1981 / Best Actor / Best Actress / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actress

Film #329: On Golden Pond (1981)

Throughout these 1980s posts I’ve primarily been concentrating on stars from the 1970s as well as those who made it big in the current decade. But one film contained two actors whose progress we’ve been following for the best part of fifty years and who both won acting Oscars for the movie in question. Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn were the stars in question and On Golden Pond would be his last film and her last major role also.

Hepburn and Fonda play old married couple Ethel and Norman Thayer who spend their summers in the titular lake community where nothing really happens. Their trip coincides with Norman’s eightieth birthday and this occasion prompts the couple’s estranged daughter Chelsea, played by Henry’s real-life daughter Jane, to join them. Chelsea brings along her new dentist boyfriend Bill and his teenage son Billy Ray the latter of whom really doesn’t enjoy spending time with an old married couple. Unfortunately this is just what he’s forced to do when Ethel agrees to look after the youngster while Chelsea and Bill go on holiday round Europe. The cantankerous Norman and the disenchanted Billy Ray initially clash but later bond over their shared love of fishing. Billy Ray, whose often been disregarded by other adults, comes to love the elderly couple who really appear to care for him. On her return, Chelsea is dismayed to learn of the bond that Norman has formed with Billy Ray as she feels that he was never caring enough towards her.

The relationship between Norman and Chelsea apparently mirrored that of Henry and Jane Fonda who never really saw eye to eye. In fact Jane brought the rights to the play on which the film is based as she thought her father would be perfect in the lead role. I would agree with her as Fonda adds an air of dignity to a role that would seem clichĂ©d in the hands of a lesser actor. He also shares a wonderful chemistry with Katharine Hepburn and I was surprised to discover that the two had never even met up to this point. It was clear that they got on wonderfully to the extent that Hepburn even lent Henry the hat of her late partner Spencer Tracy which he would go on to wear throughout the film. Even before learning it was based on a play, On Golden Pond felt particularly stagy and the majority of the film plays out as a collection of scenes often with just two characters talking. Thankfully director Mark Rydell has added a certain cinematic flair to proceedings with some beautiful shots of Squam Lake in New Hampshire which doubled for Golden Pond. If there was a weak link in the film that it was Jane Fonda whose scenes and presence on screen were the only occasions when On Golden Pond lapsed into melodrama. Though I’m sure it was a fairly personal project for the actress I felt she was over-performing and her pondering over whether Norman never showered her with affection just felt a little corny. Ultimately, On Golden Pond played out as the Hepburn and Fonda show which I didn’t think was a bad thing. They were both fantastic and deserved their respective Oscars even though it’s slightly sad that this is the last time we’ll see either of them on this list. However I felt that this exploration of growing old and family life in general was a fitting song for two of the greatest performers of all time.


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