On Golden Pond [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #34]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #34.  Spoilers ahead.  

On Golden Pond

Directed by Mark Rydell

Release Date:  December 4, 1981
My age then:  11 years old

What it is about:  Aging couple Norman and Ethel Thayer spend their summers regularly on a large lake called Golden Pond. Their grown daughter Chelsea–who has a troubled relationship with the ornery Norman–visits them for Norman’s 80th birthday, along with her fiancé Bill and his young teen son Billy. Billy ends up spending the summer with the elderly couple, slowly bonding with Norman especially over a love of fishing. At the end of the summer, Chelsea returns and after being challenged by Ethel, takes steps to attempt to reconcile with her father. Later, as they are leaving, Norman appears to suffer a heart attack, forcing Ethel to face the inevitability of their death. However, Norman recovers quickly, and he and Ethel say farewell to the pond together.

Starring Henry Fonda as Norman, Katharine Hepburn as Ethel, Jane Fonda as Chelsea, Doug McKeon as Billy, Dabney Coleman as Bill, and William Lanteau as Charlie (the local mailman who is interested in Chelsea).

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  1982 was the first year I ever watched the Academy Awards, which is something I did quite devotedly for the next two decades or so. The ceremony covered the films of 1981, including this one, which won both the Best Actor and Best Actress awards for Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. So I’d heard of it, I knew it was a drama of some sort about an elderly couple. I knew that Jane Fonda played their daughter, and I knew that it largely took at some rustic lake. I had the impression it was probably some sort of very slow drama, but I had no idea what the film was actually about.

Reality: On Golden Pond opens with a several minute montage of its titular lake, taking plenty of time to linger over the scenery and its associated plants and wildlife. Into this idyllic setting drive in Norman and Ethel, and we watch them arrive at the pond and their cabin. For the Thayers, this is their familiar and well-loved place of retreat. For us in the audience, it becomes our window into their lives–the movie proceeds to slowly reveal their characters, their backstories and their fears of the future over its running time, wisely keeping all of its action limited to the one general location. The experience has clearly theatrical roots–it’s no surprise to learn its based on a play, both written by Ernest Thompson–but the setting never feels like a limitation. Instead, the movie allows us to explore the pond through the Thayer’s eyes, and as we do we see it is varied and nuanced, just as Norman and Ethel are, as well as their daughter Chelsea and their “grandson-in-training” Billy. As a result, even though there are certainly moments of awkward staginess, the movie becomes a fascinating character and relationship study.

So much of the success of On Golden Pond is down to the unbelievably good performance from Henry Fonda. Katharine Hepburn is top-billed for whatever reason, but Fonda is the star here. His Norman is crotchety and difficult, but full of depth and complexity, displaying admirable qualities that sometimes are only recognized by his wife. The movie never gives him an easy-out, either–there’s no simple “moment of redemption” where we realize he’s just a jolly old coot or whatever. Norman is simultaneously quick-tempered and patient, angry and devoted, afraid and accepting about approaching end-of-life.

Katharine Hepburn’s Ethel has to expand on this on several occasions through some very well-written dialogue. To Billy, after a difficult encounter, she says, “Well, he’s like an old lion. And he has to remind himself that he can still roar….Sometimes you have to look hard at a person and remember that he is doing the best he can. He is just trying to find his way.” And when her daughter Chelsea again talks about how she wants a friendship with her father, but is too afraid to pursue it, she says, “Chelsea, Normal is 80 years old. He has heart palpitations and a problem remembering things. When exactly do you expect this friendship to begin?”

It takes a lot of skill as an actress to not lose sight of your own character while you are constantly talking about someone else, but Katharine Hepburn carries it off with the skill that one expects from her. But if Henry Fonda did not actually inhabit Norman’s contradictions so comfortably, the whole movie would fall apart. I had a bit more difficulty consistently accepting Jane Fonda as Chelsea, but maybe that’s just because Chelsea is at her most awkward and immature when she is with her father. Doug McKeon does a good job as young Billy, and Dabney Coleman once again proves himself to be one of the era’s most reliable character actors as Chelsea’s boyfriend Bill.

On Golden Pond is perhaps the most emotionally affecting movie that I’ve watched as part of this 50 Movies series. Norman, a curmudgeon of an old man who loves fishing does remind me of my own father late in his life. He was never quite as ornery as Norman is, but there was still that blend of both admirable and criticizable personality traits that I guess is true of just about all of us–but maybe are more apparent with the decreasing capacity of the elderly.

My favorite scene in On Golden Pond is the ending–as they are packing to leave the lake at the end of the summer, Norman suddenly collapses under the exertion of carrying a heavy box. Ethel (and the audience) fully believe that Norman is dying, and in those brief panicked moments she has to accept the inevitability of that which Norman has always known they would eventually face. Almost humorously, Norman recovers, and they have the chance to process the experience. Asked how it felt, Ethel says, “Odd. Cold, I guess. But not that bad, really. Almost comforting, not so frightening, not such a bad place to go. I don’t know.”

It’s a lovely closing for the movie. It’s hopeful, because Norman and Ethel still have time together and to go further with their relationships with Chelsea and Billy, but it’s also layered with the sad reality of what they know is coming. The very final scene shows them looking out on the lake, noting how the changes in their lives are reflected in the loons that have been with them all summer, is the perfect finishing touch.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? The movie has a temptation to slide into sentimentality but the strength of the performances, the quality of the script and the assurance of the direction keep it grounded in the realm of compelling drama.

See here for the Master List.

One thought on “On Golden Pond [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #34]

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