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On Golden Pond (1981)


On Golden Pond

The early 1980s were the best of times and the worst of times for movies. Hollywood produced a lot of entertaining blockbusters (the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Terminator movies, Ghostbusters, Blade Runner, WarGames, Airplane!, Risky Business, and so on) which kept the movies fun and exciting. But Hollywood also produced a string of mainstream dramas like Sophie’s Choice and Ordinary People which were punishingly grim, superficial, and shallow. Of course, most film critics at the time viewed the former with contempt, and praised the latter as the greatest works of art since Mozart.

On Golden Pond was definitely one of the latter category — a manipulative, Oscar-ready mainstream drama. But surprisingly, it’s not a bad movie.

Ernest Thompson’s play about a couple of septuagenarian weekenders in New Hampshire griping about old age is a stalwart of community theater, but it lacks the dramatic punch necessary for the movies. So Thompson extensively rewrote the script, adding some unnecessary drama and so much profanity that I remember one of my pre-teen friends saying at the time, ‘I thought the movie was OK, but dude, it was swear city!’

As a further box-office ploy, the dying Henry Fonda was cast in the role as the old husband, Norman Thayer, and in the role of Thayer’s estranged daughter was… Jane Fonda, Henry’s real-life daughter. In the film, Jane Fonda’s character uses so many ugly curse words to describe her father that her mother finally slaps her, which is way overdue.

Fortunately, her mother is played by Katharine Hepburn, whose luminous presence and quiet dignity carries the movie. In Hepburn’s performance, her character’s love for her husband and her exasperation with him are two sides of a coin. Hepburn uses the part to communicate many of the conflicting feelings of old age: the joy of living, the fear of being alone, disappointment in one’s children, and acceptance of the past, present, and future.

The New England scenery is good, but the direction is pedestrian, and the only thing that Jane Fonda contributes to the film, other than her name, is overacting. That said, the Hollywood retouches do not completely obscure the moments of wisdom in Thompson’s script, and the pathos in Henry Fonda’s and Katharine Hepburn’s last marquee performances makes On Golden Pond a worthwhile film.

Now that’s love.