Henry Fonda bid his farewell to the movies in Mark Rydell’s On Golden Pond (1981); an unabashedly sentimental tearjerker that proved the catalyst for a long overdue reconciliation between the actor and his daughter, Jane. The two had fallen out back in 1972, in part because of Jane’s outspoken liberal views and her highly publicized trip to Hanoi – then perceived in the media as something of an anti-American indictment against the Vietnam conflict. However, the truth of the matter, just like this father/daughter relationship, was infinitely more complex. Henry Fonda – despite being one of America’s finest actors – was not an easy man to get to know or, arguably, love. Perhaps his children never understood him and vice versa. As a younger man, Fonda had preferred personal solitude to family time, and, a cherished and enduring friendship with fellow actor, James Stewart. The two men could spend hours together, not saying a word to each other, while working on their passionate model train hobby. As Jane and Henry’s son Peter grew into adulthood they embraced the hippy counterculture of the 1960s; decidedly running against the grain of Fonda’s own ultra-conservatism. To Henry, this must have seemed the ultimate betrayal; the rift widening considerably. In fact, by 1980, the year Mark Rydell began to prepare On Golden Pond, Jane and her father were barely on speaking terms.
In reality, Jane had been the catalyst for bringing this little known off-Broadway property to Mark Rydell’s attention before it became a runaway hit. By the late 1970’s, Jane Fonda’s cache in Hollywood far outweighed her dad’s, thanks to a series of smash hits including Klute (1971), Julia (1977), Coming Home (1978) and The China Syndrome (1979). In mid-stride, Jane changed directives, taking a leap of faith in Colin Higgin’s superb spoof, Nine to Five (1980). Now it was time to stretch her creative legs in yet another direction. On stage, On Golden Pond had been a two act, one room play about the ties that bind and those that can bring families to the brink of being torn apart. While Rydell was immediately enchanted by the story, Jane saw it as an opportunity to build a bond of reunion with her estranged father. By then, the elder Fonda was badly ailing. Alas, he was still as stubborn as ever in his refusal to reconcile. Therefore, Jane was taking no chances that Henry might turn both her and the project down flat. To sweeten the deal, Jane approached Katharine Hepburn to costar. Hepburn, as it turns out, had the deepest admiration for Henry; also, an eagerness to appear with him in a movie. As miraculous as it may seem, the two had never worked together before.
The notion of working again, particularly with Kate Hepburn, appealed to Henry too. Hepburn was, after all, nothing if not an indomitable spirit and a genuine force of nature. More to the point; she never took 'no' for an answer. Still, Fonda was reticent to partake, mostly because of his ailing health. He may also have harbored some lingering misgivings about appearing opposite Jane who, in addition to playing his on-screen daughter – also happened to be On Golden Pond’s producer. Mark Rydell quickly discovered he could get no insurance on the actor; a difficulty sidestepped by assuring the film’s backers/distributors, ITC Entertainment, that he would restructure his shooting schedule so all of Henry’s scenes could be shot first in the event of a health-related mishap or setback. Rydell also hedged his bets by hiring playwright, Ernest Thompson to rework his own property into a manageable and ever so slightly expanded screenplay. Thompson’s love for the material is undeniable and quite unique; his ability to ‘open up’ his own play to accommodate the location work proving its pliability.
By the time On Golden Pond went into production Henry Fonda realized, perhaps better than anyone else, his body was steadily betraying him. Although no one knew it at the time, Fonda had mere months to live. Undaunted and ultimately committed to the project, Henry turned in one of his most poignantly understated performances; no small feat considering the actor's perfectionism and formidable body of work. In some ways, Henry Fonda is playing himself in On Golden Pond – the physically fragile/emotionally isolated relic, whose estrangement from daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda) has amplified his own misery.
Rydell and the rest of his crew feverishly worked around Fonda’s physical limitations. Of immeasurable support in this regard was Kate Hepburn, who doggedly pursued a policy of stern kindness to bolster Henry’s resolve and confidence. Each would come to regard the other in friendship, and, this brief last chapter in Fonda’s life and career as a high water mark; Fonda relying on Kate’s no nonsense attitude to keep him motivated and focused. Rydell was relieved to find both actors in fine spirits throughout the shoot. But he had less success in keeping Hepburn's feistiness at bay; particularly when she insisted on carrying a canoe of considerable size all by herself down a steep embankment to the lake. Rydell, who had already assessed this sequence slowed down the story and was to be cut, shot the scene anyway out of respect for Hepburn, but quietly left the footage on the cutting room floor. When Hepburn viewed On Golden Pond’s final cut she was not amused. It is unlikely she ever entirely forgave Rydell his trespass.
Meanwhile, the screenplay was ever so slightly tweaked by Ernest Thompson to heighten and mirror the feuding Fondas own father/daughter legacy and ultimate reconciliation. In one of those ironic ‘art imitates life’ scenarios, On Golden Pond gradually evolved into a cathartic experience for Jane and Henry. In reviewing the film today, one can intuitively sense a more meaningful compassion at play; something about the bittersweet glint caught in Henry’s sad eyes, or that tear-stained laughter emanating from Jane as she embraces her own father in the final reel with genuine and unrehearsed abandonment, ever more heartfelt than acted. Just a scant three weeks after production rapped Rydell, who was heavily into cutting the movie, received a pressing phone call from Jane explaining how Henry’s health had deteriorated to such an extent he would likely not be able to make the premiere. Frenzied post-production commenced, with Rydell inviting Henry to an emergency private screening attended by all the principle cast. As the house lights came up, Fonda reportedly leaned into Rydell to thank him for the “greatest moment" of his career. As Rydell would recall years later, and still choking back a few tears, “This moment very quickly became the greatest in mine.”
In a nutshell, On Golden Pond is the story of a summer-long retreat and how it forever changes the toxic chemistry between an embattled father/daughter for the better. Henry Fonda is Norman Thayer Jr., a weary curmudgeon whose bark is much worse than his bite, but who seems unwilling to accept what the years have done to his life, his body and his health. Norman tells his wife Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) he is contemplating getting a job. She shrugs off the suggestion for its absurdity and lovingly refers to him as ‘the old poop’. But later, while walking down the town road back to their cottage alone, Norman suddenly becomes disorientated and panicky. Rydell would later recall, “He (Fonda) put everything he had into that scene, pacing frantically and breathing so heavily and sweating that I sincerely worried for his health.”
Recognizing what a fright her husband has had, and perhaps even more concerned for him because he has suddenly been deprived of all self-reliance, Ethel comes to Norman’s side with a tender embrace, heartily encouraging, “Don’t you know, you’re my knight in shining armor? Don’t you ever forget it.” Norman, however, remains unconvinced; a bitter pill made all the more difficult to swallow when he learns his estranged daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda) has arrived to get the couple’s blessing about her new fiancée, Bill (Dabney Colman) and his young son, Billy Ray (Doug McKeon). Bill is a good man – fair and easy-going. But Norman relentless goads him into a confrontation, more out of his deferred anger over Chelsea’s first failed marriage. “You know,” Bill finally explains to Norman, “It's not imperative that you and I become friends. I thought it would be nice…but that's obviously not an easy task…But I think there's one thing you should know while you're jerking me around and making me feel like an asshole. I know precisely what you're up to. And I'll take just so much of it.”
Over the next couple of days the relationship between Chelsea and Norman becomes even more strained. Ethel has had quite enough, pulling Chelsea aside, at once chiding yet imparting some very good advice: “Don't you think that everyone looks back on their childhood with a certain amount of bitterness and regret about something? You're a big girl now. Aren't you tired of it all? Bore, bore. It doesn't have to ruin your life, darling. Life marches by, Chels. I suggest you get on with it.” Bill and Chelsea leave Billy Ray in Norman and Ethel’s care for a few weeks while they run off to get married. Norman and Billy take an instant dislike to one another, especially after Billy calls out Norman on his age, saying “So, I heard you turned eighty…yeah, man…that’s really old” to which Norman bluntly replies, “You should meet my father!” Ethel nurses their mutual contempt by forcing the two to spend all of their free time together. When Billy suggests to Norman it isn’t necessary they get along since he won’t be around much longer, Norman’s sobering reply, “Yeah, neither will I” strikes the first nerve in a poignant chord of generation gap reconciliation.
The pair’s imposed companionship eventual gives way to a deeply satisfying mutual understanding and even more miraculous bond of compassion. In fact, Billy Ray and Norman become sincere friends, especially after a near-fatal boating accident almost puts an end to both their lives. Thus when Chelsea returns with Bill as her husband, she discovers Norman newly reformed, and with a newfound humility and willingness to embrace her and Bill’s happiness; ready to accept her for the woman she has become instead of the daughter he always wished her to be. Because of the subtext between Jane and Henry, Chelsea and Norman's understanding has, in retrospect, taken on more ballast; the audience absolutely certain their on-camera resolution has, in fact, transferred to these real-life counterparts: the old wounds finally healed.
Viewed today, On Golden Pond remains a lyrically inspiring critique of “loving through time”; perhaps even more impressive when one considers playwright, Richard Ernest Thompson was only twenty-eight when he wrote it. What began as a simple ode to Thompson’s own childhood recollections of a way of life, reared on summer retreats at secluded cabins and cottages dotting the New Hampshire landscape, quickly became a much beloved off-Broadway main staple in 1978, featuring Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen. After sold out engagements at the Kennedy Center, it opened at the New Apollo Theater on Broadway in 1979 and was revived the following season at the Century Theatre where it ran for more than 400 performances. With the film’s unexpected $120 million box office success, Thompson could also add ‘Academy Award-winning screenwriter to his pedigree, preceded by similar accolades bestowed on him at the Golden Globes and by the Writers Guild of America.
On Oscar night, an emotional Jane Fonda accepted Henry’s Best Actor statuette (remarkably, Fonda’s first) for her ailing father, adding “I’ll bet he’s saying, ‘Hey! Ain’t I lucky?’ as though luck had anything at all to do with it.” On Golden Pond would also afford Katherine Hepburn her final Oscar, her record-breaking and record-holding fourth! Awards, although meaningful to varying degrees, rarely attest to a level of quality. On Golden Pond proves the exception to this rule. A more deserving candidate you will not find. Alas, it lost the coveted Best Picture Oscar to David Puttnam’s Chariots of Fire; arguably, a forgivable loss. In hindsight, the passing years have only enriched the film’s message about the power of forgiveness. Billy Williams’ gorgeous cinematography transforms the wilds of Squam Lake into a graciously pastoral escape. David Grusin’s evocative score is an orchestral tone poem – arguably as integral to setting the mood and theme as the performances. Yet, in retrospect, it is the dramatic arc of the story, the verisimilitude between those lives depicted on the screen and the people who came together behind the scenes and the cross-cutting parallel between these two that continues to resonate with meaningful truth. Time itself has robbed us of Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda – two inimitable talents whose likes we shall not see again. But their legacies – both apart and more directly together - endure in this celebrated melodrama. On Golden Pond is among their finest hours on the screen.
Long overdue for a hi-def release, On Golden Pond arrives via Shout! Entertainment in a mostly pleasing 1.78:1 Blu-ray. Although there are a few minor speckles, this 1080p transfer sparkles with gorgeously vibrant colors and a quantum leap forward in resolving fine details, even during dimly lit sequences. Flesh tones are startlingly accurate; the lush forest landscape positively pops. I am confounded by the lack of chapter stops: only 8 for a nearly two hour movie. I recall when digital media first debuted one of its pluses was easy access to one’s favorite scenes. Of late, a lot of replicating companies seem to have set aside this advantage. To what purpose, other than laziness on their part to assign more chapters and author more flexible viewing options, I’m sure I don’t know. Overall, the image quality won’t disappoint. Neither will the 2.0 DTS audio that properly places Dave Grusin’s score, sweetly nestled within expertly recorded and well-placed dialogue. For a mono mix, this one has some remarkable spatiality.
The biggest disappointment for me remains in the extras. Virtually all are ported over from Universal Home Video’s DVD reissue from 2005 and include an audio commentary from director Mark Rydell, who revisits On Golden Pond with remarkable presence of mind and many poignant reflections. We also get the thirty minute featurette, Reflections On Golden Pond This is basically a puff piece with Billy Williams’ waxing about his own contributions on the film and featuring limited insight from Mark Rydell and writer, Ernest Thompson. Even less comprehensive is A Woman of Substance: Katharine Hepburn Remembered – at barely sixteen minutes, little more than a video dissertation.
Absent again is the glowing documentary ‘Loving Through Time’. This nearly hour long documentary, originally featured on the first release of On Golden Pond – but not via Universal Home Video - was infinitely more comprehensive, as it poignantly captured Mark Rydell’s recollections about making the movie and also featured some fairly solid interviews with Thompson and Jane Fonda, as well as many rarely seen outtakes and deleted scenes. Where is it now? One can only assume Universal had no rights to reissue it to Shout! Factory. But Shout! ought to have gone after the original holders of these copyrights to incorporate it into this Blu-ray release. Disappointing as this oversight is, this Blu-ray comes highly recommended for the quality of its 1080p transfer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)