- Movie Rating -

On Golden Pond (1981)

| December 4, 1981

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know that I wanted to see On Golden Pond until I saw it.  Maybe I’m too jaded and cynical.  Perhaps I’ve been so soaked in the movies aimed at the youth market.  Yeah, they’re fun but where’s the sentiment?  You can’t get it from Indiana Jones . . . well, maybe you can.  It’s not the years, it’s the milage.

Milage is something that Norman and Ethel Thayer have experienced together.  They’ve been married longer than most of the population has been alive and there is something tender in their bond. Most married couples in the movies are just going through drama, screaming at one another, rubbing old wounds raw (see the recent Shoot the Moon).

Norman and Ethel made me conscious of what it is to experience life with the same person year after year, decade after decade.  You kind of reach a point at which you don’t simply have a mate, you have someone in your orbit who becomes the great fact of your life.  They are as familiar to you as the letters in your own name.

The fact that Norman and Ethel are played by Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn made it easier to settle in with them.  They’re individual careers span nearly the entire length of the history of motion pictures and, for us, they’ve become like family.  We don’t know them personally, but we know their faces, their body language, their manner.  Strange that this is their only film together.

On Golden Pond is one of the most beautiful human dramas that I have ever seen, a movie about the process of getting old in a culture that favors youth and beauty.  It’s also about the process of feeling something for someone else.  Tenderness is rare in the movies.  Emotional content is usually dealt with by screaming or by acts of revenge.  I think it is easier to tear a room apart then to convince us that you’re truly in love with someone.

Based on the stage play by Ernest Thompson, the story takes place in the favorite destination of stories like this: a lakehouse where the participants have been visiting for years.  Ethel loves Norman with a fierceness that only comes with the minutia of a long marriage.  She knows him better than he knows himself and she puts up with him even as his patience has grown thin.  Once, he was a college professor but now he’s just a grouchy old coot who seems to complain about everything.  The demeanor is a manner of keeping others at bay.  He knows it, Ethel knows it and possibly anyone else would know it – he doesn’t hide it very well.  Soon they are joined by a trio: their daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda), her fiancé Bill (Dabney Coleman) and his 10-year-old son Billy (Doug McKeon).

What happens once they settle in is not all that surprising.  Old family ills begin to surface and there are conflicts that must be resolved.  Something about Chelsea never seems to have set well with Norman – perhaps he wanted a son.  Something in Norman’s inability to connect gives us the sense that he never really learned out to be a father, or perhaps never wanted to.

We sense that Chelsea has never made a decision that has made the old man happy, or perhaps she never could.  That’s especially an issue when she decides to go to Europe with Bill and wants to leave Billy behind with her parents.  That means that we get all manner of scenes between the old man and the kid in which he gets a brief chance to be a parent to a young child again.  That doesn’t mean that he warms up, it just means that he gets another crack at it.

What happens here is easy to predict but it is not the point.  Much of the movie deals with Norman and Billy but the movie is leavened by a very touching examination of a married couple experiencing the onset of his infirmities.  At one point, he walks through the woods and becomes lost – a problem since these are woods that he should know these woods like the back of his hand.  He returns home frightened and the scene between he and Ethel is so tender, so touching, so loving.  It reminds you of what the institution of marriage was made for.  She holds him, encourages him, quiets his fears.  “Listen to me, Mister,” she says, “You’re my knight in shining armor, and you’re going to get back on that horse, and I’ll be right behind you holding on tight, and away we’ll go.”

Honestly, I appreciated the relationship between Norman and Ethel more than the struggle between Norman and Chelsea, though I wouldn’t dismiss it.  It is expected that the father and the daughter have never gotten along (shades of autobiography) and it is expected that she would harbor resentment that he never really tried to get to know her.  We know why.  It’s not in his character.  Norman is drawn so perfectly that we would have only been surprised if he didn’t withhold his feelings for Chelsea.

This is one of those movies in which everything falls beautifully into place.  You can predict almost every beat but I would challenge that this is because the relationships in this film are so universal.  The tension between parents and children, the minute details of a long marriage, the uncertainty when someone new enters the picture.  They’re not surprising, but what is surprising is how well they’re handled.  This is a beautiful film, a touching film, a rare film.  It is a treasure.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1981) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized