Of the five films nominated for Best Picture of 1981, On Golden Pond is greeted with the most derision – dismissed as the Academy falling for cheap sentiment as an excuse to honor their own. Raiders of the Lost Ark set the template for the modern blockbuster, its popularity and influence so immediate that recognition could not be denied it. Atlantic City had an almost European attitude toward character and sexuality while providing a wonderful showcase for Burt Lancaster. Reds was a mix of sweeping historical romance and vanity project. And the winner, Chariots of Fire, had just the right combination of underdog scrappiness and rarefied air of repressed British passion that wins over voters. But what about On Golden Pond?
At the time of the Academy Awards, the film's box office take was closing in on $80 million. It was obviously hitting a chord with audiences, but the critical response was mixed at best. The positive notices seemed to be written under duress. The rest of the mixed-to-negative reviews rang of hardened resistance to being moved at the sight of two old geezers puttering about and saying the damnedest things. (I know one critic who at the time referred to the movie as On Golden Shower.) Some critics and younger film buffs scoffed at a movie they perceived as appealing to middlebrow tastes – i.e., conservative older moviegoers who probably say things like, “Why don’t they make more movies like that?” On Golden Pond was one of the first big Reagan-era dramas, the anti-Ordinary People. The pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda bridged opposing ends of Hollywood’s political spectrum – the brassy liberal and the stern all-American traditionalist. And the sight of Hanoi Jane making nice with her dad now seems like one of the first examples of what turned out to be a major trope in 1980s American cinema, the sight of '60s kids reconciling with their parents.
Seen today, the film version of Ernest Thompson’s Broadway hit looks shockingly small-scale, quaint even. If it weren’t for the star power, it might not have been a hit. Seeing Hepburn and Fonda portray Ethel and Norman Thayer stirs all kinds of emotions. We are at once watching the characters and the actors. The simplicity of the story is crucial to us connecting with the Thayer family. A more complex story would be pointless. Fonda was 76 years old and Hepburn was 74 years old at the time of filming. They no longer had to get into character. They were the characters.
If you didn’t know the movie was based on a play it wasn't hard to figure out, and not just because the story takes place in and around one location. Thompson’s dialogue has, at times, an overly-written cleverness. Unlike the worst of Neil Simon, where characters talk in two-liners, Ethel and Norman speak to each other in quips. What keeps their exchanges from being intolerable is that we feel as if they’ve been talking like this for their entire lives.
The story’s structure is at times quite rickety, but it is also curiously comforting. The opening scene sets the tone perfectly as the Thayers arrive at their summer home and Ethel quickly gets out of the car and calls for Norman to listen to the loons. It’s a classic Kate moment as she says, “The looons, the looons.” (Norman claims he can’t hear anything.) The opening scenes have a stagy busyness that only pros like Hepburn and Fonda can keep from being grating. (The bit where Norman calls the operator so they can call him is quite funny.) The opening passages show the Thayers puttering around, taking their boat to town to pick up supplies, making small talk with Charlie the mailman (William Lanteau). These scenes are finely executed but feel frankly quite twee. Then, Norman has an episode where he can’t remember the route of the road in the woods he’s taken thousands of times to town. He momentarily lets his guard down and tells Ethel he’s scared. Ethel comforts him by saying, “Listen to me, mister, you’re my knight in shining armor.” Up to this point Hepburn has spoken in her trademark New England braying bellow. (Seeing and hearing her again made me realize just how astonishing Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Hepburn was in The Aviator.) But when she comforts Norman she lowers her voice, almost whispering. It’s a great piece of acting that only someone as experienced as Hepburn could make look easy. The scene hooks us and we’re on Norman and Ethel’s side for the rest of the movie.
Not much happens during the summer. Well, not exactly. What happen are the kind of small compromises and accommodations that sometimes occur in families. The Thayers’ wayward daughter Chelsea writes and says she wants to visit for Norman’s 80th birthday. She says she’s bringing her latest boyfriend and his 13-year-old son from a previous marriage. The scene where Norman and Ethel wait for Chelsea to arrive surprises us because an unexpected tension starts to mount. Through inferences we learn that Norman and Chelsea have a friction-filled relationship that they tiptoe around; of course there’s also tension because we know real-life conflict existed between Jane Fonda and her dad. That’s what makes their first on-screen scene together so good. We sense things could explode at any moment. Henry Fonda’s admiration of his daughter’s acting registers as Norman’s distant nature as the old man tries in his own way to get along with her.
(Watching Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond, I was struck at how son Peter Fonda’s career-capping performance in Ulee’s Gold is like the dark side of Norman Thayer; the younger Fonda is playing both his dad and Ulee Jackson.)
The middle section of the movie consists of the Thayers looking after Billy Ray (Doug McKeon), son to Bill Ray (Dabney Coleman), who is taking Chelsea to Europe for a month. Coleman’s big scene with Henry Fonda is a real gem. At first he is intimidated by Norman and comes off as almost condescending towards him. Norman senses this and refuses to give him a break. The way Bill calls Norman out on trying to push his buttons is startling to both us and Norman. Norman decides he’s good enough for his daughter. McKeon, iffy in the early scenes, eventually grows on you. He matches up nicely with Fonda as they develop a winning comic rhythm. We need to feel their affection for one another so that the sequence where their lives are danger doesn’t feel like a manipulation of the plot.
Norman, Ethel and Billy make a fun trio as we sense they’re getting right as surrogate grandparents what they got wrong as parents. There’s a feeling that tragedy could occur at any moment. It doesn’t, really. The big scene in the movie is when Norman and Billy attempt to navigate their boat through a rocky cove. They hit a rock and Norman falls overboard. The highlight of the sequence comes when Ethel goes looking for them and comes upon their boat. When she sees Norman and Billy hanging onto a rock she immediately dives into the water and swims toward them. What gives the scene a swelling emotional power is that Hepburn’s stunt is done in one unbroken shot. She really jumps into the water.
Jane Fonda’s interactions with Hepburn and her father demonstrate her skill at being able to adapt to differing acting styles. Her scenes with Hepburn have a loose give-and-take feel. There’s a remarkable scene where mother and daughter go skinny-dipping at night. Seeing their heads poking above the water at night, we register that it is possible Jane could be the offspring of these two. Her sharp features and her quivering, clipped voice are just right. Her big scene with her father is one for the time capsule. The way her Strasberg-training acting style and his do-it-as-rehearsed strictness rub against each other beautifully illustrates the generational gap they are trying to close. The elder Fonda hated improvisation. He felt there was no need to change what was already on the page. This leads to a fleeting moment where the real world comes crashing into the movie. Chelsea tells Norman she wants to be his friend. When the camera switches to Henry Fonda’s side of the scene, Jane/Chelsea improvises a gesture and puts her hand on his arm. (You’ll miss it if you’re not looking for it.) This bit of business was not rehearsed and startled the elder Fonda. His fleeting reaction to this moment of affection is real. You see him turn, almost embarrassed by the intimacy of the moment. At the end of the movie, when Chelsea, who always refers to her father as “Norman,” calls him “Dad,” we can no longer separate the characters’ quiet acknowledgement of their love from seeing Jane and Henry finally connect with one another.
At the time of its success, On Golden Pond was mocked in some quarters as being some kind of big-screen therapy session for the Fondas. Seen today, removed from its zeitgeist moment, On Golden Pond reveals itself to be an enormously moving (if manipulative) story of familial reconciliation.