Like many bad Hollywood films, On Golden Pond is so full of good stuff that one roots for it. After all, it’s frequently funny and as frequently moving. If cinema were rated by how emotionally engaging a film is, this mess would rank high. On Golden Pond pursues one theme adequately, the facts of deteriorating and looming death as they afflict an 80-year-old man, but it sinks into soap opera with another theme, the need for a father and daughter to patch up their lifelong differences. Indeed, the film skirts soap opera with what it handles reasonably well, so one experiences it on a precipice of good taste and sound judgment. Throughout, the film cleverly pursues the interweaving of both themes through the agency of a thirteen-year-old boy, the daughter’s stepson (Doug McKeon, solid), whose infectious friendship with the elderly man, which introduces him to a concern for the elderly for the first time, inspires his stepmother, at the last, to take steps necessary for rapprochement with her father. The gears of this film grind on, but dollops of genuine humanity spill over now and then, in large measure thanks to the film’s star, Henry Fonda, who plays the elderly man.
Their Maine summer cottage on Golden Pond has lured Norman and Ethel Thayer back yet again; only, Norman’s deterioration because of advanced age, which has deepened his congenital grouchiness, has made the woods just beyond the cottage strangely and frighteningly unfamiliar to him. Ethel, congenitally chipper and cheerful, comforts him. Norman’s eightieth birthday is approaching. At one point, Ethel remarks to Norman that he has been talking about death ever since they met, when he was a school principal and she a substitute teacher; now he is mentioning it, to her chagrin, more than ever. Their daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda, here saddled with a silly, self-pitying part), arrives for the birthday celebration, carrying a chip on her shoulder about the hard time Norman has given her since childhood, and bringing a guest from her home base in Los Angeles: Bill Ray (Dabney Coleman, good), a dentist, who is accompanied by his filthy-mouthed squirt of an offspring, Bill Ray, Jr. (Norman is Norman Thayer, Jr., he informs the boy.) Like Chelsea, Bill Sr. is divorced; he and Chelsea are lovers. They leave the boy behind with the couple as they go off on a European holiday that turns out to be their honeymoon, once they marry in Brussels. (The film doesn’t follow the younger pair.) Meanwhile, back at the cottage and on Golden Pond, Norman and Bill Jr. bond; the former gets the latter into middling Victorian novels (Treasure Island; A Tale of Two Cities) and into fishing. The city boy bags a substantial rainbow trout, but the two “boys” aim for the highest quarry: the gigantic Walter, which the boy eventually does catch, but which (offscreen) they throw back into the pond because “something that has lived so long should go on living”—or some like sentiment with deep, gooey meaning. (The wildly uneven Oscar-winning script, based on his own play, is by Ernest Thompson.)
Indeed, the film includes another silly bit of animal symbolism: a pair of loons in the pond that (according to Ethel) greet their arrival and (according to Norman, after his friendship with the boy has changed him) their departure.
The film’s faults include the typical Hollywood tendency to overgeneralize characters, paradoxically reducing them to larger-than-life abstractions. We are told that Norman is a retired university professor, but, although one assumes that it remains a passion even so deep into his retirement, we are never told what he taught. (Perhaps math; that’s what I always figured.) Indeed, there are few details disclosed about the two main characters, despite extended stretches of dialogue, and this further renders preposterous the father-daughter difficulties. The film’s message on this score I find accurate and appealing (as her mother tells her, Chelsea should just let this past nonsense go), but it’s a weakness that the film comes so laden with messages of one sort or another. Another fault is that there’s way too much plot—yet another recurrent bugaboo of Hollywood filmmaking. For example, if the filmmakers had tossed out the whole mini-Moby Dick Walter-thing, they would have removed some unnecessary plot and one annoying message. If they had also expunged the father-daughter material, they would have further unburdened the film of more unnecessary plot and another message. Finally, there are just too many shots of the pond in all its golden splendor. Had the filmmakers saved the “golden” effect for a single shot at the film’s conclusion, the result might have been compelling, even revelatory. Instead of a visual cliché, they might have achieved an epiphany.
Mark Rydell directed. I like Rydell for two reasons, both pertaining to his career as actor rather than director: his role as the uproarious gangster Marty Augustine in Robert Altman’s brilliant The Long Goodbye (1973), and his infrequent role as Jacob Hoffman in the fine, now defunct TV series Everwood—a lovely rare instance of a Jewish actor on television creating a recognizably Jewish character that (except, perhaps, that he is a doctor) eludes stereotype. (Alas, I can’t say as much for Hoffman’s wife!)
As director, however, Rydell is pedestrian. He should have tossed out most of the script and made a tighter film, one achingly pointed to the theme of mortality, and the emotions attending our mortal awareness, all of which crop up nicely in the film but which in fact should be structuring and disciplining the entire film. Here is an example of a turn or nuance that gets obscured because Rydell hasn’t unified his thematic material; Ethel, who is a decade younger than her spouse, largely dismisses Norman’s constant concerns about death until very near the end of the film when Norman experiences a heart palpitation that, for a minute or two, seems like a heart attack that will take him away from her forever. Let’s set aside the fact that it is likely a sentimental compromise that Norman doesn’t in fact die; let’s accept that this isn’t the moment for Norman to leave our planet. Even so, the scene of Ethel’s sudden revelation—in effect, that just as it’s the case that hypochondriacs really get sick, people who have long obsessed about death do at some point actually die—seems like an add-on, something thrown into the film to give our hearts (along with Norman’s and Ethel’s) a jump. But this isn’t extraneous material at all; it’s necessary, and a tighter, more focused film would have helped its relevance to shine through.
Another weak contributor is the color cinematographer, Billy Williams, whose coarse, ostentatious work here plucks cruelly at our memories of his magnificent work for Ken Russell’s Women in Love twenty-two years earlier. I would say this: Rydell was after only the baldest images, and Williams, sadly, accommodated.
Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, who plays Ethel as eccentric, both won Oscars; it’s his second (one year earlier he won a career Oscar) and her fourth. Fonda, who is sly and very moving, is the more deserving. I can’t exactly say that his Norman is as formidable as Chelsea and Bill Sr. seem to find him, but I can take the discrepancy in stride as indicative of the latter two’s meanness and unfairness to this interesting man. In particular, Fonda does a fine job of balancing Norman’s desire to hold on to his independence (and life) and the reality of so many things slipping out of his grip. Nevertheless, let’s be real: Fonda’s Norman (his last role) can’t compare with the performances Fonda gave in Slim, You Only Live Once, Jezebel, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, The Return of Frank James, The Lady Eve, The Ox-Bow Incident, My Darling Clementine, The Fugitive, Fort Apache, Mister Roberts, The Wrong Man, 12 Angry Men, The Best Man, Once Upon a Time in the West . . . and, of course, as Clarence Darrow. His was a case of Oscar-come-lately.
This is a soft-centered film, then, about a hard reality: the encroaching shadow of death. On Golden Pond, though, has fine moments. It doesn’t deserve to be sought out and seen, but if one happens to catch it by accident it has its rewards, above all, the acting of Fonda and young McKeon.
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