On Golden Pond (1981)

“You know, Norman, you really are the sweetest man in the world — but I’m the only one who knows it!”

On Golden Pond Poster

Synopsis:
While vacationing at their summer home on Golden Pond, an elderly couple — friendly Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) and crotchety Norman (Henry Fonda), who has a troubled relationship with his grown daughter (Jane Fonda) — agree to care for the sullen teenage son (Doug McKeon) of Fonda’s fiance (Dabney Coleman).

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary correctly notes that the Oscar-winning script for this “surprise moneymaker” — which earned 80-year-old Henry Fonda his first Oscar, and Hepburn her fourth — is “shameless schmaltz where every line is shrewdly calculated to tug at the heart string”; yet he argues that it’s nonetheless “hard not to be taken with” it. He notes that while “we’ve seen the same problematic relationships — cranky old man and lonely young boy, cold old man and his unloved adult child — in other films (and TV movies), … they’re rooted in real life and are hard not to respond to.” He further points out that the film “has special meaning to viewers” given that “Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda had an estranged relationship for many years, until reconciliation late in his life” — just as happens to their characters in the film. Meanwhile, it’s gorgeously shot (on location in New Hampshire) by D.P. Billy Williams, and consistently beautiful to look at.

Unfortunately, however, I can’t profess to sharing Peary’s guilty fondness for this enormously popular film (the top-grossing movie of 1981), which I find not only calculated and derivative but poorly structured. The emotional pay-off we’re waiting for is clearly the reconciliation between Henry and Jane, yet Jane’s underdeveloped character is hardly onscreen, and the bulk of the film focuses instead on Henry’s mentoring of McKeon. In sum, narrative priorities are confused: if this was meant to be a film about an emotionally troubled young teen coming of age in a gorgeous setting under the guidance of a curmudgeonly yet caring grandfather-figure, then McKeon’s character needed to be written with much more depth and insight.

Despite these serious complaints, however, the lead performances in OGP are certainly a joy to watch, and Hepburn and Fonda Sr. do indeed “rise above their roles”. As Peary writes, Fonda Sr. in particular is “wonderful in this role because he seems to really understand all his character’s strengths, quirks, self-doubts (especially in regard to aging), weaknesses, and flaws — particularly as a father”. Film fanatics will likely want to check out this film once simply to see him in his swan song (and to see Hepburn’s “energetic performance” as well).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Henry Fonda as Norman Thayer
    On Golden Pond Fonda
  • Katharine Hepburn as Ethel Thayer
    On Golden Pond Hepburn
  • Gorgeous cinematography by Billy Williams
    On Golden Pond Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for the powerful lead performances.

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One Response to “On Golden Pond (1981)”

  1. A somewhat-reluctant ‘must-see’ vote, for the performances.

    I’m rather in agreement on this. In a sense, it’s easy to like the film because many of us like the idea of watching Henry Fonda and Hepburn ‘grow old together’ in the story and there is some genuine pleasure to be had seeing them as a team.

    But it’s true that the script is nevertheless lacking and it would be nice if there was a little more to it than what we get. On this rewatch, I found myself a bit antsy.

    One thing stuck out as particularly troublesome; Hepburn remarks to her husband that he has been talking about death as long as he has known her. Really?! God, what a burden that must have been over the years! Except not – we’re to believe – since (as the quote used here says) we’re also told Norman is “the sweetest man in the world”…something we see almost no evidence of, even when it’s just the two of them in a scene.

    I have various other issues with this film – involving ineffective communication, etc. – but suffice it to say I wish the film were more compelling than it actually is. It’s certainly gussied-up with a lot of gorgeous cinematography and the location chosen is serene. But I find it all a bit superficial and unsatisfying.

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