In defense of: Art Carney winning 1974 Best Actor Oscar for ‘Harry and Tonto’

In 1974, the Oscars delivered one of its biggest surprises ever when first-time contender Art Carney claimed Best Actor for “Harry and Tonto” over four repeat nominees: Dustin Hoffman (“Lenny”), Albert Finney (“Murder on the Orient Express”), Al Pacino (“The Godfather: Part II”) and Jack Nicholson (“Chinatown”). At the time, Carney was best known as TV’s Ed Norton, wacky neighbor to Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason), a part for which he had won five Emmy Awards. 

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While Carney’s win usually comes under fire as undeserved, his performance is one that merits being examined closer and given proper credit. At just 55, Carney played Harry Coombes, a man well into his seventies who embarks on a cross country journey with his cat Tonto after his apartment building in Manhattan is demolished. 

Of the five performances in contention, Carney’s had the most heart as he played an old man who comes to realize he can still have a big effect on those around him while discover new things about himself. Sometimes his journey is funny, other times it’s touching. Then there are those moments, such as in one of the final scenes where Harry bids farewell to his feline companion by singing “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’,” that it is incredibly sad.

Carney’s skills as an actor bring all these moments home at the precise level where the emotions hit you and feel much more powerful than if it were a made-for-television movie. Others share this sentiment. Variety singled out Carney’s performance as a standout while Roger Ebert says Carney’s acting “helps the material succeed” and added it was, “worthy of the Academy Award it received.”

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Carney was the second of four performers to win an Oscar for playing an elderly person on a road trips, following Jane Darwell in “The Grapes of Wrath” (Supporting Actress, 1940) and before Geraldine Page in “The Trip to Bountiful” (Actress, 1985) and Alan Arkin in “Little Miss Sunshine” (Supporting Actor, 2006).

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7 thoughts on “In defense of: Art Carney winning 1974 Best Actor Oscar for ‘Harry and Tonto’

  1. This was Carney’s film. Try to picture another actor, say Jack Lemmon, in this role. Mazursky is an actor’s director and knew exactly how to get Carney’s best performance. His line readings ease off the gas pedal just enough to let the strength of the script come through. He never pushes for laughs or tears. This was a master performance by a man who spent many years not just as a funnyman, but also a stage actor. He never got a chance as good as this again, so hats off to the Academy for doing the right thing at the right time.

  2. This needs defending? Carney was one of the greats. If anyone deserved the award he did. The other nominees had primary delivered quality mimicry. Carney created an original character. Not a noir act,not a detective caricature,not a plain bio of a deceased real person and not a sequel to a previous achievement. They were all fine but Carney earned his Oscar.

  3. Art Carney is remembered most for goofy Ed Norton. So many forget he could also portray characters like hard-boiled detectives, philosophical old men, and, in one instance, a hellfire and brimstone preacher. He was one of the most versatile actors of stage and screen. I’m glad he got the Best Actor award. He was long overdue for it.

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