By John H. Foote
The moment it was announced the Henry Fonda had been cast as crusty, cranky Norman Thayer in the film On Golden Pond it seemed a given the aged actor would win that long elusive Academy Award for Best Actor. Nominated just a single time for The Grapes of Wrath (1940), it seemed Fonda, at least in the eyes of Hollywood and his daughter Jane, was due. Two-time Best Actress winner, daughter Jane had bought the rights to the play after seeing it and realizing it was a perfect vehicle for her father.
For the plum role of Ethel, his wife who truly loves and understands him, offers went out to Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Jessica Tandy and Lucille Ball, all who refused. Three-time Oscar winner Katherine Hepburn did not, realizing a good part and acting partner when she came upon one. Jane took the role of Chelsea, the couple’s wayward daughter, and veteran Mark Rydell was hired to direct the film.
From the beginning, Hepburn flexed her mighty will, and was gently put in line by Rydell and Jane Fonda, also producing the film. Hepburn recognized Henry was a cold, detached actor, much like Spencer Tracey had been, so she knew for their emotional scenes would be difficult for she and Jane, a renowned method actress. Throwing herself into the role of Ethel, Hepburn impressed everyone, especially director Rydell who could not believe an actress of her age was insisting on doing all her own stunts!
When the film opened in the fall of the year, Academy Award talk preceded it. Henry Fonda was a sure thing for Best Actor, of that there was no doubt.
The narrative of the film is rather sentimental but manages to be a very fine love story between two elderly people who clearly adore each other but are honest enough to recognize the other’s shortcomings. Norman and Ethel have come to Golden Pond for the summer, as they have for more than 50 years, recognizing this might be the very last one. They settle in, Norman cranky as ever, Ethel delirious in the sounds of the loons, the smells, the memories of the place surrounding her. Ethel refers to Norman as an “old poop” and he lives up to that. He cannot quite grasp that his life is nearly over.
One morning she sends him on an errand to pick some strawberries, and he gets lost, he panics and stumbles his way back to their cabin. He confesses what happened to Ethel, that he wanted to get back to see “your pretty face, where I was safe.” She listens to every word and then tells him with eyes glistening with tears, “You are my knight in shining armour” and they will go down that trail later to pick those silly strawberries. The absolute devotion they have for each other is profoundly moving.
When their daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) shows up with a new boyfriend (Dabney Coleman) in tow and his touchy young son Billy (Doug McKeon), there is an edge in the air the moment she is close to Norman. She feels inadequate as a daughter, feeling Norman always wanted a son, which has caused a rift between father and daughter. When the happy new couple ask them to keep Billy for the summer they agree, thrilled, though Billy is not so pleased. Feeling he is being dumped, Norman growls at him, “Bullshit” and invites the boy fishing. Very slowly a friendship evolves between the old man and the boy, who has never really belonged anywhere or had a family. Ethel loves unconditionally, but Norman took some time to get around the rough edges before finding a real kinship with Billy.
They nearly die when the boy hits a rock, throwing Norman from the boat into the water, their lateness sending Ethel out to find them. She bans them from fishing, demanding they find other ways to amuse themselves but eventually they are back on the water fishing for the legendary Old Walter, a massive trout which has eluded capture. They get him, and release him, the incident further cementing the bond with the elderly couple and the boy.
Chelsea returns having married Billy’s father to the delight of both Ethel and Norman. But as Chelsea sees the close bond that has developed between her father and the boy, old grudges are brought forth and she becomes bitterly jealous. So angered is Ethel at her daughter she slaps her across the face, hoping to get her daughter to realize her father will not be around forever.
In the goofiest part of the film – the singular aspect that does not work for me – Chelsea accomplishes a back flip, something her father had wanted her to do that she never could. There is a tender reconciliation between Norman and Chelsea, though it feels like it is Henry and Jane who are coming to terms with their issues on screen for all to see.
Before leaving Golden Pond, after Billy and Chelsea have departed, Norman collapses carrying Ethel’s antique dishes, shattering them to pieces. Thinking he is having a heart attack, believing he will die on the porch, she cradles him, telling him how much she loves him. Some time passes, and Norman recovers, quite his old self, the heart attack a bout of angina, nothing more. Weary he rises and walks to the water to say goodbye to the loons and Golden Pond.
Henry, Kate and Jane
The trio of performances that dominated the film were of course Henry Fonda, fine as Norman; Katherine Hepburn, even stronger and gloriously luminous as Ethel, the life force of the film and marriage; and Jane Fonda as the bitter, cynical Chelsea. Henry Fonda did everything the screenplay asked him to do in playing an old man, but being one was that such a stretch? It is a good performance, no question, but was it one for the ages? Burt Lancaster gave a performance for the ages performance in Atlantic City (1981) sweeping the critics Best Actor awards, losing the Oscar to sentimental choice Fonda.
Hepburn was a marvel in the film, like a bright light illuminating the screen, giving off a glow all her own. Always in motion, whether cooking, cleaning, diving into the lake to save here “old poop”, she was terrific and gave, at her age, a wonderful physical performance. The glow in her eyes talking to Norman after his frightening memory lapse is breathtaking.
By this point in her career Jane Fonda had won two Academy Awards for Best Actress, been nominated for three others, won the coveted New York Film Critics Award twice and produced a few films she wanted to get made, among them On Golden Pond. She is fine as Chelsea, and I expect a lot of the combative elements between she and her father were drawn from life, but this is not a major piece of acting for her.
On Golden Pond was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress (Jane Fonda), Direction (Mark Rydell), screenplay Adaptation, and Best Score among the nine nominations the film received. On Oscar night as expected Henry Fonda took home Best Actor, finally, and Ernest Thompson won for his screenplay adaptation of his play. The stunner came when Katherine Hepburn won her fourth Best Actress award, an honour that stands to this day.
The film became an old chestnut, a much-loved work, often viewed around the globe. Its warmth is infectious, and the performances are hard to deny their due. That score, however, I found intrusive and repetitive, often telegraphing to the audience what they were to think. That said, despite being often sugary sweet and downright corny, the film is beloved by audiences and, though far from perfect, its charm carries it a long way. One will imagine they are watching a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.