On Golden Pond (1981) Review

  • Year: 1981
  • Directed by: Mark Rydell
  • Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, Doug McKeon
  • Written by: Ernest Thompson

On Golden Pond revolves around the lives of one family teetering on the edge of the end of its time line. Norman and Ethel Thayer are approaching the end of their lives and decide to visit their summer home on Golden Pond. Norman (Henry Fonda) is turning 80 and his moved-to-California daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda), is coming to visit with her new boyfriend and his son, Billy.

In 80 years, Norman has slowly (or quickly) turned into an old curmudgeon, griping about life and taunting death with a quick barb whenever he can. If Ethel is the music that soothes the savage beast in Norman, his daughter Chelsea is the noise that drives him mad. Or at least nitpicky. This is apparent when she finally arrives and Norman grills her over the kind of car she rented. Here we discover the uneasy past Chelsea and her father have, which coincidentally mirrored the rocky relationship the real-life father and daughter Fondas had.

Norman remains stubbornly cynical until he and Ethel are asked to watch Billy (Doug McKeon) for the summer while Chelsea and her boyfriend visit Europe. The untamed youth of Billy sparks a renewed vivaciousness in Norman, tempering his crusty wisdom.

On Golden Pond was originally a play written by the same screenwriter, Ernest Thompson, and the movie smacks of stage play trappings. The first things you will notice is that there are more dialogue and static shots then you’ll probably be used to seeing in a movie. This comes with the territory when you adapt a play to a screenplay since plays are about what people say and movies are about what people do. Even the scene transitions–elegiac shots of water and plants–will remind of blackouts for set changes. Lastly, plays will often try to get extra thematic mileage out of whatever they can so you’ll notice that the house, which is falling apart, mirrors Norman’s body. Later, when Norman’s vigor returns with the introduction of Billy, you’ll find that he’s repaired the screen door that was once continually breaking. The convention is a bit heavy-handed here, but it does its job.

My biggest complaint with this film is that character arc and resolution seem undeserved. Norman changes with Billy, fine, but why should that bond extend to his daughter when she returns? Her expression of surprise at Norman’s genuinely kind words mirrored mine, but for the wrong reasons. It seemed tacked on. That, and I was distracted at Jane Fonda’s unnatural looking tan.