Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘On Golden Pond’


PG | 1 h 49 min | Drama, Comedy | 1981

Ernest Thompson always had New Hampshire in his blood. He poured his blood, sweat, and tears, and a lot else, into writing the stage play of a lifetime, “On Golden Pond.” He then wrote the screenplay for the movie. He was 28 when he wrote his play, and his film won acclaim soon after: 10 Oscar nominations (3 wins, including Best Screenplay), 6 Golden Globe nominations (3 wins, including Best Screenplay). A tale about aging that’s also about growing up is rare enough; rarer still is it to be told by one so young, and so well.

Bitter and judgmental, Norman (Henry Fonda) is about to turn 80. He and his incurably cheerful wife, Ethel (Katharine Hepburn), turn up annually at their cottage on lake “Golden Pond” in New England. Their partly estranged daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda), visits with her fiancé Bill (Dabney Coleman), and his 13-year-old son, Billy (Doug McKeon).

(L–R) Billy (Doug McKeon), his mother Chelsea (Jane Fonda), and Norman (Henry Fonda), in "On Golden Pond." (MovieStillsDB)
(L–R) Billy (Doug McKeon), his mother Chelsea (Jane Fonda), and Norman (Henry Fonda), in "On Golden Pond." (MovieStillsDB)
An excited Ethel and a reluctant Norman agree to babysit Billy for a month as Chelsea and Bill tour Europe. Norman is ready to be his disagreeable self, and Billy is ready with all the resentment he can muster. But as they bond, including over Norman’s pastime of fishing, Norman learns some home truths about aging as Billy learns about growing up.

Great Screen Characters

The Fondas and Hepburn are marvelous, and if Norman’s grumpiness is overdone in parts, he’s still an utterly believable character.

Like the aged who are often considered to be lacking excitement or energy or promise, Thompson’s screenplay, for the same assumed reasons, almost never became a film. No big studio would finance it. Yet Jane saw pure gold and got her company, IPC Films, to produce it. It duly won her father, Henry, his first and only performance Oscar; he died months later.

Director Mark Rydell uses the camera to conjure images of life growing and aging: loons or diver birds on the water’s surface, wildflowers, budding blueberry bushes, tiny and tall trees, little leaves rustling. He depicts death too: a long-dead loon turns up in a fishing net. He uses reflection as a metaphor for introspection in real life, especially the sun’s reflection on the lake. Dave Grusin’s gorgeous score does the rest.

Norman and Ethel have opposing worldviews. She sees warmth and welcome in their forlorn cottage; he sees no such thing. She anticipates the joy of picking berries; he sees a mess. She draws happiness just from moving her piece on a checkers board; he’s sniping at the slightest provocation, and often without any at all. She looks at him, not with contempt but with compassion.

Norman (Henry Fonda) and Ethel (Katherine Hepburn) have a cottage, in "On Golden Pond." (MovieStillsDB)
Norman (Henry Fonda) and Ethel (Katherine Hepburn) have a cottage, in "On Golden Pond." (MovieStillsDB)

Ethel tells Billy not to let Norman’s yelling upset him; he’s yelling at life, not Billy. To a flummoxed Billy, she explains that Norman is like an old lion who has to remind himself that he can still roar. She says softly, “You have to look hard at a person and remember that he’s doing the best he can; he’s just trying to find his way … like you.”

Young as he is, this resonates with Billy, who, unsure of himself at first, prefers being cool rather than considerate. One invigorating sequence has him riding solo in Norman’s speedboat, wind in his hair, huge grin on his face, savoring the sensation of the boat doing what it’s told as his small hands steer its wheel. Here, the boat’s a symbol of the young. Those game enough to do a backflip from a diving board into the water have spry bodies lending them power that the aged miss.

Billy revels in the thrill of being able to go where he wants, at the speed he chooses, just for the heck of it. The boat plows straight ahead, skids above the waves, and then swivels in wild, sweeping turns. The camera catches him pumping his fists in the air, feeling alive.

Yet there are also times when the camera catches him, with Norman, sensing that the vigor of youth, no matter how terrific, is also temporary. He develops a new gratitude for his youth, and a new respect for age.

Norman (Henry Fonda) reads the classifieds with a magnifying glass, in "On Golden Pond." (MovieStillsDB)
Norman (Henry Fonda) reads the classifieds with a magnifying glass, in "On Golden Pond." (MovieStillsDB)

Different Perspectives

Norman, for his part, realizes that experience isn’t just about being older but about learning while you grow, becoming wiser not just more knowledgeable. It’s about seeing and hearing with inner eyes and ears, even when real ones falter. In a funny aside on his blind narcissism, he’s shown reading the classifieds with a magnifying glass, even with his glasses on.

His fears keep him from seeing people for what they are and fuel a suspicion around their motives. Watching the ice thaw between him and the boy is like watching the leaves change color in autumn—slowly, surely, sublimely.

Norman can’t stop talking about death and dying, and Ethel can’t get enough of life and living. Once, she admits that he’s “the sweetest man in the world, but I’m the only one who knows it!”

Watching the New England sunlight scatter like floating gold coins on the lake, it’s easier to see how some people are like that: shards, whose shine can be spotted from only one peculiar angle. The sunlight is lost in an instant, except to someone like Ethel who sees that glint steadily, and loves it for what it is.

‘On Golden Pond’ Director: Mark Rydell Starring: Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Jane Fonda MPAA Rating: PG Running Time: 1 hour, 49 minutes Release Date: Dec. 4, 1981 Rated: 4 stars out of 5
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture. He may be reached at X, formerly known as Twitter: @RudolphFernandz
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