(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day. These films could be nominees or they could be winners. They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee! We’ll see how things play out. Today, I take a look at the 1981 best picture nominee, On Golden Pond!)
On Golden Pond takes place in a cottage that’s located on a lake called Golden Pond. Hence, the title. As far as title’s go, it’s not a bad one. It’s a film about an elderly couple who spends every summer in that cottage. They’re in their golden years so I guess it makes sense that they would feel an affinity for Golden Pond.
That said, I think that an even better title for the film would be Everything Annoys Norman.
Norman Thayer, Jr. (Henry Fonda) is a cantankerous old man. He’s 79 and not particularly looking forward to celebrating his 80th birthday. He’s a retired college professor. His wife claims that the last time Norma was really happy was when Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. Norman likes to fish and still brags about the time he caught a legendary trout named Walter.
What Norman doesn’t like is having to deal with the world. When he stops to get gas, he loudly complains that, “in his day,” gas only cost eighty-five cents. When he’s told that there’s another “middle-aged” couple on the lake, he says that, unless he’s going to live to be 150, he’s not middle-aged. He gets frustrated because his memory isn’t as good as it used to be. When he goes out for a walk in the woods, he forgets where the path is and he has to return to the house. Sometimes, he calls people by the wrong name. At one point, he struggles to use a landline phone. (I can only imagine how annoyed Norman would be if he was alive today.) Norman doesn’t like to deal with anyone other than his wife.
Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) is Norman’s wife. She loves him. When she hears Norman referred to as being “a son of a bitch,” she replies, “That son of a bitch is my husband.” Ethel is used to Norman and his ways. As she puts it, she understands that he’s like a “lion” who has to roar just to remind himself that he still can. Ethel is … well, basically, she’s Katharine Hepburn.
Ethel has invited their daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda), to celebrate Norman’s birthday with them. Norman and Chelsea have a strained relationship. It’s implied that Norman was an emotionally distant and overly critical father and that Chelsea has never been able to forgive him. When she shows up with her new boyfriend, Bill Ray (Dabney Coleman) and his 13 year-old son, Billy Ray (Doug McKeon), Norman barely bothers to acknowledge her. With Bill and Chelsea planning on vacation in Europe, they ask if Billy can stay at the cottage with Norman and Ethel. Ethel agrees. Norman acquiesces.
On Golden Pond is a film that I wanted to like more than I actually did. After all, the film features two classic actors, Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, appearing in their only film together. (Both Henry Fonda and Hepburn won Oscars for their work here.) Henry Fonda gives a good performance as a strong-willed man who is struggling to deal with his own mortality. As for Hepburn, it’s not a great performance, largely because Ethel is a thinly written role, but she’s Katharine Hepburn so it doesn’t matter. But almost everything about the film — from the tasteful music to the pretty but not overwhelming cinematography — feels more like something you’d expect to find in a television production instead of a feature film. On Golden Pond was based on a play and, with almost all of the action set in that cottage, it really doesn’t escape its theatrical origins. That said, it’s a sweet movie. The love between Norman and Ethel feels real. If nothing else, the film gave the great Henry Fonda his only Oscar.
On Golden Pond was nominated for Best Picture but lost to Chariots of Fire.