On Golden Pond (1981)

4 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith


“On Golden Pond” is a collection of brilliant short segments that wraps around at the end so that the film has a linear story structure. It has a story with a beginning, middle, and end, but even between them, if it’s possible, the story has its own wraparound with the two central characters—an elderly couple who love each other to death.

The couple is Norman and Ethyl Thayer (Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn). They’re long-married and still share strong simple affection for each other. But Norman is feeling like he’s getting older and it seems that she’s the only thing in his life that matters anymore. That’s good enough for him, since he gripes about everything else.

Anyway, as the story opens, Norman and Ethyl arrive to their lakeside summer cottage near Golden Pond. It’s here that we see Ethyl’s free-spiritedness that apparently stays with age, and Norman’s shyness and stubbornness towards pretty much everything, even Ethyl. He knows he’s getting older and we suspect that he doesn’t see what one more summer at this old place will do to him anymore. But Ethyl assures him that he’s her “knight in shining armor” and will always be.

That’s the opening segment of the film, which could make for a short film of its own. By the time it gets to that pivotal scene, we feel like these two characters have been developed and we like them almost as much as they like each other. But this is just the setup for the real story, which begins as Normal and Ethyl’s grown-up daughter Chelsea (Henry Fonda’s real-life daughter, Jane Fonda) arrives to the cottage to celebrate Norman’s birthday. She brings along her new boyfriend Bill (Dabney Coleman) and his thirteen-year-old son Billy (Doug McKeon). And this is where the conflicts are established. We discover that Chelsea feels resentment towards her father, as Norman has never really given Chelsea her due. It’s as if he really wanted a son to bond with, or he just never really understood how to be a father.

The midway point arrives as Norman and Ethyl agree to let young Billy stay with them while Chelsea and Bill take a trip to Europe. Of course, with no TV and no “chicks” to “cruise” (he’s from San Francisco, where he and his friends “cruise chicks”), the kid acts like a brat. But with some pushing from Ethyl, Norman takes the kid fishing, and the two develop a sort-of father/son relationship together. They bond together, share communication, and trust each other. Later, Norman has learned how to be a father.

By the time Chelsea returns to pick up Billy, she notices the friendship between her father and her new stepson (she married Bill in Brussels, as it turns out), and is even more resentful because Billy is having the relationship with Norman that she never had. But maybe there’s still time for reconciliation.

When Norman and Ethyl are alone again at the cottage, the story ends with the payoff of Norman’s realized mortality. Even though it’s predictable, it’s touching nonetheless. When “On Golden Pond” is over, we feel like we’ve spent time with warm, appealing characters in a peaceful place like Golden Pond. The emotions are there and you feel good about yourself while watching this film.

The performances are first-rate. Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn share amazing chemistry together and share distinct characteristics that make them memorable. A lot rides on these two veteran actors and there’s nothing short of greatness for them. Jane Fonda acquits herself nicely to the role of Chelsea, Dabney Coleman shares a great scene with Henry Fonda about asking permission to sleep in the same room as Jane (the questions and reactions are just fantastic), and Doug McKeon does more than expected with the plain role of the kid—he starts out as a bratty tyke, but becomes likeable as his coming-of-age story continues.

I heard that this is the only film featuring Henry and Jane Fonda together. Maybe some of the character Chelsea’s resentment is reflected from a possible, similar relationship between these two. Whatever the case, having this father and daughter together in the film just adds to its effect.

“On Golden Pond” deals honestly with its issues of relationships, resentment, realization, and mortality, while also showing that life can be beautiful, even if things don’t go as planned. With great acting, nicely staged scenery, and a darn good screenplay, “On Golden Pond” is a real treasure of a movie.

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