The loons are back again on Golden Pond and so are Norman Thayer, a retired professor, and Ethel who have had a summer cottage there since early in their marriage. This summer their daughter Chelsea -- whom they haven't seen for years -- feels she must be there for Norman's birthday. She and her fiance are on their way to Europe the next day but will be back in a couple of weeks to pick up the fiance's son. When she returns Chelsea is married and her stepson has the relationship with her father that she always wanted. Will father and daughter be able to communicate at last?
Katharine Hepburn ... Ethel Thayer
Henry Fonda ... Norman Thayer Jr.
Jane Fonda ... Chelsea Thayer Wayne
Doug McKeon ... Billy Ray
Dabney Coleman ... Bill Ray
William Lanteau ... Charlie Martin
Christopher Rydell ... Sumner Todd (as Chris Rydell)
"On Golden Pond" is simply an old-fashioned testimonial to long-lost youth and facing one's mortality, and, in its simplicity, becomes a life-affirming valentine to those who feel that time has become the enemy - a seemingly ageless, universal perception. If not for the magnificent acting duet between Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, this lovely, sentient piece would have been ignored by most moviegoers. But buoyed by these two acting legends, it manages to circumnavigate the heavy, mawkish waters -- rising far above and beyond anybody's expectation. Earning a whopping ten Oscar nominations, Ernest Thompson's reflective screenplay won one of those Oscars, but, for me, it's Dave Grusin's soothing, glistening score that is the stronger selling point here, adding immeasurably to the film's ruminative tone and gently rustic surroundings.
Henry Fonda plays brusque, cantankerous Norman Thayer, a one-time college professor approaching his 80th birthday with a mixture of anger, cynicism and fear as he shows signs of losing his faculties. Norman is not a particularly kind or considerate gent. Abrupt, callous, remote, and ill-equipped to offer nurturing support of any kind, living with Norman must have been quite an ordeal for those growing up under his roof. As a means of self-preservation, their only child, Chelsea, has long estranged herself from the family, unable to emotionally come to terms with her unhappy, unhealthy relationship with her father.
Fonda offers the most affecting, endearing performance of his durable career. He manages to use Norman's undesirable traits to his advantage, investing in his character a gruff charm and cynical sense of humor that is totally winning. He melts away the harmful, negative elements, as Carroll O'Connor managed to do for Archie Bunker, and makes Norman not only funny and entertaining, but loveable. As a result, Fonda becomes the glowing centerpiece of `On Golden Pond,' and it is this portrayal, along with his `Grapes of Wrath' Tom Joad, that will remain indelibly etched in our hearts and minds for decades to come.
Kate Hepburn is his Ethel, a loving, pragmatic anchor who obviously has played an important role in the lifetime success of this complicated man. Devoted to a tee, Ethel understands and compensates for the weaknesses of her husband. She valiantly assuages his deepening fears with good-natured kidding, feigned hopelessness, and careful but subtle guidance. She is Dulcinea to his Don Quixote. As a lioness would shield an endangered cub, she has automatically assumed the roles of caregiver, protectorate and confidence booster without pause or grief. Only for Ethel does Norman step out of his shield of emotional armor and display a genuine affection that is lost to others, including himself. Hepburn absolutely radiates with warmth and vitality, providing the film with a necessary center. Though less flashy and substantive, both she and Fonda were Oscared for their work here, with Hepburn winning a record-breaking fourth 'Best Actress' award. Incidentally, this was their ONLY screen pairing, yet they work together as if they've known each other all their lives.
Fifteen-year-old Doug McKeon manages to hold his own among the star power here as a young resentful upstart whose dentist father (Dabney Coleman) is romantically involved with Chelsea. Forced to play out the rest of his summer with the old folks while his father and girlfriend spend quality time together, he learns a delicate lesson or two as he develops an unlikely bond with Norman. Coleman himself has one edgy, amusing scene as he tries to gracefully deal with an overly wry Norman.
Surprisingly, the weakest story link involves Norman's strained relationship with daughter Chelsea, played by Hank's own daughter, Jane Fonda (Oscar-nominated). The familial situation obviously parallels their own real-life lack of connection, but the scenes seem strangely shallow and self-serving as they forge through some mucky emotional moments as if striving for real-life closure. What should have been insightful and compelling comes off forced and distracting, particularly on Jane's part.
Henry Fonda's own physical frailty at the time of shooting adds a special poignancy to the film. Ironically, Hepburn won her second Oscar in 1967 for playing another wifely Rock of Gibraltar in `Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?' The ailing Spencer Tracy died shortly after the completion of that film. Fonda would pass away a few months after winning his only Oscar.
A most welcome and satisfying diversion that touches with its unpretentiousness, `On Golden Pond' is a lovely, lovely little film that should resonate for ages to come.
Mark Rydell's On Golden Pond was a surprise hit in 1981, finishing third in box office grosses after Rocky III and E.T. Such an occurrence was unheard of in Hollywood, considering the key players in the film, Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, each had not had a hit film in almost twenty years and were both hardly spring chickens in the business. Both these veteran actors proved they could still make it in Hollywood among young starlets, and triumph. Still, when you see "On Golden Pond," you sense that their teaming together for the first time in their careers is purely a special occasion, an opportunity of a lifetime that few actors in their seventies receive. They in turn have left us with a wonderful showcase of movie talent, a film of warmth, good humor, and love.
It always amazes me when I read that Henry Fonda had only received two Oscar nominations during his career, one of which he earned for this film. Like his good friend Jimmy Stewart, Fonda was rarely a boisterous actor. He had a natural ease to his acting, a gift for making audiences believe that every word he uttered was truth. Now, in his final screen performance as Norman Thayer Jr., Fonda had to reach deep into his own personal experience and his advancing years to create a character who struggles with his own mortality. Norman is a grouchy curmudgeon who has memory lapses and heart palpitations. He has a loving and cheerful wife, Ethel (Hepburn), but a difficult relationship with his only daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda). He and Ethel journey back to their cottage on the lake for what may be their last summer. Immediately, Norman comes face to face with his old age and his inability to remember what should be familiar sights. I especially like the scene where he gets lost in the woods looking for strawberries and scares himself when he is unable to find his way back. Ethel has such faith in him, sure he will "get back on that horse" and be as valiant as he once was. What more could you want from a wife?
Chelsea arrives after many years away from her parents, bringing with her a new boyfriend (Dabney Coleman) and his son, Billy (Doug McKeon). You can sense the tension between Chelsea and Norman the minute she walks in the door. This reunion is fascinating not only because we can never tell where the difficulty lies in their relationship, but also the fact that these problems also exist on and off the screen. The father-daughter relationship between Henry and Jane was also very turbulent ever since Jane began her protests in Vietnam, much to the chagrin of her father. This collaboration of the two was meant to mend fences between them. Not often do the personal lives of actors collide so eloquently in Hollywood, but here it seems just about right.
The sequence where Norman and Bill (Coleman) attempt to build a conversation is originally conceived and acted so naturally. He carefully asks Norman if it would be alright if Chelsea and he sleep together in the same room at the cottage. Of course, Norman makes this confrontation as difficult as possible, making Bill nervous and jerking him around. Ironically, Bill comes back at him, not allowing Norman to use him in petty mindgames and hoping they would become friends, which is obviously "not an easy task." This is an unsettling turn for Norman and the audience, but it is necessary for the story to progress and for Norman to respond accordingly to the other characters in the story.
Ethel and Norman volunteer to let Billy stay with them for the summer while Chelsea and Bill head off to Europe. Billy is not pleased with the arrangement at the outset, but gradually bonds with Norman through learning to fish on the pond. While Billy is not necessarily an original character, it is fascinating to see him try to understand Norman, and in turn how Norman learns to associate with the son he never had. It is a learning experience for both of them, even though they are many generations apart.
Many reviewers have remarked that ON GOLDEN POND uses a conventional story and revives it with great performances from the cast. It is interesting to note that the screenwriter, Ernest Thompson, altered his own play in order to escape a bit of the conventionality that the film medium required. The framework may seem as original as an old shoe, but the added touches in the script and its delivery give this film a certain magic that only classical Hollywood films possessed. Fonda has a great way to end a career with this role, placing himself completely within Norman's world and searching within and through the role for his own solutions to life's problems. His Oscar was given to him for more reasons than mere charity. Hepburn is delightful as Ethel, working so well with Fonda that it does not seem as if they are acting. For a couple of old Hollywood actors who never even met before this, they each prove they are true masters of their craft. Jane Fonda takes a supporting role this time, incorporating some of the same motives as her father into her part, and as a result delivers a special performance. Mark Rydell is one of those directors that often gets left off the list of the all-time greats, but proves once again here he is a masterful storyteller. In this project, he allows both the visual elements of the pond and his actors to make magic, a truly memorable combination.
On Golden Pond is not an epic, but what it accomplishes runs close to epic proportions. It is very rare that a stageplay converts so well to the screen like this one. On Golden Pond is vibrant, emotional, and so heartfelt, it is impossible not to like, unless you are a curmudgeon like Norman Thayer. It is also unique that great actors such as these will agree to try again for Hollywood glory so late in their careers. It is up to us viewers to experience this wonder before the chance is lost and these thespians finally close up the cottage and head off to their retirement.
On Golden Pond is a film that proved to me that acting is a beautiful thing when it comes from some of the veterans and the greats. I have always had the opinion that most acting from the 60's and earlier is one dimensional and flat. But then I saw this film and I realized that I was watching two of the best, from any era. Fonda and Hepburn are absolutely stunning in here and they so richly deserved to win their Oscars that year. And not only am I mad to see that Chariots of Fire beat out Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it also beat this film out as best picture, and that is a shame, and a crime.
On Golden Pond reminded me a little of my relationship with my grandfather. It's not that we didn't get along because we did, but at times it was a little strained simply because of the age difference. But Billy soon learns that Norman Thayer Jr. is not just an old man, but he is a guy that has a lot say and he can offer him so much and of course they become friends. So we all know how the movie is going to end up, but it is the execution that is the strength of the film. We watch as these two grow together. We sense that they are becoming more at ease with each other and when we finally see our two guys catch that guarantuan fish named Walter, by this time we are pretty much sure what they are going to do. And it's kind of funny to draw parallels between Walter the fish, and Norman the crusty old man. But both have been around the pond for years. Norman's life wouldn't be the same if his quest for the fish was never there. Perhaps the same with Walter, perhaps he has enjoyed alluding Norman for all these years. But now the game is up, but it doesn't have to be. Norman caught him, perhaps that's all that should matter. You can draw your own conclusions from that analogy. But I like the way it comes out.
On Golden Pond is a treasure. It is sweet, tender and honest. You will never see a performance better than the one Henry Fonda gives in this one. And this made me want to go out and rent some of the films that the two screen legends were in before and I have to admit that their early work is impressive. But it is here that they shine like never before. So my recommendation is this. If you are young and would never imagine seeing a film like this because it doesn't have someone like Sara Michelle Gellar or Arnold Schwartzenegger in it, then take the take advice of someone who had the same pre-conceived notions when I was 15. No Sly, no Spielberg? Hey forget it, not my cup of tea. But this will give you a new appreciation of film. It really is that good.
And for those of you that have seen it, remember this line? "Wife's name is Ethel Thayer, thounds like I'm lithsping dothsn't it? " What a great film.
* The brown Fedora worn by Henry Fonda belonged to Spencer Tracy and was given to Henry Fonda by Katharine Hepburn on the first day on the set. Henry Fonda, overwhelmed with the gesture, painted a still life watercolor of the three hats he wore in the film and gave the original to Katharine Hepburn as a gift. He had 200 lithographs made of the painting and sent one to every person who worked on the film. Each copy was numbered and personally signed by Fonda thanking each person by name. In her autobiography, Hepburn wrote that she gave the painting to screenwriter Ernest Thompson. After Fonda's death, she found the painting to be a sad reminder of him and Spencer Tracy.
* Katharine Hepburn won her fourth best actress Oscar for this role. To date (2008) makes her the all-time record holder for that category. Considering his impressive body of work spanning almost six decades, it's astonishing that, except for an honorary Oscar in 1980, this was Henry Fonda's only best actor Oscar.
* Barbara Stanwyck was on call to replace Katharine Hepburn in the event Katharine Hepburn was unable to appear in the film due to surgery she underwent prior to production.
* Henry Fonda won the Oscar for best actor in a leading role for his role as Norman Thayer, Jr. At 76, he was the oldest actor to win this Oscar.
* This is the only film in which Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda appear together.
* Jane Fonda claims that the scene between Chelsea and Norman (Henry Fonda) where she tells him she wants to be his friend mirrored the real-life relationship between father and daughter. During one take when the younger Fonda unexpectedly grabbed her father's hand, Henry Fonda started to cry and ducked his head away from the camera, embarrassed by his tears. The take appears in the final film.
* Gertrude, the canoe featured in the film, was included in a lot of the estate of Katharine Hepburn during the two-day auction hosted by Sotheby's in 2004. The canoe was sold for $19,200 to entertainer Wayne Newton.
* Henry Fonda's last movie.
* Jane Fonda said she was able to cry in this movie because at the time of shooting, Katharine Hepburn was hiding in the bushes shaking her fists at Jane Fonda to get her to emote.
* When Katharine Hepburn comes drifting in to the marina on the Thayer's boat she had to get divers to direct her in to the dock.
* Charges were set at the front of the Thayer's boat so that it blew up prior to hitting the big rock in Purgatory Cove.
* There was and still is a boathouse on the Thayer's property but the film crew filmed around it so that it wasn't shown.
* Walter the Trout was brought over from a local trout pond at the Castle in the Clouds near Holderness, New Hampshire. Billy and Norman really threw him back into the lake. People still hope to catch him, but after all these years the fish would be a distant relative.
* Katharine Hepburn hurt her arm in a tennis match a few weeks before filming. She almost pulled out, but Henry Fonda convinced her to show up to start shooting on day one. One scene was omitted from the film in which you see her pick up a canoe by herself with her sore arm. She never forgave Mark Rydell for editing that scene out.
* The Purgatory Cove scene was shot in late September. To keep warm in the cold water both Doug McKeon and Henry Fonda had to wear wetsuits under their clothes. Katharine Hepburn was supposed to have a stunt double perform her "dive-in" scene for her, but instead she insisted on doing it herself. She dove into the frigid water without a wetsuit.
* The roles of Norman and Ethel were originally played onstage by Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen.
* The movie's line "Listen to me, mister. You're my knight in shining armor. Don't you forget it. You're going to get back on that horse, and I'm going to be right behind you, holding on tight, and away we're gonna go, go, go!" was voted as the #88 movie quote by the American Film Institute (out of 100).
* On Golden Pond opened at the New Apollo Theater on February 21, 1979 and ran for 126 performances.
* In the scene near the beginning of the film where Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda) calls the operator to see if the phone is working, he looks at a framed photograph on the desk and asks "Who the hell is that?" While the picture presumably is an old photo of Norman, his wife, Ethel (Katharine Hepburn), and their daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda), the photo (circa 1941) actually shows Fonda and four-year-old Jane with Fonda's real-life first wife (and Jane's real mother), Frances Seymour Brokaw.