“Harry and Son” is not your typical labor of love for Paul Newman, who directed and starred in this picture. Drenched in the subculture of the ‘80s, we see a different side to Newman’s long career that is a little bit lighter in tone. But don’t let that light tone fool you, because at the core of this picture is the poignant tale of a father and son trying to desperately connect with each other.
Harry Keach (Newman) is a gruff, beer-guzzling construction worker that is secretly suffering from health problems. Slowly, we see that these health problems are progressing, and now a man who has worked his whole life suddenly has to deal with losing his job. On top of that, he never really connected with his son, Howie, played by Robby Benson in one of his best roles. Howie is a sensitive young man who loves to surf and write. He is fine with a lousy job at a car wash until his career as a writer takes off, but his father doesn’t believe he is a real man.
The film is completely structured around the concept of whether or not this father and son can mend their family ties. The premise will touch the hearts of most men, who can understand that while maybe not always spoken, a father and son share a unique, lifelong bond. Most men can’t explain it, but they often have respect for their fathers, even if the relationship was less than stellar.
What Newman did that was radically different with the character of Keach was create somebody that was extremely hard to like. However, with Newman’s immense talent, you can’t help but find the character endearing. The audience has to look beneath the surface to fully understand Keach’s character, and that’s something that many films are too nervous to attempt.
The widowed Keach may or may not have feelings for Lilly, played by Newman’s real-life wife, Joanne Woodward. The genuine chemistry between Newman and Woodward is undeniable, and a true pleasure to watch onscreen. Even when the two characters are arguing, you can see what a special real-life relationship these two had.
Unfortunately, Benson was nominated for the Worst Supporting Performance of 1984 at the Razzies. The performance, however, is well-layered and should not have been nominated, because this character is supposed to be the complete opposite of Newman’s, which Benson understands. We are not supposed to believe these two have any similar traits, and Benson is supposed to be sensitive and slightly awkward in the role. He is optimistic throughout in his attempts to understand his father, and that makes him easy to identify with.
An interesting side note: Tom Cruise actually auditioned for the role as the son. A few years later, Cruise did get to work opposite Newman in “The Color of Money.”
The story is centered around strong yet slightly offbeat performances that unfold with the plot. This picture gives you time to understand the characters, and allows you to make your own judgments.
“Harry and Son” is a wonderful and underrated chapter in Newman’s career. It is a rewarding experience to anyone that discovers this hidden gem.