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Every year for 50 years retired professor Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda) and his devoted wife Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) have spent the summer at their New England cottage on Golden Pond. As he nears his eightieth birthday Norman becomes increasingly obsessed with old age and death, despite Ethel's efforts to rally him. Divorced daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) pays a rare visit with her new fiancé Bill (Dabney Coleman), but then takes off for Europe, leaving Bill's son Billy (Doug McKeon) behind with the oldies. When Chelsea returns, she finds that Norman and the boy have formed an emotional bond that was never forged between father and daughter. Chelsea claims to have never known a father's love but Ethel thinks otherwise.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
It didn't begin very auspiciously. When Jane Fonda met Katharine Hepburn for the first time, the grand dame of American cinema greeted the reigning queen of screen with a pointed finger and snarled "I don't like you!" Fonda likened the face-off to being condemned by God, but the onus was on the former firebrand to placate the feisty trouper. Through her company, Fonda had decided to produce the film as a gift to her ailing father who had recently survived cancer surgery and had a pacemaker implanted in his chest. Father and daughter had issues; they were never close and Jane hoped that working together for the first time on what would certainly be his last film would help resolve their problems. Henry's health was a risk as much as Hepburn's, who had inherited a head-wobbling palsy that affected her speech. Curiously, the affliction which isn't unlike those that besiege the wretched Regan in The Exorcist, seems to escape the attention of every-one in On Golden Pond.

But, with medics in place and Barbara Stanwyck standing by, the way was clear for Ernest Thompson's modestly successful Broadway play to be transformed into this gooey and artificial trifle. In their 48th summer together at their rustic New England cottage, 80-year-old Norman is in a perpetual gloom over his impending mortality. As chirpy as a chipmunk, Ethel is so determined to cheer him that she is even more irritating than her crabby husband who at least is grounded in a kind of mordant reality. Their divorced daughter Chelsea arrives with her fiancé Bill Rae, a dentist who is recovering from a crisis of middle-age and Billy (Doug McKeon), his son from a previous marriage. The love-birds leave teenage Billy with his surrogate grannies while they spend a month traipsing around Europe. Instantly, "the old poop" and the young tearaway are at loggerheads, but they bond over idyllic days of fishing and boating in picture-postcard country.

When Chelsea returns she sees that Norman and Billy are close and hankers for the parental love she never had. It goes without saying that since this is a film shot lakeside, everyone in it must slip, dive or stumble into the drink and that the statuesque Jane must, at least, strip down to her bathing suit. Otherwise, there isn't much foundation here on which to build a monument and besides, these days no-one will much care that this is art mimicking the lives that the Fondas led apart. Hepburn infuses the film with unbridled energy but Edith is a woman of almost insufferable optimism and sweetness and her performance gushes like an uncapped geyser. The wizened Fonda wisely underplays against her, but Norman is as cold as he is cantankerous and it's difficult to warm to him when everything from Billy the Boy to Walter the Fish is tagged a "son of a bitch."

There were Oscars of course for Hepburn because everyone thought she might die tomorrow and for Fonda who had never won one before and would in fact, be dead within five weeks of receiving his. Thompson was likewise rewarded for his screenplay, but for me the three most pertinent words that spew from Ethel's lips are "bore, bore, bore!" On the eve of its 25th anniversary the film is back where it belongs on the small screen...which goes to show you can't make a glistening pond from a tub of golden syrup.

Published April 7, 2005

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(US, 1981)

CAST: Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda

DIRECTOR: Mark Rydell

SCRIPT: Ernest Thompson (based on his own play)

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes




DVD RELEASE: March, 2005

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