At age 44, the maverick satirical filmmaker Paul Mazursky wrote and directed Harry & Tonto, chronicled an old man’s unexpected late life struggle against society’s selfish coercive pressures to relocate, institutionalize, and infantilize him back into a state of docile dependency. This week, 40 years later, Mazursky, at age 84, himself, became the ultimate victim of aging but not the victim of ageism.
He beat ageism by not allowing others define him as “past his prime,” “last year’s model,”
“over-the-hill,” and any of the other euphemisms aspiring middle-aged combats use to push aside those who appear to block their own career paths. Robert McFadden wrote in his New York Times obituary:
Mr. Mazursky was a show-business rarity, almost never out of work in a run of six decades that began as a stage and screen actor in the early 1950s and was still adding credits at the time of his death… For all that, there was an ageless quality about him. Associates said he had boundless energy, the rapid patter of a stand-up comic and an actor’s gift for memory.
This was the parallel goal of Mazurky’s character Harry Combs of Harry & Tonto — the roles so poignantly played by 55-year-old Art Carney, who earned an Oscar for “Best Actor.” As a retired school teacher in his 70s, widower Harry was living in a decaying building where his apartment was a museum of memories — all artifacts of a life that had past. His existence was defined by his daily routine errands where he shared the sarcastic bitterness towards present society with other lonely disenfranchised seniors, by his nostalgia for his lost wife and profession, and finally by his loyal companion — a cat he named Tonto.
The other “lone rangers” he visits on the frontiers of old age search for lost purpose in their lives. They are dismayed over the changes in their lives ranging from lost loved ones to lost careers, ranting about those with greater control who seemed to be the source of their problems, from street muggers and politicians to their own offspring. At first we laugh at their eccentricities, but by the end of the film, they are no longer cyphers in an urban landscape but familiar friends with rich life dramas and current interests we have come to appreciate.
Harry’s opening soliloquy follows a mugging scene, a near hit by a speeding motorist, as he hums the tune “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” to his friend Tonto.
Would you believe it Tonto? Mugged four times this month… It was a wonderful neighborhood. It’s running down. Where would I go and live? I still know a lot of people around here. If you know people, that’s home.
Soon after he drifts to sleep, only to be forcibly evicted by police as a wrecking ball is about to raze his crumbling home.
Freed from this exile to memories, Harry begins an odyssey through the highly stressed, miserable, middle-aged lives of his well-educated children as they struggle with unhappy relationships and careers along with the distress of various other frustrated younger people — all eager to sell Harry things he doesn’t need and to warehouse him away from the mainstream. He wants to live on his own without controls. He wants to travel to new places. He wants to dance with an old lost girlfriend, Jessie, now suffering dementia — but who has flashing moments of recall with him when they dance. He wants to say farewell to the corpse of his lonely close friend, Jacob. He bonds with young people along the way and wants to return to teaching. Yet, with each effort, he is patronized and insulted by middle-aged people in airports, casinos, nursing homes, and morgues as he travels to visit friends. Harry is labelled as a bother to them and a confused, stubborn old man. The scolding refrain of these ageist antagonists as they attack Harry’s defiant desire for independence is “Harry, act your age!”
At same time, Harry also encounters many happy, healthy seniors engaged and enthusiastic about life, ranging from a used car salesman, an organic drug salesman, a Native American medicine man, and a cat sitter. Their retort to the “act your age” admonitions was always “I love my work!”
While we mourn the painful deaths of his close friend Jacob and his loyal buddy Tonto, by the end, we see that through Harry’s odyssey, he has returned to life in the present — regaining his wit and optimism. On the beaches of Santa Monica, as he writes to an old New York friend about his new life as a school tutor, he chases a cat identical to his lost pal Tonto — that takes him to a little girl on the beach who invites him to help her with her sandcastle. We once laughed at Harry, cried with Harry, but now we laugh with him. By the end, the once cynical Harry has returned to the mainstream of life and become the happiest character in the film.
Similarly, one can only imagine Mazursky happy and fulfilled. Soon after Harry & Tonto came out, film critic Richard Corliss reflecting on Blume in Love, I Love You Alice B. Toklas, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice wrote for the New York Times, that Mazursky had “created a body of work unmatched in contemporary American cinema for its originality and cohesiveness.” That was before he delivered such landmark social satires as An Unmarried Woman, Moscow on the Hudson, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Scenes from A Mall, and Enemies: A Love Story, to name just a few classics of the 1980s before even considering his continuing contributions to biting social satire such as Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. He loved his work and refused to act his age.
Harry’s triumphant mission to be recognized as independent, intelligent contributor through late life was Mazursky’s own game plan. Other landmark films such as Sunset Boulevard or On Golden Pond show surrender to the ravages of age. The songbook of aging is vast but the lyrics offer no answer except the silent suffering of loss: “Sunrise, Sunset” (Fiddler on the Roof); “Turnaround Little Girl” (Perry Como); “When I Was 17” (Frank Sinatra); “The Circle Game” (Joni Mitchell); “No Time Left for You” (The Guess Who); “Time is on My Side” (Rolling Stones); “When I’m 64” (Beatles); “Hello in There” (John Prine); Your Were the Wind Beneath my Feet (Bette Midler). Mazursky offered a battle cry against age — don’t let your spirit die until the machine gives out.
Dylan Thomas advised, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at close of day; rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Many of us struggle with the cruel realities of aging through fear, avoidance, denial and spoofing, but few of us do it at all at once as Mazursky did in celluloid as well as in real life.
As a 20-year-old watching this film with my parents at a suburban Philadelphia theater, I came to further appreciate the later-life needs of seniors, including my parents — my parents as they resisted hasty late-life agendas scripted for them by callous health care providers and other impatient institutions. As a management scholar, I presented research that showed that workers in late life — including even CEOs — have much to offer through their elevated work ethic, accumulated life wisdom, insightful judgment, and mentoring spirit. Truly one of my “oldest” friends, financier Albert H. Gordon continued active through his final days at age 107, with his portfolio up 15 percent in final year of life, 2009, with the markets in turmoil… as well as he had done in 1929. His friend, former Goldman CEO John Whitehead at 92 continues active as well, as his fellow financier and fellow hero in World War II from Normandy Beach, Maurice (Hank) Greenberg, who heads the vibrant CV Starr at age 89. We could add to that the still very active and wise Jack Bogle (85), founder of Vanguard, or the active William Donaldson (83), our 27th Chairman of the SEC. Surely we have seen in the arts and in politics parallel priceless septuagenarians, octogenarians, and nonagenarians as choreographer Martha Graham (97) ; President Ronald Reagan (in office at age 78); Frank Lautenberg as senator until he was 89; and revered diplomatic Averill Harriman (94). Now how could someone seriously question 66-year-old Hillary Clinton’s candidacy on age concerns?
Dignity, independence, and continued contribution are easily as important to us as time for relaxation. Stress reduction is important at all ages. Attentive care for the disabled is vital for all ages but warehousing healthy older people does not reduce stress, and causes injustice plus waste. We need to reconsider our overly therapeutic society’s commercial push for convalescence and infantilizing recreation. Thus, for the last 34 years, I’ve required all my MBA students, largely aspiring leaders in their mid-20 to mid-30s, to view Paul Mazursky’s Harry & Tonto to see the world through the eyes of someone decades older.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is the Lester Crown Professor of Management Practice and Senior Associate Dean at the Yale School of Management. A past member of boards of the AARP and the National Council on Aging, he is the author of The Hero’s Farewell (Oxford University Press).
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