My father was a man of very few words. He was the total opposite of my mom and myself. He never spoke unless he thought it was important or necessary. He then always had everyone’s attention since there could be days between communication. As a child, I dreamed of a dad with whom I could chat, joke around, or share my fears and secrets. This was never to be. Were we estranged? I don’t know. I know my dad loved me by how he cared for me. We always had plenty to eat, and I had a closet full of clothes. If I didn’t know which of two dresses to buy, my dad would inevitably say a one-word response… “both.” If my car broke down as a teenager or young adult, it did not matter the time. He was there for me. He did the same thing for my children when I had to work long hours in the theatre. If it was raining when my latchkey kids had to ride their bikes home from school, he was waiting out front to drive them home with their bikes safely tucked in the rear of his car. He never missed a concert, a recital, or a play I directed until he died at 99. Yet I still longed for more. I wanted to “know” about him. I wanted to be his friend and be able to hug him. We disagreed on some of my life choices. I ached for him to tell me he was proud of me. It never happened verbally, but I realized as I matured to accept the man my dad was and let all the rest go. It was, after all, just garbage holding me in the past. I felt lighter, and I could move on. When ON GOLDEN POND premiered in 1981, I felt such a deep connection to Jane Fonda as Chelsea, the daughter who, in real life and film, wanted to be closer to her dad Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda). It was a movie created for all the daughters who dreamed of “more.”
ON GOLDEN POND also starred one of the greatest actresses of all time…the incomparable Katharine Hepburn, as Ethel Thayer. Henry and Katharine had never worked together or even met. On their first day of shooting, Katharine walked up to Henry and said, “It’s about time.” She also brought him a gift from Spencer Tracy. It was the tan canvas hat that Henry wore as Norman. Their sparkle, their depth of understanding of what it takes to create a couple who have been together for half a century, was profound and breathtaking. Their beats, breaths, and unrestrained naturalness gave them their authenticity. I believed Ethel’s fear of losing her “knight in shining armor.” Their tears, Parcheesi passion, teasing one another, and loving, gentle affection made each scene come alive. I felt like I was in Acting 101 all over again but witnessing greatness in each frame. Is it any wonder Henry and Katharine won an Oscar for their performances? It was Henry’s first win after many nominations in his entire career. It was Katharine’s fourth. Bravo. Neither of them attended the ceremony. Jane accepted the award on behalf of her father. He died the following year.
Jane Fonda bought the rights to ON GOLDEN POND. It was based on a Broadway play written by Ernest Thompson. She produced the movie filmed in New Hampshire at the end of summer. The lake was freezing, but Katharine was a superb athlete and even did all her stunt work, including the perfect dive off the boat. The tears audiences see towards the end with Norman and Chelsea were real. Henry Fonda had to turn away from the camera to hide his face. Sometimes life does imitate film or vice versa.
The pond also became a huge “character” in the film. The beautiful cinematography was truly golden. The timing of all those sunsets, the sound of the loons, the magnificent lighting effects, and the stunning countryside added layer upon layer to the simple story. Every scene change ended or began with the flowing water. It felt like a gentle caress as we were deeply absorbed in the history of this spectacular setting. How can anyone not be “one” with nature when watching ON GOLDEN POND?
ON GOLDEN POND used humor whenever possible to diffuse the tension of getting older and health issues. It worked wonderfully. And Norman was so correct. “Bullshit” is a great word. We should all use it more often. Turning eighty is not for the weak of heart. Sometimes being loud and cantankerous is how we can cope as we “suck face.”
ON GOLDEN POND showcased what all humans want and yearn for… to be seen and loved. Daughters and sons want to be recognized and accepted for who they are. This film is a tear-jerking journey of an emotional partnership. It is genuinely moving with all the shadings and shadows of real life. It is a stunning, creative classic. It gives all who watch the impetus to do “more,” especially since Father’s Day is this weekend. I have learned never to miss an opportunity to tell my son what he needs to hear.
Thank you, ON GOLDEN POND, for the lessons learned, insights engrained in our memories, and the opportunity to remember the sheer perfection of Hepburn and Fonda.
ON GOLDEN POND is available to stream on TCM.