The New Yorker’s former film critic Pauline Kael may be one of the most polarizing film critics of, well…since the art form began. On one side, she’s so beloved that she had/has a coterie of dedicated acolytes known as “Paulettes,” who believed her every pronouncement was pure genius (many of whom went on to be film critics themselves), and there’s the other side who felt her high-handed pomposity reflected the worst excesses of the “New Hollywood” era. Catty and vindictive, Kael slavishly championed her favorites (even the laziest, sloppiest Marlon Brando performance would win gushing raves) and sneered icily at those she took a notion to viscerally dislike on an almost personal level (Clint Eastwood never got off her shit list for four decades.)
Well, she’s dead now, and possibly doing a stint in purgatory for her cynical and oh-so-above it all skewering of On Golden Pond, a movie I took to my heart when I was eight years old. (Kael’s review can be found in her collection Taking It All In.)
Why would a sentimental dramedy about aging, fear of death, and family dysfunction with a pair of elderly leads become a favorite movie of an 8-year-old boy? Three letters: H…B…O. It drilled it into me
So this is the third or possibly the fourth time in this blog that I’ve thrown a warm, nostalgic shout-out to the Home Box Office cable channel, the place it occupied in my household of the early 1980s, and its profound influence on my burgeoning cultural tastes. HBO dabbled in original programming from the get-go (decades before totally revolutionizing television with The Sopranos), but back in the day its primary specialty was bringing major motion pictures to your TV screen, uninterrupted and uncut, within about twelve months or so of their theatrical release.
Jane Fonda had purchased the film rights to the source material, a 1979 play by Ernest Thompson, specifically to work with her father, Henry, on it. The story reflected their own difficult relationship. Location filming on Squam Lake in New Hampshire occurred through summer/fall of 1980, and On Golden Pond received its “award contender” limited release in December of 1981. It went wide the following February, and showed up as HBO’s main feature for December of 1982, gracing the cover of the channel’s monthly viewing guide. (So primitive was the era, the guide wasn’t even mailed to you. You had to pick it up at the local office of your cable provider.) According to the Guide Archive website, HBO showed On Golden Pond on December 12, 16, 20, 22, 25, 29, and 31, before putting it out to pasture to make room for January 1983’s viewing choices. Despite its summer setting, it felt like a Christmas movie due to the month in which I first saw it, and I’ll bet I caught each airing that December.
What kept me coming back? I fell in love with the constant stream of hilarious remarks from its main character. As a child, I saw it as more of a comedy (with a few heavy moments), and didn’t pick up on the deeper implications of the story or how the character used humor as a barrier. And I wasn’t entirely wrong about the material’s comedic bones. The film’s director, Mark Rydell, has stated that the original play did have a lighter comedic touch, and he made the artistic choice to play up the material’s more dramatic and sentimental aspects.
So On Golden Pond and I parted ways, and it had been well over thirty years since I’d watched it when it popped up as a streaming option on Netflix a couple of years ago (don’t bother to look, it’s gone now.) Fittingly, I re-watched it around the holidays (as I was taking down our Christmas tree), and every line was instantly familiar to me. The images I was glancing at on my laptop as I disentangled strands of tree lights had last passed before my eyes on our big cabinet TV in my childhood family room, in the glow of another, long-gone Christmas tree. Besides the nostalgia pangs, as an adult I felt the tension and melancholy in the story much more forcefully.
And yes, I now noticed some of the same flaws that Pauline Kael noticed, but they didn’t piss me off nearly as much as they did her.
The film begins with an elderly retired couple arriving for a season at their summer home on the titular lake somewhere in New England. The arrival/opening credits sequence is played out to the strains of Dave Grusin’s memorable score. On Golden Pond is as unthinkable without its score as Caddyshack is without its gopher. The music — led by a tinkling piano, countered with some gentle woodwinds and strings — can be cloying and even a little obtrusive, but it is indelibly part of the film’s fabric. We see various twilight shots of the gorgeous lake, the surrounding woods, and its population of loons (the aquatic birds, not crazy neighbors.) It does look a little like the beginning of a Hallmark Channel TV movie, but luckily, the direction becomes more grounded once the opening credits end.
The couple exits their old-person brown sedan (it probably has curb-feelers), enter their roomy cabin, and we begin to get to know them through their dialogue and decades’ worth of mementos packing each room. The production design and set decoration are impeccable.
The husband is Norman Thayer, Jr. (Henry Fonda), a former college professor on the verge of his 80th birthday. It is revealed early on that Norman’s health is growing fragile. He is going somewhat deaf, suffers from increasing memory loss, and has heart problems. He is ill-tempered and snappish, but as indicated above, has a way with a funny remark and a clear affection for his wife. He is also obsessed with his own mortality, and masks his fear of approaching death with morbid jokes.
Norman’s wife Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) is a typical Hepburn character — flighty, easily distracted, kind, and free-spirited. The type who dances alone in the woods while gathering wildflowers and singing her old summer camp song. The pair are definitely a contrasting couple, both in temperament and physically. Ethel is a decade or so younger than Norman, and still robust as he grows frail.
A little bit of leisurely scene-setting follows. The Thayers take a canoe ride and observe the loons. They make a trip to the market and put gas in their larger boat (a beautiful wooden Chris-Craft called the “Thayer IV”). They play Parcheesi. Norman has a scary moment when his memory fails him on a solo walk in the woods. We meet Charlie the mailman, who makes postal deliveries by boat and has a Maine accent that would put the Pepperidge Farms spokesman to shame.
Charlie delivers the letter that starts the story rolling, a missive from the Thayers’ divorced daughter Chelsea, who normally keeps her distance out in Los Angeles. Although quite estranged from her father for reasons we’ll come to understand, she informs her parents that she is coming to Golden Pond to celebrate Norman’s 80th birthday, and bringing a new boyfriend, Bill.
When Chelsea (Jane Fonda) arrives, she is greeted warmly by her mother, but as she approaches Norman, you can cut the tension with a knife. He stands stiffly as she fumbles a kiss onto his cheek. He forces a smile, and greets her with what was evidently his childhood nickname for her — “little fat girl.” And with that, now we know why she’s avoided him for years. Although he has mellowed somewhat with age, theirs is a relationship scarred by his emotional abuse, and we begin to realize that Norman was probably never cut out to be a parent. Or at least not the parent of a daughter. Later in the film, Chelsea frankly admits to Ethel “I’m afraid of him.” Her response — “Well, he’s afraid of you” — is no doubt equally true, but he did not handle his fear of fatherhood well.
In addition to Bill, Chelsea has brought along Bill’s thirteen-year-old son, Billy. Billy is a ball of pure adolescent, disaffected resentment. In their initial encounter, Billy and Norman circle each other warily even though they are cut from the same cloth, keeping the world at arm’s length.
The mood is somewhat lightened by the arrival of the adult Bill (Dabney Coleman), who had been out parking the car as all of this played out. The character of Bill is potentially a thankless role, and one I didn’t pay much attention to as a kid. Now it jumps out at me, possibly because I am now almost the same age as Bill, have walked in his shoes, and I appreciate how Coleman’s performance radiates such fundamental decency. Ethel, Chelsea, and Billy head out for a canoe ride, leaving poor Bill alone with Norman.
A lot of this scene went right over my head as an 8-year-old. I just laughed at Norman’s crotchety witticisms. (“I love your house.” “Thank you. It’s not for sale.”) Watching as an adult, the sequence oozes discomfort and cringiness. Not only is Bill having to jolly along a man he’s no doubt been repeatedly warned to fear, his nervousness is compounded by an awkward question he needs to ask about sleeping arrangements. Ever the gentleman and worried about the possible disapproval of the older Thayers, Bill hesitantly inquires if it would be okay if he, the new and unknown boyfriend, shared a bed (and implicitly, the activities therein) with their daughter for the duration of their stay. Now, we know Norman couldn’t care less about the sleeping arrangements, but he knows he has Bill on the spot and gleefully twists the knife for a good long time, until Bill finally gets tough and shuts Norman down. As a kid, I thought Bill’s anger was an overreaction to Norman’s funny teasing, having completely missed the cruelty in what he was doing.
As an aside, whatever happened to Dabney Coleman? He was an 80s movie fixture, and now I never see him anymore. He’s great here. (And a quick Google shows he’s been popping up in a few episodes of cable shows like Boardwalk Empire and Ray Donovan, and doing voice work for kids’ cartoons.) While we’re at it, child actor Doug McKeon is note-perfect as Billy. Definitely no longer a “child actor,” McKeon’s most recent noteworthy role was Hubert Humphrey (!!) in 2016’s LBJ.
When Chelsea and Bill pack up and leave, they leave behind a key element. Billy will be staying on Golden Pond while Bill and Chelsea visit Europe for the next month. Billy is not happy about it.
For all of Pauline Kael’s harping about how “obvious” all the elements of the story are, there a dozens of little character details that are only revealed through careful listening and making connections based on a few spoken asides. No one ever says Norman’s academic specialty was literature, but it’s clear to an alert viewer that it was. (Possibly French literature, if you’re even more alert.) And we know that Billy’s mother is unreliable. And Billy is just beginning to get to know his father, and build a hopefully more stable relationship with him, when Bill leaves for Europe. The abandonment issues the boy is dealing with cut deeper the more one pays attention to what’s being said and how it’s being said.
Billy’s first afternoon alone with the Thayers is marked by his understandable hostility to the situation. Norman finally convinces him to come fishing on the lake, and gives him a fishing vest that once belonged to Chelsea. “I’m surprised you kept it if it’s Chelsea’s,” was Billy’s unthinking response to the gift. It visibly stings Norman, but just goes to show the nature of the father-daughter relationship is obvious even to family newcomers.
There are two uses of that old filmmaker’s shortcut, the montage, each one focusing on a different level of Billy’s acceptance of his summer circumstances. The first one highlights the simple pleasures of fishing, and depicts a gradual thawing of his sullen teen attitude.
The second one happens when he is given permission to take the wheel of Thayer IV and race around the lake, unaccompanied and totally in charge for once in his life. The usually restrained musical score now booms out in a flexing of orchestral muscle, and we see Billy experiencing unrestrained joy for the first time in the film.
Before long, Norman and Billy have forged a friendship, although there are occasional bumps in the road, mostly due to Norman’s temper and impatience. And Norman is taken by surprise when the assertive Billy yells right back. When the same situations arose in the past, it is clear that a passive thirteen-year-old Chelsea, chunky and awkward in that same fishing vest, would just sit and take it, radiating silent hurt. So in the face of all this, why do we as an audience care about Norman so much?
This is where the character of Ethel really comes into play. We believe Norman is essentially good because kind-hearted Ethel is so convinced of it. But we see little of his charms, except his curmudgeonly wisecracks. And even those raise a question. Before he aged into using humor as a defense mechanism, was he as funny? One suspects the younger Norman Thayer, Jr. was simply taciturn and intimidating. As Indiana Jones described his father in Last Crusade, Norman was probably the professor the students “hoped they wouldn’t get.” And even in old age, he is prone to fits of rage. Is he redeemable? Well, this material isn’t exactly Long Day’s Journey Into Night, so of course he is.
Norman and Billy have bonded over fishing, particularly their dogged pursuit of a massive trout that Norman knows lurks somewhere in the lake. Norman named the trout Walter, because he reminded him of Ethel’s brother (“fat, lazy, and ugly — a crafty old sonofabitch”). One ominous, overcast day, with thunder rumbling in the distance, Norman and Billy head into “Purgatory Cove,” a section of the lake bristling with jagged rocks that “eat boats.” Although some, including Kael, would suggest the film falters badly here with on-the-nose symbolism and heavy-handed metaphors, at this point I feel that where the Purgatory Cove sequence takes the audience is totally earned. The pair fish in silence, and Norman’s mind starts to drift. He calls Billy “Chelsea” more than once. When Billy’s fishing line hooks a dead loon, Norman stoically offers Billy a pair of scissors to disentangle the bird’s corpse, and says “let it go.” A rattled Billy flat-out asks if Norman is afraid of dying. Norman dismisses the question.
The Purgatory Cove sequence then ends with a dramatic accident, but an ultimately happy outcome.
Chelsea returns to collect Billy, is resentful of the real affection between he and Norman, and the story now goes to work on repairing her relationship with him. What sometimes nags at me is that Kael is not always 100% off the mark regarding some parts of the film. The conclusion of the Norman-Chelsea plotline is too pat, too fast, and too simple. She finally does a backflip into the lake, something she never mastered as a child. Norman, suddenly turning over a new leaf, is legitimately proud and applauds her success. In one of the final scenes, he gives her one of his old diving medals and a genuine hug.
There are a couple of moments of unearned, over-the-top sentimentality. The most jarring example comes early in the film, after Norman gets lost in the woods. Upon his return, all seems normal. He reads the baseball scores, makes some flippant remarks, takes a few snarky swipes at Charlie the mailman. His emotional breakdown as soon as Charlie leaves, I suppose, is meant to be sudden and show his vulnerability, but it comes sailing out of left field and strikes a note of falsity. It’s the first time Fonda’s performance feels forced. Ethel’s comforting of Norman (“You’re my knight in shining armor…”) verges on self-parody. Once the scene is over, the film breathes naturally again.
By the way, Ethel, well-meaning as she is, is not blameless in the damage that had been done to Chelsea. She was one of those mothers who prioritized her spouse over her child. Yes, it’s great to marry your true-love soulmate, but once a child enters the picture, things should change. The kid should be #1. It’s the natural order of things, and an emotionally mature parent knows that instinctively. But I’ve heard tell, and seen examples with my own eyes, of people who are actually jealous of their own children and the attention the children receive from their parenting partner. Ethel admits all this (“Your father was overbearing, your mother ignored you…”) and somewhat callously tells Chelsea she should just get over the past. It’s also pretty clear that she believes Norman found it easier to build an attachment to Billy for no other reason than because he’s a boy. She just puts it out there as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world, and it’s left unresolved.
But…hopefully, beginning a new relationship with her father, and continuing her relationship with good guy Bill, will give Chelsea some well-deserved fulfillment.
Anyway, enough nitpicking. It’s a great movie. Kael felt the film is far too emotionally manipulative. I say the “manipulation” doesn’t count because I know I’m being manipulated, and if it’s done by performers of the caliber of Fonda and Hepburn, I’m fine with it.
Fonda and Hepburn both won acting Oscars. (His first, her fourth.) Henry Fonda was too ill to attend the ceremony, and died in the months between the film’s theatrical release and its debut on HBO.
And what of Norman’s mortality? In On Golden Pond’s final scene, he crumples to the cabin’s porch, suffering what appears to be a heart attack. Although he seems to recover for a happy ending just before the credits roll, he is weak and diminished. There may be more summers for the Thayers on Golden Pond…but we’re kind of left with the impression that this is the last one.