On Golden Pond-1981
Starring Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Jane Fonda
Scott’s Review #1,297
Reviewed September 8, 2022
A beautiful and quiet family drama, On Golden Pond (1981) is a brilliantly acted and written story about life and specifically aging and dying. It tells one lovely story arc after another, involving the relationships between its principal characters.
With heavyweights like Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, and Jane Fonda signed on to star how could the film not be a success? It was not only a blockbuster in the summer of 1981 but accumulated ten Academy Award nominations and tons of other awards showing that sometimes subdued stories about human relationships win big.
The anticipation of legendary stars Fonda and Hepburn, golden icons of Hollywood, finally appearing opposite each other in a film must have made film lovers salivate back in 1981.
Norman Thayer (Fonda) is a grumpy old man trying to enjoy his golden years. He and his nurturing wife, Ethel (Hepburn), spend summers at their New England vacation home on the shores of idyllic Golden Pond.
Norman is experiencing memory problems and frets about dying while Ethel makes the most of it and enjoys the beautiful loons on the water and chats with the local mailman.
One year, their adult daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda), visits with her new fiancée (Dabney Coleman) and his teenage son, Billy (Doug McKeon) on their way to Europe. After leaving Billy behind to bond with Norman, Chelsea returns, attempting to repair the long-strained relationship with her aging father before it’s too late.
The greatest part of On Golden Pond is that it is believable. The tender love that Norman and Ethel share, the tensions between Norman and Chelsea, and the burgeoning friendship between Norman and Billy Jr. feel so very real and poignant.
Beautiful scenes emerge between the old man and a young man when Norman turns Billy Jr. on to literary classics like A Tale of Two Cities and Treasure Island. The viewer can easily see themselves in real-life situations like this or when Ethel and Chelsea discuss a strained relationship.
Years and years of memories and situations between the characters spring to life making the dialogue rich with flavor. Moving sequences like when Norman suffers a heart attack and is involved in a boating accident are teary and sentimental but fresh with emotion.
They do not feel manipulated.
As if the richly acted scenes are not enough, screenwriter, Ernest Thompson, who wrote the film based on his play provides credibility. He felt the passion the story would bring to the big screen and he was right.
As I grow older I appreciate the characters of Norman and Ethel. They stick together through thick and thin, sometimes quarrel, but love each other with a bond that can never be severed.
We all know and love couples like them.
The cinematography bristles with sweet nature. From the loons to the other sounds of summer, the camerawork elicits the light of late summertime. I constantly had to remind myself that I wasn’t really in the countryside but was in my living room.
A tearjerker that carefully combines heavy drama with comical moments that lighten the load, On Golden Pond (1981) is a truthful and emotional extravaganza about death that never feels sad or downtrodden. It’s much too clever for that and instead is an uproarious crowd-pleaser.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Mark Rydell, Best Actor-Henry Fonda (won), Best Actress-Katharine Hepburn (won), Best Supporting Actress-Jane Fonda, Best Screenplay-Based on Material from Another Medium (won), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound