Certain actors were—and a few still are, thank God—so gifted that just their names on the marquee is enough to make you park your car and pull out your wallet. Or, in the case of old movies on TCM, turn off the phones, lock the doors, and curl up on the sofa with your wife and dogs and something wet in your hand.
Art Carney was one of those.
In the highly likely event that you are too young to know who Art Carney was, I will remind you that he was probably best known, and will almost certainly be best remembered for his role as Ed Norton (“Norton! You are a mental case!”) on the Jackie Gleason television comedy, The Honeymooners. And that’s not a bad thing: The Honeymooners was one of those sitcoms from the golden age of television, with scripts so charmingly zany, characters so real, and performances so brilliant, that they are as much fun to watch now, sixty years later, as they were back then. And they will still be delicious sixty years from now, which is proof of the timelessness of the best theatrical art, from Aeschylus to Downton Abbey, no matter whether it’s comedy or drama: if the playwright has caught something real, the work will endure.
But Art Carney was one of those geniuses capable of anything. Contrast his wacky, over-the-top, plastic, slapstick work as Ed Norton with his performance as the aging detective in The Late Show, or his Academy Award-winning performance in Harry and Tonto (a performance that won him the award over such minor talents as Albert Finney, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, and Jack Nicholson). Very, very few actors are capable of that kind of range. (Jack Lemmon leaps to mind.)
So when Darleen told me Going in Style, (1979) was going to be on TCM, we got serious about comedy.
The plot, such as it is, is about three very elderly retired men, living off their meager social security checks and sharing a modest apartment, fighting off terminal boredom as they wait for God. In an effort to keep from dying of boredom, and to help out the sole relative any of them has (Art Carney’s nephew, played by the late, great Charles Hallahan), they decide to rob a bank. And we’re off to the races.
The other two retirees are George Burns and Lee Strasberg, and when the three of them are together, you are watching almost two hundred years of theatrical experience and genius honed to dry, deadpan perfection.
I don’t want to give anything away, because you really should watch this gem, but like all the best comedy, it has a bittersweet quality that takes you from laughter to tears and happily back again.
There is one scene, in Central Park, when the three old friends walk past a vaguely Jamaican street band, all bongos and congas and steel drums, and Art Carney starts to dance, to the delight of the band, the delight of his friends, the delight of casual onlookers, and to the infinite delight of the movie-goer. That one scene, by itself, is reason enough to watch Going in Style. As Darleen put it, while watching that dance, “With those three guys you don’t need a script. Just turn the camera on and let them go to town.”