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 comic touch, and he made the artistic choice to play up the material’s more dramatic and sentimental aspects for the cinematic adaptation.
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. Continue reading