Every family has its problems. We all know this. We also all know that whether or not a family deals with its problems is another matter, and Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond is a rather gorgeous and slightly tempestuous look at aging and reconciliation.
Yeah, we’ve had a lot of family movies and dysfunction type stories on Taking Up Room lately, but oh well. It’s life sometimes. And in the case of the film of On Golden Pond, art ended up imitating life.
The story follows Ethel and Norman Thayer, who have returned to their Golden Pond, Maine cabin for the summer. Norman has angina and the beginnings of senility, and he’s as curmudgeonly as Ethel is spry, brisk, and resourceful. She takes Norman’s foibles in stride, calling him “an old poop” now and then. It’s clear Norman is on borrowed time; he doesn’t recognize himself, Ethel, or their daughter, Chelsea in an old family photo.
The Thayers spend their days boating, foraging, eating strawberry shortcake, and playing parcheesi, and despite their sometimes combative relationship, they still have fun together. It’s a good life.
Then Norman and Ethel find out that Chelsea, is coming to visit, with her new boyfriend, Bill, in tow, and she’s leaving Bill’s teenaged son, Billy with them while she and Bill are in Europe. Bill tries very hard to show respect for Norman when he asks if it’s all right that he and Chelsea share a room. As in, sleep together. It takes a bit of spelling out, but Norman finally gets it, and he’s not super-jazzed about the idea.
After Chelsea and Bill go off to Europe, the Thayers and Billy are on their own. Norman and Billy get off to a rocky start, but the two of them bond over fishing and Ethel mothers both of them. Billy seems like a slacker who lives to pick up girls, but he turns out to be a good kid who reads Dickens and holds the door open for Ethel. When Chelsea comes back, she may be in for a bit of a shock. And there’s still the question of her unfinished business with Norman.
The play was Thompson’s first success. It initially opened at the New Apollo Theatre on February 16, 1979, were it ran for 126 performances, and then it opened again at the Century Theatre on September 12, running for 256 performances. It’s been revived numerous times over the years, including a 2019 run starring Thompson himself as Norman Thayer.
When it came to the movie, Thompson wrote the screenplay, and it’s so much like the play that Thompson sometimes has trouble telling them apart. It was all very personal for him; in an interview with Bobbie Wygant, Thompson stated that there was a lot of his dad in Norman Thayer and Henry Fonda.
The movie has sometimes been criticized for being a cheap imitation of the play, but I think it’s beautifully filmed and showcases its location, Squam Lake, in Holderness, New Hampshire to its best advantage, so much so that the lake and the cabin are almost their own characters. Each scene is allowed to play out so that there’s a chance to really get to know everyone and everything.
It was the first time Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda worked together, and Katharine presented Fonda with one of Spencer Tracy’s hats, which Fonda wore throughout the film. Hepburn held Fonda in high respect and was very much in awe of him.
It was also the first time Jane Fonda worked with her dad. Fonda was famously reticent and distant from his family while his kids were growing up, which Jane and her brother, Peter, felt keenly. Jane really wanted to connect with her dad, especially since she knew he wasn’t well, and in one of the last scenes she placed a hand on his arm and said, “I really want to be your friend.”
In her autobiography, Fonda said:
What I saw amazed me: For a millisecond he was caught off guard. He seemed angry, even: This isn’t what we rehearsed. Then the emotions hit him, tears came to his eyes, then anger again as he tensed up and looked away. All this, though barely visible to the camera, was palpably clear to me, and my heart went out to him. I loved him so much just then. It amazes me what a great actor he was in spite of his fear of spontenaity and real emotions. (Fonda, pgs. 124 and 125)
It’s funny, but breaking down barriers seems to be a thing with On Golden Pond in more ways than one. I used to not care for this movie, probably because my parents didn’t like it all that much. I think they were put off by how grouchy Norman was and how he fought getting old with his claws out and teeth bared. I didn’t care for Fonda and Hepburn flipping off a passing boat while out on the lake, maybe because Hepburn with her middle finger in the air didn’t seem right in the context of her genteel, no-nonsense persona.
Seeing it later, though, I got it, although I still don’t like the bird-flipping scene. When Ethel chides Norman for being obsessed with death, it makes sense. He’s missing what’s right in front of him.
And when Ethel explains aging to Billy, the whole film clicks. Ethel says to him, “Sometimes you have to look hard at a person and remember he’s doing the best he can. He’s just trying to find his way, that’s all. Just like you.”
I think that’s why people keep going back to On Golden Pond. Getting older is inevitable, God willing, and no matter what the circumstances it’s important to do the best we can and love as hard as we can.
The Caftan Woman Blogathon is coming up on Friday. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you then…
~Purchases made via Amazon Affiliate links found on this site help support Taking Up Room at no extra cost to you.~
If you’re enjoying what you see on Taking Up Room, please look for additional content on Substack, where you’ll find both free and subscriber-only articles. I publish every Wednesday and Saturday.
Fonda, Jane. My Life So Far. New York: Random House Publishing, 2005.
Hepburn, Katharine. Me. Stories Of My Life. New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2011.