Treasuring priceless performances and a sparkling script…
An elderly couple is asked to look after their estranged daughter’s new boyfriend’s teenage son.
On Golden Pond – Trailer, YouTube Movies and Photos from Universal pictures
On Golden Pond (1981) tells of a family, relationships, friendships and new beginnings. It has the perfect casting of two of Hollywood’s then finest film veterans, Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, in their leading roles as an elderly married couple. This is surprisingly their first film together. The film also stars Henry Fonda’s actress daughter, Jane Fonda – as their screen daughter – with her co-star of 9 to 5 (1980) Dabney Coleman and child star, Doug McKeon.
This film is one of those movies I remember watching as a wee girl, staying up late to watch what I considered at the time to be a grown-up movie. Then on reflection, I feel I didn’t understand it, as I was probably the same age as McKeon in his role in this movie. This recent re-viewing was the first time I rewatched it as an adult.
Now I feel the Oscar-winning, wonderful script and cast performances made a much stronger impact on me. It almost felt like I was watching it for the first time, as I found myself in tears, laughing and warming to this movie.
The film starts with a heartfelt tribute to this pond, its nature, wildlife and glorious sunsets setting the scene. These alongside a lovely, haunting opening score. A car brings the leading characters (and us) to Thaxter’s wooden summer, holiday home next to a pond.
We meet 79 turning 80 years old retired professor Norman (Henry Fonda) and his wife (in her sixties), Edith (Hepburn), married for decades and are still very much in love. It’s apparent that Norman’s memory is not so good, and he’s a wee bit on the grouchy side. She in contrast is happy to be back and ecstatic to see a pair of loons (birds) on the pond.
The couple spends time together going out in their canoe and playing board games. One day Edith sends Norman out to get strawberries for lunch in a forest nearby. Whilst he’s away, their postman visits by boat. Norman is lost in the wood, unable to find his usual route home. This scares him with his breathing increasing and he gets a bit wee panicky. But he makes it home. Making a story up about the lack of strawberries to the postman to cover for his increasing forgetfulness.
Edith shares the letter’s news that their daughter Chelsea is visiting for Norman’s 80th birthday celebrations. She is bringing her new boyfriend, a dentist, Bill. Norman is more interested in the newspaper job advertisements and preoccupied with his and others’ deaths. He tells the others will be his last birthday party. On asking more about the death of an elderly local woman from the postman, Norman comments on it sardonically.
The pair alone, Edith tells how the loons are teaching their baby how to fly. Norman confides the truth about the lack of strawberries to his wife. She gently reminds him of taking tablets for his palpitations. Edith jollies him in situations when his memory fails him, yet in her eyes, you can tell how this upsets her and concerns her.
Edith gives a wonderful passionate speech to her husband. She tells him how much she loves him as her “knight in shining armour” despite his grumpiness and failing memory. But she says that she feels he is the only one who sees his sweet-natured side. It is apparent there is still a lot of love, honesty and humour between this couple. Edith shares with him, her hopes for the family to all get along when they reunite for his birthday.
Chelsea (Jane Fonda) returns and you can tell there is an estrangement between the on-screen father and daughter. He immediately riling her as he greets her as the “little fat girl”. Chelsea introduces her partner’s thirteen-year-old son, Billy Ray Jnr (McKeon), her boyfriend’s son to her parents. The teen finds it difficult to relate to Norman and his brusque humour. As he shows Billy Ray his room upstairs, Chelsea asks about her father’s health with Edith.
We then meet Chelsea’s boyfriend Bill (Coleman). While the women go skinny dipping, Bill has small talk with Norman. Bill nervously asks Norman if he can share a bed with his daughter. This is despite the fact he and Chelsea are in their forties. Norman giving his father’s approval in a mix of grumpiness and off-hand humour, which is lost on Bill. This leading to some awkwardness between them. Bill flatly tells him he won’t put up with this behaviour from him. Meanwhile, the women happily reminisce in the pond.
However, over their stay, this awkwardness between Bill and Norman evaporates. Bill relaxes and both he and his son join the couple in their board games enthusiastically. Chelsea sits away from the group, making some cutting digs towards her father about his past behaviour.
She appears like an angry resentful child. She is aware of her behaviour is as talks with her mother about her feeling she often becomes her childhood self when with her father. She also tells how when she is not with him, she is looking for his approval. She later asks her mother if they can look after Billy Ray for a month whilst she and Bill travel in Europe.
This idea is happily accepted by Edith but also put to Norman, who reluctantly agrees. The boy is firstly angry at the idea of hanging out with the old couple, as he would be rather chatting up “chicks” and “sucking face”. He explains these terms to a bemused Norman. However, after a short time, he then agrees to go fishing with the older couple.
Over time Norman and the young boy fish together and work as a team to catch bigger stronger fish. They hope to catch Walter a large trout who has evaded Walter’s net constantly. These scenes reflecting a strong friendship evolving between him and Norman.
After Norman shouts at him after Norman nearly causes a fire at the house. Edith talks to the boy, about the personal distress her husband is feeling with regards to his poor memory and that he is angry at himself, not Billy. Man and boy have an accident in the pond one stormy day, resulting in a capsized boat and both overboard. They are both found later clinging to a rock in the dark holding each other. This concerns a frightened Edith but brings all closer together.
However on Chelsea’s return, she appears jealous of her new stepson’s strong relationship with her father, as the son, she never was or could be. Her mother tells her it’s not too late to try… and to accept her father as he is rather than the father he was. As always the rest of the film’s plot can be found in the usual ways.
The performances in this movie are wonderful, I found Hepburn a joy and well suited to Edith’s feisty and strong character. She was also extremely supportive, insightful and defensive of her husband’s past and present behaviours. Henry Fonda and Hepburn’s chemistry was touching and they were convincing as a couple with so many lovely and poignant scenes together.
As Edith appeared to be the glue of the family, it’s revealed she instrumented the father and daughter to become closer together both physically and emotionally. It was revealed she invited her daughter to return for his birthday. She urged her daughter to try to form a relationship with her father as he is and defending him to her when she felt he was being judged by his past behaviours.
The Fondas, made for compelling watching in this their first film together. Both gave a more memorable performance in light of their off-screen familial relationship. With their on-screen familial dynamics acted out so realistically, It was almost heartbreaking to watch those first scenes together.
Here Jane’s portrayal of Chelsea almost riled me at times due to her animosity toward her father. I like Hepburn’s character almost urged her to overlook her past upsets with her father. I hoped she’d try to form a relationship with her father before it was too late.
The men in this movie also gave stirring performances. Henry Fonda’s character seemed to be quite vulnerable due to his frailty and poor health. At times darkly humorous with some lines, and therefore misunderstood. Often Norman appeared unaware of how his words and action might affect others differently. He and the young actor McKeon had some lovely sweet scenes together where the two generations reached a mutual understanding of each other.
This charming film to my horror, this movie has been remade as a TV presentation. It reunited a famous, much-loved film pairing. A couple of clues… she was a singing nun and him a naval captain. Yup, it was remade by Julie Andrews and Realweegiemidget favourite, Christopher Plummer.
Both are from a favourite 1965 musical film, The Sound of Music. This couple which to me was as wrong as they can only be the Captain and Maria. This was as wrong as casting them together in International Velvet (1978), a film he starred in and she was considered for.
I’m kinda fonda of the casting of this couple in the 1981 version of On Golden Pond, and Andrews and Plummer in that 1965 musical with wonderfully unique memories of both movie couples, just the way they were. But maybe like Chelsea, I shouldn’t judge this newer presentation in relation to how it was played in the past, after all, it might be “something good”!
Weeper Rating: 😦😦 😦 😦😦 😦😦😦 😦 /10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂🙂 🙂 🙂10
Hulk Rating: /10
The Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, No 54
I reviewed this movie for The Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn Blogathon run by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Other reviews with this cast include The Swarm with Henry Fonda. Jane Fonda is mentioned in my 80s Entertainment Innovations post. Dabney Coleman appears in my George Gaynes tribute for Tootsie and he also starred in The Towering Inferno. Spencer Tracy stars in Father’s Little Dividend. Katharine Hepburn stars in Guess Whos Coming to Dinner.