HARRY & SON (Paul Newman, 1984)

On occasion a magnificent actor (Hud, 1963; Cool Hand Luke, 1967; The Color of Money, 1986; Nobody’s Fool, 1994), Paul Newman became a filmmaker mainly to provide his spouse, Joanne Woodward, with roles he deemed worthy of her gifts. I like Woodward in a lot of things, including her Oscar-winning Three Faces of Eve (1957), The Long, Hot Summer (1958), The Fugitive Kind (1959), Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973), and Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990), none of which Newman directed. On the other hand, I do not account Woodward at her best in such films directed by Newman as Rachel, Rachel (1968), from Paul Zindel’s play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972) and, from Tennessee Williams’s best play, The Glass Menagerie (1987); but guess what? I find Newman’s direction of all three, and especially the last two (Rachel, Rachel, his maiden effort, relied heavily on Dede Allen’s editing to pass muster), very good indeed. Harry & Son, despite a good deal of cloying sentimentality near the end, is a very likeable film, and—this is the only time he has done this on film—Newman directs himself, as Harry Keach, and Woodward, who especially delights as Lilly, a neighbor who had been Harry’s deceased wife’s closest friend.

Dying from heart disease, Harry, a wrecker on demolition sites, loses his job when temporary blindness nearly costs a fellow worker his life. Harry struggles to come to terms with his diminished capacity and, fearing death, his worry over his unsettled son Howard’s future only exacerbates his tendency to oppose the boy, a writer, at nearly every turn. The two live together but, after the boy loses a series of jobs, Harry evicts him. Nevertheless, he is touched when Howard succeeds in selling one of his stories for a handsome price: “Harry,” a sketch about the widowed father whom Howard loves despite all their arguments and differences.

Harry & Son opens powerfully, with a sequence of shots showing the material destruction the wrecking ball that Harry operates enacts. From various camera angles crashing wood and glass fill the successive images, depicting not just the employment, the livelihood, that will shortly be taken away from Harry but also the mental chaos he experiences as he loses control of his life. Here, assisted by cutter Allen again, Newman filmmakes with purpose, brio and assurance. (Compare Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, 2002, where through loads of repetition shattered glass and wood cease to reflect on the predicament of the leading character and become only the things themselves: a barrage of pointless special effects.)

But the film is also—ultimately more so—the son’s story. A tolerant sort, Howard has managed to stake out an impressive independence despite his father’s cranky, demanding, at times bewildering nature. The boy revives his relationship with a girl—Lilly is her mother—whose baby he delivers in the back seat of a cab that is stalled in traffic en route to hospital; he is that adaptable. And loving: He dotes on the baby, whom the girl in appreciation names after the boy’s father. That at least is the explanation Katie gives Howard as to why she has named her baby Harry. It might even hold water, given her gratitude and the degree to which the object of her gratitude dotes on his father; certainly if there is hint of another reason for the baby’s name, Newman the director provides the requisite delicacy not to disturb the present with too much past. He understands he is not doing Greek tragedy, or Ibsen, or O’Neill. Indeed, above all else he must avoid doing anything that might derail the upbeat ending he pursues; for Harry’s death leaves Howard lost and frantic only briefly, for Harry the Second and the infant’s mother provide the boy with an instant family of his own.

Newman doesn’t entirely elude bathos in the spectacle of Harry’s death, to which Robby Benson’s Howard responds in an almost laughably tearjerking fashion. Nor can Newman’s otherwise admirable restraint hope to win against his own motive—it may be unconscious—for making the film. The father dies; the son, at last appreciated, survives: plot points suggesting a wishful and uncomfortably self-pitying reversal of facts from Newman’s own life, the suicide of a grown son who struggled in his father’s iconic shadow. I do not need this film for my heart to go out to Newman; on this buried autobiographical pivot, I do not need the film at all. Newman and Ronald L. Buck wrote the original story and screenplay from which the film proceeds, and the worst aspect of its execution, again I feel determined by wishfulness and projective self-pity, is Newman’s blatant idealization of the boy, who is good-humored and gently natured beyond belief. It doesn’t help, either, because he is played by Benson, that he looks like a mawkish ape.

Acting is what commends Harry & Son. Newman is good as Harry, an unhappy man with a mean streak of humor and a persistent shyness. The star relies on his good looks not once—not even in the clever, inverted way some glamorous stars tread when they are seeking credit for not having relied on their good looks. Newman stays with his part, which he nicely inhabits. His scenes with Woodward are the best in the film, full of charm, pleasant but also poignant sparring, and a delicious brief attempt at romance. Woodward’s Lilly is among her finest creations, a splendid balancing of the two categories that account for many of her roles: the kook; the sensitive, responsible woman. Ossie Davis is excellent as an unemployed man whose truck, in one of his many attempts at employment, Howard tries to repossess. (Wouldn’t you know they become friends?) Judith Ivey is a sexual knockout as a professional person whose car Howard polishes. Alas, Newman adds to Sally’s seduction of Howard some gratuitous visual dazzle. This woman doesn’t need such help. With her crooked mouth, Ellen Barkin as Katie may be a matter of taste: an apt pun, since Barkin suggests (great) sex appeal and little else. One cannot imagine her Katie ever attaining anything like her mother’s profound humanity or Sally’s show of efficiency and competence.

Benson. An effete, affected, very often smug individual, Robby Benson—the name itself!—is among the least likeable of all show-biz personalities. He had long been the butt of jokes when Newman took him under his wing. A director himself now (of trash, though), one must also recall that Benson was an earnest and eager actor. Whatever; he blossoms into silent comic subtlety in a great scene where Howard runs amok with an automated machine to which he is feeding cardboard boxes (Morgan Freeman plays the foreman)—Newman’s fine allusion to the assembly-line panic Charlie suffers in Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). But Benson cannot escape being Benson for long; less lighthearted moments find his work afflicted with his congenitally soft, precious voice and manner. Why this choice of casting on Newman’s part, goodness knows. Perhaps it was the challenge.

Perhaps by symbolical indirection he hoped to redeem a part of his past.

B(U)Y THE BOOK

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