On Golden Pond

Rating:

Wanna Suck Face?

Main Cast: Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Jane Fonda

Director: Mark Rydell

When I was a kid, my parents had a cabin on a lake in the north woods. I had a love/hate relationship with that cabin. I hated the idea of going there, leaving my friends, being stuck with my family (horror of horrors). In other words, I was a teenager. But I loved it there, too. I learned to fish there, drive a boat, bait a hook. Nothing brings back the memories of that place and that time as strongly as the 1981 film On Golden Pond.

Golden Pond is a place with loons, berries to be picked, mail delivery by boat. It is here that Norman and Ethel Thayer (Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn) have their summer house. As the movie opens, they are opening the house for yet another summer, one of many. Norman is about to turn eighty years old, Ethel perhaps a decade his junior. Norman is a cranky old buzzard, getting a little forgetful, obsessed with his own mortality. Ethel is an eccentric, lovable and incredibly patient soul. She puts up with Norman and his blustery grumpiness, knowing that it’s really all for show.

This year, the Thayer’s receive a visit from their grown daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda), supposedly to celebrate Norman’s birthday. Chelsea and her father clearly have some issues, but that doesn’t stop her from leaving her boyfriend’s thirteen-year-old son with her parents for a month while she and his father go to Europe. Billy (Doug McKeon) is less than thrilled with the situation, and the movie plays out with the threesome trying to make the best of their summer.

Katharine Hepburn

Young Katharine Hepburn

The most obvious virtue of On Golden Pond is the relationship between Norman and Ethel. They could not be more different in their approach to life, she a glowing optimist, he a glowering pessimist, yet the movie gives us a portrait of two people who have spent a lifetime together. They have an easy compatibility that comes from years of ups and downs, years of experiences, years of life. Fonda and Hepburn embody these characters and give them life, give them spirit and personality. Both earned Academy Awards for this film, and rightfully so. Henry Fonda plays the “old man” to the hilt. He’s crotchety, full of complaints, acerbic and deliberately unlikable. He’s also terribly afraid of growing old. A scene in which he becomes disoriented in the woods near the cabin plays as a beautiful counterpoint to the crabby and demanding Norman we’ve seen to that point. Hepburn is brimming with enthusiasm as Ethel – almost annoyingly so at times, deliberately I believe. Her insistent good cheer is as ingrained in her as Norman’s crankiness is in him. Hepburn warbles with loons, skinny dips and dances for the sheer pleasure of it. She’s slightly batty in her perkiness, but is the perfect accompaniment to Fonda. The two of them banter and play and enjoy their summer retreat like a couple that has been together forever. They have a genuine chemistry that takes the edge off the individual characters and makes them an absolutely priceless pair.

Norman’s relationship with Billy, and to a lesser degree Chelsea, occupy the largest part of the plot itself. Norman and Billy are at opposite ends of adulthood, one sadly watching his health and vitality seep away, the other desperately seeking admittance into the world of grown-ups. We see that the two aren’t so different as they might seem. Both need guidance through this phase of life, both need simple pleasures to take their minds off existential angst, both need a friend with whom they have no history. McKeon is just a kid, but does a really admirable job in going toe to toe with the likes of Henry Fonda. His Billy is swaggering and full of false confidence at the beginning, making his way to a place where his confidence is real, his happiness no longer feigned. This sounds terribly contrived, and perhaps it is, but it works. Billy’s transformation seems ridiculously easy, but in fact it may be that it sometimes is just that easy to give a child what they need without even knowing it. If anyone can make you believe that, it’s Henry Fonda as Norman Thayer, Jr.

Henry Fonda

Young Henry Fonda. Easy to imagine Norman and Ethel catching each others eyes.

The relationship between Norman and Chelsea is the single weak point in the film. Or more precisely, the performance of Jane Fonda is the single weak point in the film. Chelsea is a grown woman carrying baggage from her childhood, like everyone does. But she comes across as a shrewish, selfish and spoiled child without the ability to let go of the petty slights of the past. This isn’t a child who was abused, and her simpering gets very annoying. The fact that Jane Fonda seems unable to get her acting legs under her doesn’t help. She has a scene with the mailman that is nearly painful to watch. She also has the dubious honor of being the only one in a position to really date the film. Her wardrobe and hair scream 1981, where the others are far more timeless in appearance. Fortunately, her part in the film is really quite minor, taking a distant back seat to the relationships between Norman, Ethel and Billy.

The entire movie is beautifully filmed. The lake, the house, the loons – it’s all given a golden twilight glow that makes it serene and slightly magical. Photographer Billy Williams takes full advantage of the natural beauty of the surroundings to provide the film with much of its lazy summer tone. The scene of Billy feeling his first taste of freedom as driver of the boat epitomizes everything that is summer, youth and the giddy exhilaration of speed. The scenes of Norman and Ethel on the lake are bathed in a warm light that gives the term “golden years” a lovely visual.

Writer Ernest Thompson and director Mark Rydell put a powerful amount of talent on screen in On Golden Pond. This is quite a gamble. Will that combination be magical or incendiary? In this case, it’s pure gold. Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn give superb performances, putting a face on the tragedies and triumphs of aging. Tossing in a young man gives the movie energy and pace. The unfortunate performance of Jane Fonda does little to dim the light of this trio.

I hadn’t seen this movie in many years when I recently watched it, and I found myself unwittingly smiling through most of it. It brings back fond memories of a time and place in my own life. It is also just a good movie. Excellent performances, a simple story, a lovely setting. What more can you ask for? For me, On Golden Pond will always be a classic.

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