they find him in bed, in the nude, with a second young man—but Smith’s Paul is not your average grifter. The film, which also stars Ian McKellen and a starry cast under the direction of Fred Schepisi, is fundamentally about the human need for connection, and about what human beings will do to create bonds with one another. It’s the source of the idea that (to quote Channing’s dialogue at one point) “everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet.”  

The stage version of Six Degrees of Separation, from 1990, was nominated for multiple awards. The  film garnered fewer accolades, although Channing (repeating her stage triumph) was in the running for a Best Actress Oscar. Part of the problem was that the movie version, despite some creative directorial choices, still felt like a filmed play.  Also, the complex nuances of these characters and situations probably didn’t come across to moviegoers.

 The same can NOT be said of a 1984 film called Footloose, in which Kevin Bacon plays a teen from Chicago who teaches some small-town Texans about the joys of dancing. Here’s a musical that’s simple, straightforward, and just made for toe-tapping, starting with all those pairs of quick-stepping feet we see under the opening credits, grooving to the catchy beat of the title tune. Catching up with Footloose years after its screen debut, my movie companion and I marveled at Bacon’s skill-set: aside from his personal charm and acting chops, he was apparently a terrific dancer and also a gymnast who could effortlessly twirl on the high bar. That’s when I read that Bacon—whose movie fame was ensured by this role—had no fewer than four doubles on the set. These included a stunt double for fight scenes, a dance double, and two gymnastics experts. So the parlor game about “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” (a cheeky variant on the Six Degrees of Separation meme reflecting how the busy Bacon seemed to have worked with nearly everyone in Hollywood) could be adapted to indicate how, in this film, Bacon was everywhere, doing everything (with a little help from his friends).

 Though Footloose is easy enough to follow (and easy enough to love), it is not totally lacking in complexity. School dances are banned in this small town because of the efforts of the highly influential local pastor. But, as played by John Lithgow, he is not merely a zealot or a prude. Instead he’s a man who has turned his sorrow over  a family tragedy into a crusade against the elements he believes led to his son’s death. By contrast, his sexy young daughter (Lori Singer) has found her own dubious way of dealing with grief. Naturally, she and Bacon’s character (not to mention his dancing and gymnastic clones) end up connecting, and you can count on an ending in which pretty much everyone finds happiness.

 Which is certainly more than you can say for the ambiguous fadeout of Six Degrees of Separation.