Harry Keach has been widowed for two years and works as a bulldozer operator on a construction crew. Despite having a strong work ethic, that working life is cut short when health issues lead to him no longer being able to do the job. Harry has a strained relationship with his two grown children: Nina, who, with her insurance salesman husband, seems more concerned about what they can receive in material possessions through her relationship with Harry; and Howard, who still lives with Harry. Howard is an aspiring writer, but as a person who lives in the here and now would rather hang out having fun than find work in a steady job when he isn't writing. Despite Harry loving Howard and Howard loving Harry, the strain in their relationship is brought to the fore as Howard can work but won't while Harry wants to work but can't. Especially while they still live together, the two have to come to a new understanding as they move into the next phase of their respective lives, Howard's which ...Written by
In a 1997 interview with Conan O'Brien, film critic Gene Siskel identified staying at the same hotel as Robby Benson, just after slating his performance in this movie, as one of the most awkward moments of his career. (Their daughters became friendly but the two men did not acknowledge each other.) See more »
"Harry and Son" must have meant a lot to Paul Newman because he not only played Harry, but co-wrote the story and screenplay, as well as co-produced and directed the film. His wife, Joanne Woodward, also got dragged into this mess in a small supporting role.
Before Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, and Newman's buddy Robert Redford stepped behind the camera and won Oscars for directing, Newman won a lot of praise and some awards for his 1968 directorial debut, "Rachel, Rachel," for which Woodward received an Oscar nomination. The film was also nominated for best picture, but Newman was passed over by the director's branch who nominated Stanley Kubrick for "2001: A Space Odyssey" instead (although it might be more accurate to say the Academy gave the best picture nomination that "2001" deserved to the Newman-Woodward film). Whatever promise Newman showed behind the camera wasn't fulfilled, however, and Newman directed only a handful of other films, the best of which, in my opinion, was 1971's "Sometimes a Great Notion" from Ken Kesey's novel about a logging family in Oregon that featured a remarkable scene involving a drowning.
"Harry and Son" suggests that, as a director, Newman was spent. His first mistake was in casting himself as a construction worker, an ornery guy who would have been more suitable for George C. Scott, but made his biggest misstep by casting Robby Benson as his son. Robby Benson!? There was a time in the '70s before the Brat Pack era of the next decade when the soft-voiced, overly pretty, and annoyingly coy Benson seemed to get all the major male roles between the ages of 16 and 25. Fortunately, until the Brat Pack era of which he was not a part, there weren't too many major roles in movies for males aged 16 to 25. Movie audiences, even the 18-25 year olds said to represent the demographic Hollywood covets most, preferred stories with adult characters played by middle-aged actors, whether it was Sean Connery (or Roger Moore) as James Bond, Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, or any of the roles played by Newman, Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Burt Reynolds, and the other box-office draws of that era.
Benson was awful in just about everything he did, and always too goody-goody and sensitive to be believed. He's not convincing as Newman's son, nor does he believably portray a writer which the construction worker's son aspires to be. He sits grimacing at his typewriter, aggressively pounding the keys, and when his father asks why the stories he writes are always being rejected, he calmly says, "It's part of the ritual." That sounds like a remark that a neophyte writer would write for a character who is a writer. It's not what a writer would likely utter while watching the rejection slips piling up, suffering a crisis of confidence on one hand, and feeling defensively superior on the other.
Newman isn't much better. I guess he couldn't help it if he looks too handsome and physically fit for a 58-year-old laborer, but that's because he wasn't a laborer. He was a 58-year-old movie star who kept himself in tip-top shape and resembles a male model more than a construction worker even in his snug jeans and flannel shirt. Newman would convincingly play a blue collar guy a decade later in the excellent "Nobody's Fool," but he didn't write the script for that and left the directing to Robert Benton. As for Benson, he went on to voice the beast in Disney's animated "Beauty and the Beast," and has mercifully remained behind-the-camera ever since. Sorry, Robby, but as an actor, you stank.
Brian W. Fairbanks
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