Category: Movies

Harry and Tonto

Few films adeptly tackle the subject of aging. (Sure, it isn’t sexy or glamourous. But, if we’re lucky, it’s something we all must learn to navigate and accept.) Harry and Tonto is the exception.

Art Carney won the Best Actor Oscar in 1975 for his remarkable performance as Harry Coombes.

Released in 1974, the movie–directed by Paul Mazursky–tells the story of a seventy-plus, stubborn-yet-vulnerable, retired teacher and his trusty cat Tonto. They are forced to leave their Upper West Side New York City apartment after their building is condemned.

Their odyssey leads them from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles (with a few fascinating side adventures) in search of a new home.

This is much more than a road trip movie with a stellar supporting cast: Ellen Burstyn, Larry Hagman, Chief Dan George, Melanie Mayron, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and others.

It explores the complicated relationships and conflicts that come with family, as well as the sometimes surprisingly rich and meaningful connections we form with strangers across the generations, who cross our paths without warning.

If you read my blog regularly, it shouldn’t surprise you that I love a story about an old man and a cat. (After all, I’ve come to discover the clever ways felines weave in and out of our desert community on any given day.)

It’s really the tenderness of this film, not just the cat, that cement this as one of Tom’s and my favorites in spite of its dated references to 1970s pop culture. Over the years, we’ve screened it six or eight times. We watched it again over the Labor Day weekend.

For instance, there’s a scene where Harry is required to confirm the identity of a long-time friend–a man with no family–who has passed unexpectedly.

Harry arrives to view the body and ensure his pal gets a proper burial. The stark sadness of the situation and the real emotions that surface touch me every time I see it.

As you may have guessed, Tonto’s co-starring appearance–and the tight bond between man and cat–is a symbolic device in the story that gives it depth. The animal is a sounding board/alter ego for lonely Harry, whose wife (Annie) has died years before we meet them.

Because of the cat’s existence and place in his life, Harry finds a way to safely articulate his fears and dreams … and, as viewers, we get a front-row seat to their narrative, homelessness dilemma, and a cast of colorful characters who lead them to unexpected places and realizations.

In 2022, it’s rare to find a contemporary film with both the heart and art of Harry and Tonto. But that doesn’t deter us from digging into our personal archives to find this gem.

Rest assured. There are no spoilers here regarding the outcome. Just gratitude for Mazursky and crew who–nearly fifty years ago–crafted a film that skillfully explores the unvarnished truth about aging.

Best of all, it’s a creative and emotionally honest tale about the adventures of a man and his cat.

Get Happy

Today, I’m lost in thought about screen-and-stage legend Judy Garland, a film she starred in that sparked my early imagination, a recent experience that renewed my love for live theater, and a song, Get Happy, she made famous.

Forget your troubles, come on get happy, you better chase all your cares away.
Shout hallelujah, come on get happy, get ready for the judgement day.

***

Beginning in 1959, and throughout the 60s, it happened only once a year: CBS aired a special TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, the magical MGM film released in 1939.

Like thousands of Baby Boomers across the U.S., my sister Diane and I waited impatiently for the annual ritual. We sat cross-legged, mesmerized in front of our RCA console. We squealed with delight and fear when a ferocious cyclone swept Dorothy into the Kansas sky. In short order, she, Toto (her loyal dog) and their house landed with a thud somewhere over the rainbow.

For those precious hours, Diane and I absorbed and memorized every fanciful song, image and character–the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Munchkins, the Flying Monkeys–Dorothy encountered along the yellow brick road. Though our TV projected black-and-white images only, our imaginations manufactured the scenes in vivid color.

As the years passed, we recited every iconic line of dialogue–“I’ll get you, my pretty … and your little dog, too”–uttered by the Wicked Witch of the West. Whenever she appeared in a puff of smoke, it shook us to the core. But we always knew she would melt in the end, thanks to a handy bucket of water on a ledge and Dorothy’s resourceful decision to grab it in a crucial moment.

Knowing that delicious outcome, and that Dorothy and Toto would ultimately make it back home to Kansas safely, made watching the film one of the happiest and most enduring memories of my childhood.

Looking back, I think it was Judy Garland, playing Dorothy, who captivated me most. Her sense of wonder, innocence, tenacity, good citizenship, pizzazz, and beautiful voice filled the frame. I don’t think there is a more stirring, iconic moment in film than Judy singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Of course, children and adults can watch The Wizard of Oz whenever they want now. But, in the 1960s, the film’s relative inaccessibility, imagination, and message … that it was possible to find happiness and peace “right in my own backyard” … was a shared experience and sense of idealism that no longer exists.

Isn’t it ironic that, in an age when virtually any film or music is available anytime, we are barraged with a mountain of images and problematic news–pandemics, politics, and Putin–that shock our sensibilities and clog our ability to bolster our happiness?

***

2022 marks the centennial celebration of Judy Garland’s life. (She was born June 10, 1922; died June 22, 1969, at age 47.)

To remember and relive her remarkable film, stage and song legacy–amassed in less than five decades–crooner Michael Feinstein has produced a masterful ninety-minute show, called Get Happy!

On Sunday, March 20, Tom and I were in the audience for Feinstein’s dazzling evening performance and multi-media program at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. It included renditions of many of Judy’s favorite tunes, along with seldom-seen-or-heard images and stories from her life.

About midway through Feinstein’s stellar performance, he paused to tell a story about Judy Garland in 1941. That year, at age nineteen, she bought her parents (who came from modest means in Grand Rapids, Minnesota) a home.

Judy recorded tapes of herself singing to her family in their home, but for years after her death mysteriously those recordings couldn’t be found. Remarkably, Feinstein had the opportunity to visit the home and discovered them in a hollow wall. He played one of those for us as a black-and-white image of a teenage Judy Garland, posing in a tailored suit, filled the screen above the stage.

The song Judy was singing, I’ll Be Seeing You, brought me to tears as I held Tom’s hand. We were seated on the aisle in row Q. Judy never recorded it professionally, but the tune was one of my mother’s favorites. So much so, that Diane and I chose a version of it to play at Mom’s memorial service in 2013.

As Judy Garland’s bright and soaring voice filled the auditorium Sunday night, I was transported back to the early 1960s and the happiness I felt watching The Wizard of Oz.

Mom was curled up on the couch. Diane and I were glued to the floor in front of our RCA. Together we followed Judy’s voice and steps stride for stride.

We were on our annual adventure somewhere over the rainbow.

Breakthrough

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

It’s a classic line of conviction and desperation delivered by Peter Finch (portraying Howard Beale, a longtime evening newscaster who is losing his patience and bearings on live TV) in Network, the prophetic 1976 satirical/dramatic film.

If you’ve never seen this iconic movie, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, it’s a must-see, spot-on harbinger of the reality-show madness and world of TV lies and sideshow illusions that flood our world and saturate our sensibilities today.

Even better, if you’re a cinephile, you must buy a copy of Tom Samp’s book, CoronaCinema: A Diary of the Pandemic Year in Movie Reviews. In it, he reviews Network and 50 other films through the lens of this never-ending global health crisis. The book is filled with interesting film observations and social insights. (Full disclosure. Tom Samp is my husband.) https://www.amazon.com/CoronaCinema-Diary-Pandemic-Movie-Reviews-ebook/dp/B09DLC8KY2

Now, back to the Howard Beale show. Though I’m not losing my bearings, I am “mad as hell” about the politicized state of American society in the storm of a god-forsaken health crisis. (I’m sure many of you are too.)

This occurred to me–once again–over the weekend as I stewed and reclined in the living room, watching news coverage of another few thousand COVID-19 cases in Arizona and the rising tide of the Delta variant due to the fact that only 48% percent of our residents are fully vaccinated. Apparently, the other 52% are too busy drinking the political Kool-Aid to have the gumption to protect themselves and their loved ones.

Need more context for my anger? On Saturday, a few days after returning from a lovely 25th anniversary Flagstaff getaway with Tom and visit to the south rim of the Grand Canyon (the view never gets old), I found myself fighting some sort of upper respiratory thing–sinus congestion, headache, mild fever.

As far as vaccinations go, I am an early adopter. I have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 since April Fools’ Day and that’s no joke. Yet my anxiety raced and my temper began to simmer. I wondered if I was one of those breakthrough cases the media keeps talking about.

In these instances, the virus infects people who took the proper precautions. People who got vaccinated as soon as they could to protect themselves and those around them. People who are true patriots because–day-in-day-out–they have empathy for those around them, know the difference between freedoms and responsibilities, obey traffic lights, buckle their seat belts, pay their taxes, and abide by the tenets of a civilized society.

Cruelly and tragically, in breakthrough cases the virus vaults over and through the protective coating of the vaccine. This is happening in a small percentage of occasions and is likely due to the fact that too many Americans are simply too ignorant, obstinate, or uninformed to follow the science, to get vaccinated, to wear masks indoors and in large/close gatherings, to stop the spread of the virus by reducing the number of hosts it can jump to and transform on, to put aside their political differences and save lives.

By Sunday, I had had it. After resting most of the morning, I drove to an urgent care facility in Scottsdale to get tested for COVID-19. I needed answers and peace of mind. Whatever the outcome, I needed to regain some sense of control.

The process at the Next Care center went smoothly. An efficient technician took my vital signs and swabbed my left nostril. A pleasant and professional physician’s assistant examined me. She told me I did the right thing by getting tested. She confirmed that, though it is rare, breakthrough cases are occurring.

She listened to my lungs and reported they were clear, but my sinuses were definitely enflamed. She told me to keep drinking lots of fluids and to get plenty of Vitamin C. She would call with the test results in a few days. Though I didn’t have all the answers at that point, I was beginning to feel better physically and emotionally.

I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. By Monday, my mild fever was gone. The fluids–lots of hot herbal tea and water–were helping. My contact at Next Care called Tuesday morning to say my COVID-19 test was negative. Instantly, relief raced from my smartphone into my ear drum. Through my thankful brain. Through my congested head. Through my sound heart that survived a mild attack four years ago. Through my clear lungs.

It’s now Tuesday evening. Though I’m still “mad as hell” at the state of our country’s social discourse, the good news is I am healthy. I’m on the mend. I’m free of this round of traumatic COVID-19 possibilities. My energy is back. I will overcome this chapter of sinus congestion.

***

If there is a breakthrough to be derived from my story, it is this. If you aren’t yet vaccinated, get it done. Do the right thing. Protect yourself and those around you. Limit the chances that this horrible virus will end your life and upend the lives of those you love. Of those who love you.

By getting fully vaccinated, I stacked the cards in my favor. Sure, I am one of the lucky ones, but–good or bad–each of us has the ability to shape our fortunes.

Think of getting vaccinated as the best and most meaningful gift you can give those who love you. They’ll be “mad as hell” if you don’t.