Farewell, Norton: Art Carney (1918-2003)

[13 November 2003]

By David Sanjek

Art Carney has died, and it feels like a force of nature has been extinguished. For more than 50 years, his most famous character, The Honeymooners’ Ed Norton, has inhabited the global cathode ray tube, clad in his tee shirt, vest and crumpled hat. Foil to Jackie Gleason’s engaging tyrant, Ralph Kramden, he embodied the hapless sidekick, the willing schlemiel who eagerly trades common sense for loyalty time after time.

No matter how harebrained the plot hatched by his buddy, Norton came through: he promoted rinky-dink kitchen aids for the Chef of the Future, concocted one bald-faced lie after another so that they could attend one more meeting of their fraternity. Like the duo in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the duo seemed suspended in a perpetual cycle of humiliation and failure. Ralph would succumb to sputtering fits of panic, but Norton would keep performing as long as circumstances permitted.

While Gleason came across as a maximalist, incapable of anything other than the grandest gesture, Carney treated physical comedy with the kind of attention to detail that a physician accords to major surgery. He slowed down the rush of time. Think of Norton’s routine whenever he was called upon to write: he would wave his hands about the paper with preparatory flourishes, putting off the actual business at hand until he was jarred into action by Ralph’s ferocious bark. How delicate that routine was, and how side-splittingly funny, no matter how many times he launched into it.

This recognition that there was as much humor in delay as in declaration was central to Carney’s personality. He was a humble, patient, shy man, not given to self-promotion. His slight lisp and his limp, the result of a war injury, made him the object of our sympathy, whatever the character he might happen to play. When one read of his bouts of alcoholism and depression, it was sad but unsurprising. I can recall his appearances on talk shows when he was cajoled into playing the piano, which he did quite well. The tunes were never bombastic showstoppers, but, instead, warm, sweet washes of melody.

As much as I admire and appreciate his work on television, several of Carney’s film appearances remain as meaningful to me as any one of Norton’s fidgety pratfalls. Carney starred in a number of features during the 1970s, most famously the Paul Mazursky geriatric road movie Harry and Tonto (1974), for which he won a Best Actor Oscar. Playing a retired, widowed schoolteacher, Carney undercut the script’s occasional sentimentality by his tart underplaying. The occasions when his cat, Tonto, ran away or the short scene where he has to identify the corpse of one of his aged peers were masterful. Carney granted Harry a willingness to experiment with his remaining time on earth, a sense of maturity without the loss of innocence.

Carney offered another vivid impression of the withering away of time in the odd but affecting heist narrative Going In Style (1979), in which he, George Burns, and Lee Strassberg played three retirees who rob a bank. Directed and written by Martin Brest of Beverly Hills Cop (1984) fame, this small-budgeted feature is never small-minded about the ravages of age or the desire to remain emotionally functional up until the final hour.

Most of all, I treasure his down-on-his-luck gumshoe Ira Wells in Robert Benton’s affectionate genre homage, The Late Show (1977). Produced by Robert Altman, it toys with the conventions of Chandler and Hammett while tweaking new-age nonsense through the ditziness of Carney’s co-star, Lily Tomlin. Her Margo is a Hollywood also-ran, a woman who remains convinced that all she is missing is the big break, whereas Ira merely wishes to have his final days transpire without undue aggravation. After the murder of his former partner, Harry Regan (Howard Duff), Ira accepts Margo’s case: relocating her kidnapped cat, Winston. The investigation tangles the duo in the machination of an offbeat group of shady types, and in the process, Ira and Margo discover an empathy of opposites. She may wish to be the Nora to his Nick, but Ira recoils from any overt declaration of affection, even if his behavior indicates an evolving commitment to this occasionally unhinged woman nearly half his age.

Two scenes in the film stand out. In the course of following the kidnappers, Ira and Margo engage in a chase that has all the requisite kinetic pleasures of a good action movie while developing the characters. Ira surprises Margo with his degree of authority, while her enthusiasm encourages him to emerge from his cocoon of cool. Their high-five when they put one over the culprits is as exhilarating for the characters as it is the audience. The other inspired moment occurs when Ira suffers a physical attack in a diner, and Margo tends to him afterwards. The aged shamus reveals that his frequent downing of Alka Seltzer is due to a perforated ulcer and describes his loathing for the “butchers” at the VA hospital who tried to “cure” him. Carney’s delivery reveals all of his character’s panic as well as his dignity.

The last shot of The Late Show finds Ira and Margo seated at a bus stop outside a Hollywood cemetery. The camera remains stationary in a mid-shot while they joust verbally, until their conveyance arrives. As the bus pulls away, the bench is empty as the mournful theme of the film’s score rises over the credits. I like to think of Carney that way, having quipped and jostled his way into our consciousness only to leave with a quiet pride. He retained his poise and sense of craft whether engaging in hijinks with Gleason, following an errant cat on all fours, or grappling with a younger and stronger thug. May he greet his maker with the kind of epigrammatic simplicity with which Norton once addressed a golf ball, “Hello ball.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/031113-carney/