On Golden Pond (1981)
Written by Ernest Thompson
Directed by Mark Rydell
I can remember instances of comedians parodying On Golden Pond in my youth, especially Katherine Hepburn’s particular affectations throughout. As I got older, I learned more about the actors involved, especially the rift between Henry Fonda and his daughter Jane. The film started after Jane saw the play and purchased the rights so she could cast her dad in the lead role. Pairing Henry Fonda with Katherine Hepburn was also a way to appeal to classic movie lovers by featuring these legends. It would turn out to be Henry Fonda’s final film but certainly not one of his best. Sadly, the final product on the screen feels incredibly cheap and trite.
Ethel (Hepburn) and Norman (Henry Fonda) are an aging couple who have just arrived at their lake house in New England. As they do every summer, the couple indulges in fishing, repairing the cabin, and enjoying the loons on the lake. They get a letter from their daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) telling them she is coming to visit and bringing her new boyfriend (Dabney Coleman). They also bring along the boyfriend’s son Billy Ray and the news that Chelsea and her beau are headed to Europe. They’d really like Ethel and Norman to look after Billy Ray. The couple agrees, while Billy feels betrayed by his father. Norman and the boy bond through fishing throughout the summer. But things are getting worse as Norman struggles with dementia that is creeping its way into his life.
My first impression, and one that continued as I watched the picture, was that On Golden Pond looked and felt like a made-for-tv movie. I think it would have fit right in as the CBS Monday Night Movie with its melodrama and incredibly low stakes. This is a film about the interpersonal relationships of its characters, and it doesn’t really explore them in exciting ways or challenge them beyond anything rudimentary. For example, we are informed that Chelsea feels she was emotionally bullied by Norman as she grew up. I thought maybe the movie will be about that rift healing or growing further apart. But, instead, Chelsea ends up barely being in the film. Instead, we get a story about a sharp-tongued curmudgeon becoming pals with an unnaturally polite thirteen-year-old boy.
Katherine Hepburn is the shining jewel in the picture, and I wish the film had dropped the teenage kid and just focused on Ethel and Nathan’s potentially final summer at Golden Pond. When you get moments between them, it works better than anything else in the movie. I didn’t find myself moved by the very slight peril Norman ends up in as much as I did the grounded realities around dementia. When Norman got lost in the woods or the final scene, it felt more natural than the melodrama of the crashing boat. Hepburn exudes warmth and is just the sort of person that brings out the best in a setting like this, always a sense of wonder at the beauty of everything.
Henry Fonda does a decent job as Norman. He has a challenge, playing a misanthrope who the audience is supposed to come to find endearing. His voice comes off as an impression of W.C. Fields in many moments, but he does remind us why he’s one of the great acting talents. Even a script as maudlin & sappy as this one doesn’t stop him from finding interesting ways to give the character dimensionality. The moments when he succumbs to dementia, going from snarling to confused, are very well done. He clings to Ethel in the aftermath, and it helps the audience understand why they stay close to one another. She is all the warmth he needs in moments of crisis, and he can make her laugh in similar situations.
I think the most surprising performance came from Dabney Coleman. He’s in the film for only one scene, and his part reminds us of the film’s roots as a stage play. The moment he gets opposite Henry Fonda feels like one of those great stage drama beats. I expected Coleman to play a sniveling asshole, as he was eventually typecast, but here he’s more nuanced and ends up coming off as a decent guy. He knows about Chelsea’s abuse and isn’t going to take any crap from Norman. However, when he practically abandons his kids with a couple of old people he hardly knows, the character reverses course and begins to feel like a jerk. I don’t think On Golden Pond is going to throw any mental curveballs at an audience, and ultimately, it’s a pleasant but forgettable piece of film.