MOVIE REVIEW | ***FONDA WEEK*** On Golden Pond (1981)

On Golden
“Don’t you think that everyone looks back on their childhood with a certain amount of bitterness and regret? It doesn’t have to ruin your life!”

On Golden Pond is a movie title I’ve heard plenty of times over the years. On Golden Pond is a movie about which I knew absolutely nothing. I wouldn’t have been able to name a single actor in it, what it was about or even make a rough guess about when it was made. Then I decided to do a week of Fonda family movies. Turns out, On Golden Pond gives me double the Fonda, with father Henry and daughter Jane playing a father and daughter.

Norman Thayer Jr (Henry Fonda) and his wife Ethel (Katherine Hepburn) arrive at their summer lake house. In the lead up to Norman’s 80th birthday, he’s obviously and openly feeling the ravages of age. In the early stages of some sort of dementia, he’s still in enough control to realise that he’s slipping. Openly disdainful of pretty much everyone in his life except his wife, Norman takes crotchety old crank to a new level.

Soon after they get there, the Thayer’s daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda) also arrives to celebrate her father’s birthday. In tow she has new boyfriend, Bill Ray (Dabney Coleman) and his son, Billy Ray Jr (Doug McKeon). Chelsea and Bill soon announce they’re heading to Europe and that they plan on leaving Billy Jr with his new step grandparents for a couple of weeks.   Will all of these annoyances actually be just what Norman needs to snap out of his funk? Well, this is a Hollywood movie.

During the first few scenes, I really struggled with Fonda and Hepburn’s performances. They seemed so over the top and cartoony. Like kids in a school play, filling their hair with talcum powder, then doing their impression of what old people talk like, move like, behave like. But as I got used to them, their relationship and their life, I became more and more into it. I should have given them the benefit of the doubt all along. Here are two of Hollywood’s all time greatest actors, performing perfectly age appropriate characters. Of course they knew what they were doing.

In fact, as On Golden Pond went on, Fonda in particular gets bigger and goofier in his portrayal of Norman, and it only gets funnier. My experience with Fonda is limited, so it’s been all heavy drama and melodrama. To see him grab hold so tightly of these big, broad moments, and hit the jokes so hard, it really was so much more than I ever expected from this movie.

Once the pieces are set in motion, you probably won’t be very surprised by anything On Golden Pond throws at you, but that’s OK. This is a move that’s all about performance. You have two legends in their golden years, you have Jane Fonda well into her prestige period, and you have Doug McKeon, a teenager who more than holds his own up against Fonda and Hepburn.

On Golden Pond is one of those movies that is exactly the reason I started this blog. I knew nothing about it, I probably never would have watched it if it wasn’t for needing different, unexpected things to write about here. In some ways, these little, pleasant surprises are even better than something I know I’ll love living up to those high expectations.

On Golden Pond
Directed By – Mark Rydell
Written By – Ernest Thompson

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