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.
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.”
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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