Art Carney did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite winning NSFC, for portraying Ira Wells in The Late Show.
The Late Show is a very entertaining neo-noir about an aging private detective and oddball client (Lily Tomlin) trying to find out who was behind the death of his partner.
Art Carney will probably always be best known for two things giving one of the all time great comic performances on television as Ed Norton in The Honeymooners, and causing one of the biggest WHAT? reactions for those who look at the records of Oscars path, although if you ask me he was the most deserving out of the nominees. Technically speaking Carney probably could have avoided all the unnecessary negativity towards his Oscar win if he had instead won a few later for this film instead since none of the nominated performances for 1977 really have all that much passion behind them. Of course disregarding all of that Carney is actually an extremely underrated actor altogether as he had considerable talent as shown in his Oscar win for Harry and Tonto and for this performance as a private detective who ends up checking on the death of his old partner by first trying to locate the missing cat for an odd woman named Margo Sperling (Tomlin).
Art Carney gets to play his own Jake Gittes if Jake Gittes kept up his investigative work while into his older age. Carney carries himself with quite a bit of a cynical attitude here actually and makes himself completely believable in his role as a hard boiled detective. Carney, who usually comes off as a naturally endearing sort, is particularly good at creating Ira as this former tough guy. Carney, despite making the early part of his career out of playing foolish decidedly not particularly imposing characters, he manages to be absolutely convincing in this part. Carney makes the way he speaks has this certain incisiveness about Ira so that its clear that he obviously always trying to get to whatever the bottom might be of the mystery. Carney though also brings just enough of a rough streak to Ira. It's very much an underlying quality as Ira never comes off as hard to like. Carney though still suggests in his delivery the life of a guy who's obviously seen some things in his time.
Carney is a compelling presence to watch proceed through the mystery as he makes Ira such a unique and enjoyable guy to watch. Carney is terrific in the way he balances the sides of Ira of being an older man who obviously is past his prime, but still a guy who knows what he is doing. I particularly love the two corresponding scenes where he deals with a thug. The first time the thug roughs up Ira considerably even causing his nose to bleed as he frisks him. Carney's good in portraying such a realistic resignation as Ira is obviously angered but can apparently do nothing other than to make a seemingly empty threat in front of the thug's boss. Carney contrasts this so well though the next time they meet and Ira catches the guard off guard. Carney manages to be surprisingly imposing as he brings out frankly the old Ira in a great scene as Carney has such a cool command and even a certain physical menace worthy of less aged private eyes like Philip Marlowe or Jake Gittes.
The Late Show is technically an odd couple story too as Margo insists on tagging along with Ira as he investigates the mystery even while the body count piles up. This might seem an annoying prospect if it were not for how great Carney and Tomlin are together in their scenes. They strike up a surprisingly good chemistry together with Tomlin being the overly enthusiastic dreamer and Carney being the hard bitten straight man to most of her antics. They so naturally slowly build the friendship that it never seems forced or out of place in the film. The slowly create such a warmth yet kinda never sacrifice the initial set up of Margo's wild ideas that are usual put to the side by one cynical statement or merely a shake of the head by Ira. What I love is even when Margo finally does come up with a correct idea regarding the case. Carney is very funny by playing it as Ira is trying hard as possible to acknowledge that she figured out something before him even while he technically wholly accepts her accomplishment.
The best part of their routine though might be that they even manage to make the inserted very slight romantic ideas not seem bizarre, as they easily could have. One of the reasons for this is both portray this as a form of insanity. Tomlin expressing at just another one of Margo's very much harebrained ideas which she has too many of at any given time to begin with, and Carney iss terrific by showing Ira trying his best to avoid the thought as if to avoid the obvious awkwardness that would ensue. The rather quietly kinda just settle on a friendship instead which they handle so well. They both are particularly excellent in their scenes of a shared excitement whenever they successfully got one over on the bad guys during their adventure. Carney is particularly good in these scenes as he suggests Ira feeling such a strong nostalgia as it appears as though Ira is once again enjoying one of his glory days of old.
Carney was really the best guy for the role because of just how good he is at balancing between the drama and the comedy of the story. Carney never forces either one of them and is brilliant in the way he handles the transitions. The great thing about his performance though is he never gets hung up in any scene and even when a moment transitions from comical to mid scene Carney absolutely nails. This is seen from his very first scene in the film where he sees his partner walk through the door. Carney is his usual entertaining self in his first exasperated reaction, but then transitions so perfectly when it is revealed that his partner has been critically injured. Carney instantly changes to portraying the heartbreak in Ira as he watches his old friend die in front of him and makes it a moving scene. The sudden change never seems as though it is forced by the writing because Carney is so adept at both sides of the theatrical spectrum.
Art Carney gives a fantastic performance here that really is essential to pulling this off-beat film noir together. Any one of the scenes could have faltered in their sudden switches from comedy to seriousness or the other way around but they don't because Carney never fails in these transitions. This is because on one hand Carney is humorous and has fun with the idea of the aging detective with his wacky new partner but he never let's that be the entirety of his performance. He's equally believable in making Ira a hardnosed and always interesting detective who will figure out the truth despite his age. He is as well is always brings the needed weight to any of the most difficult revelations and is quite heartbreaking in his final moment where Ira sees yet another friend die. You could technically easily take either into a completely comedy oriented version of the story and he would have been great, or you could have taken him into a fully dramatic version and he would have been great. Carney seamlessly connects both end giving a remarkable portrait of a most usual private eye.