An aging couple, Ethel and Norman Thayer, spends each summer at their home on a lake called Golden Pond. They are visited by daughter Chelsea, who is somewhat estranged from her curmudgeon of a father. Chelsea introduces them to her new fiance, Bill, and asks the Thayers to permit Bill's young son Billy to stay with them while she and Bill have some time to themselves. The boy is annoyed by being left with elderly strangers with no friends nearby and nothing to do. He resents Norman's brusque manner at first, but eventually comes to enjoy their Golden Pond fishing adventures together. Chelsea returns, a little exasperated and envious of the fact that Norman seemingly has bonded with a stranger's child in a way he never quite did with her.
It's interesting how our feelings about specific movies tend to change over the years. As we age and our perspectives regarding life and humanity evolve, films we adored in our youth often lose their luster, while pictures we largely dismissed speak to us in new and surprising ways. Take 'On Golden Pond.' When I first saw director Mark Rydell's tender adaptation of the Ernest Thompson play upon its initial release in 1981, I appreciated the fine work of icons Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda (both of whom I greatly admired), but as a callow 19-year-old, I couldn't relate to their characters' elderly travails or what seemed like the incessant whining of their bitter daughter, played by an affected Jane Fonda. I also felt the wiseass kid on hand was nothing more than a stereotypical sitcom punk and hackneyed plot device.
Fast forward 33 years, and now my own parents are grappling with the same issues Norman and Ethel Thayer face in the film, I’ve weathered my adolescent children’s roller-coaster mood swings and petulant attitudes, and tried - with limited success - to vanquish some of the haunting demons of my childhood. All these experiences make me look at 'On Golden Pond' in a totally different light, and when I viewed it recently for the first time in at least a couple of decades, this quiet family drama spoke to me on a variety of visceral levels. Though parts of the screenplay still feel a bit precious and trite, a basic and universal truth pervades the film, and its acute perception, simple presentation, and honest performances make that truth resonate all the more.
The gruff, curmudgeonly Norman and lively, optimistic Ethel have been married for decades, and in the movie’s opening frames they arrive at their charming summer cabin on the shores of an idyllic New England lake. Yet as Norman begins to experience various afflictions of age - memory problems, depression, loss of agility and virility - his disposition sours and he becomes obsessed with what he believes to be his impending death. Ethel makes futile attempts to jolt him out of his funks, and the arrival of his estranged daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) for his 80th birthday celebration only seems to exacerbate his foul mood. Always reserved and brutally sarcastic, Norman has never been able to express affection for Chelsea, who feels her dad has consistently ignored, belittled, and disapproved of her throughout her life. Chelsea brings her new boyfriend Bill (Dabney Coleman) and his ornery son Billy (Doug McKeon) to the party, and asks her parents to look after Billy for a month, so she and Bill can tour Europe and hopefully cement their burgeoning relationship. Ethel and Norman agree, and though the put-upon Billy is far from thrilled about the prospect of spending several weeks with two crotchety elders, he soon warms up to the couple, and as he and Norman forge a bond over the summer, they each learn valuable life lessons, some of which just might pave the way for a reconciliation between Norman and Chelsea.
The themes of ‘On Golden Pond’ - learning to accept one’s mortality and the limitations and infirmities that often precede it; coming to terms with another’s frailties and the differences and foibles that define us; letting go of the past and embracing the future; and opening our minds and hearts to new experiences and relationships - overshadow its wispy narrative and can often provoke deep emotional responses. A case in point… There’s a well-known moment in ‘On Golden Pond’ that occurs relatively early in the movie when Ethel tries to comfort Norman and restore his confidence after he loses his way in the woods and begins to panic. Hepburn, her head doddering and her eyes welling with tears, leans in close to Fonda, and with heartbreaking sincerity almost whispers, “You’re my knight in shining armor. Don’t you forget it.” It’s a scene that’s been replayed dozens of times over the years in various retrospectives; so much so it’s almost become a cliché. Stupidly, I believed I was immune to its power, yet as I watched Hepburn perform it this time, she got me…and a lump the size of a golf ball swelled in my throat. And much to my surprise, it stayed there throughout the rest of the film.
‘On Golden Pond’ is one of those motion pictures that’s only as good as the actors performing the lines. On the page, the material lacks pizzazz, but in the hands of Hepburn and Henry Fonda, it truly comes alive, gaining an elevated sense of meaning and worth. Hepburn, quite simply, is a marvel and a treasure. Always a mesmerizing presence, she commands the screen with a natural, often luminous air and never strikes a wrong note. Whether she’s knocking some sense into her mopey daughter, pooh-poohing her husband’s fears, cooing at her beloved loons, or diving into the lake on a rescue mission, Hepburn is always the real deal, and her chemistry with both Henry and Jane Fonda is nothing short of extraordinary. Though I used to think the Oscar she won for the role (her fourth overall, a record in the acting categories) was simply a tribute award given to a beloved, legendary performer at the end of her career, I can now say with certainty that she deserved it.
As did Henry Fonda. Over the course of his multi-decade career, the esteemed actor was shockingly nominated only once before - for 1940’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ - but 41 years later (and just a year after the Academy bestowed upon him one of those worthless honorary awards for his “brilliant accomplishments”) he at last took home the Best Actor prize. Though Fonda is more studied and precise than Hepburn, he’s no less marvelous, and his portrayal explores a gamut of emotions, all of which he perfectly conveys. He’s especially good at projecting confusion and a veiled vulnerability, as well as the awkwardness of human contact, which Fonda himself struggled with throughout his life.
Ironically, Henry and Jane Fonda had much the same strained relationship as Norman and Chelsea in the film, and Jane bought the rights to Thompson’s play for the express purpose of appearing in the vehicle with her dad…and hopefully working out their interpersonal issues on screen. The plan worked, but not without its share of angst. Both Henry and Jane were reportedly wracked with anxiety before they shot their scenes together, which struck many raw nerves, and knowing the subtext adds an extra layer of tension and emotion to the exchanges. Jane, too, received an Oscar nod (for Best Supporting Actress), but lost to Maureen Stapleton in ‘Reds.’
In all, ‘On Golden Pond’ garnered nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Sound, and Score. Ernest Thompson won the award for Best Adapted Screenplay, but the entire cast and their superior performances surely contributed to his victory. Sadly, Henry Fonda would die a few months after receiving his Oscar, a fact that heightens the poignancy of his portrayal and impact of Norman’s cantankerous musings. But even as ‘On Golden Pond’ dwells on death (however humorously), it celebrates life and the relationships that define and enhance it. It may not speak to you now, but mark my words…someday, it will.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'On Golden Pond' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Director Mark Rydell and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Billy Williams lovingly capture the scenic beauty, tranquility, and subtle grace of the New Hampshire lake that's the setting for 'On Golden Pond,' and Shout Factory's vibrant, pleasing 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer nicely reproduces it. Though some errant print debris occasionally dots the well-preserved source material, the overall picture sports wonderful clarity and contrast, allowing us to bask in the shimmering water, floating leaves, dense wood, majestic loons, and verdant foliage that frame the story. Close-ups brim with fine detail, highlighting Henry Fonda's aged face, Hepburn's porcelain skin, Jane Fonda's tan, and Dabney Coleman's bushy beard. A lovely grain structure lends the image a palpable film-like feel, yet low-lit scenes never appear noisy. Black levels are strong, fleshtones remain natural and stable throughout, and shadow delineation is quite good, especially during the nocturnal lake rescue sequence. Background elements aren't quite as crisp as one might like (although Rydell claims that was an intentional choice) and a bit of softness can be detected now and then, but banding is absent and any digital enhancements have been applied with a judicious hand. All in all, this is an admirable effort from Shout Factory, one that excites the senses and draws us deeper into this intimate family drama.
Though it’s subtle and unobtrusive, the DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track possesses surprisingly good fidelity and tonal depth. Atmospherics, such as the cooing loons, rustling of leaves underfoot, and rippling water are quietly distinct, while more active elements, like the roar of the outboard motor, lend the mix welcome weight. Dave Grusin’s dated yet effective score fills the room with ease, and all the dialogue is clear and easily comprehendible. Best of all, no age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, or crackles, intrude, and no distortion is evident either. Interpersonal dramas rarely flaunt active audio tracks, and ‘On Golden Pond’ is no exception, but for a 34-year-old film it sounds quite spry, and that’s very good news indeed.
All the supplements from the 2003 Artisan DVD release - minus the commentary by writer Ernest Thompson - have been ported over to this Blu-ray release. Sadly, a more comprehensive retrospective documentary on the making of the film that appeared on the 2001 Live Entertainment DVD release is not included here.
Audio Commentary - In a voice that reflects the movie's quiet nature, director Mark Rydell provides an engaging, heartfelt commentary that further enhances one's appreciation of the film. With reverence and respect, Rydell talks about his memorable experiences working with Hepburn and Henry Fonda and the "enchanted summer" they spent together making 'On Golden Pond.' He recalls how frightened he was initially to assert himself as a director in front of two legends, and how Hepburn tested his mettle on several occasions. Rydell paints a vivid portrait of Hepburn as courageous, funny, maternal, and "delicious," and his respect for Henry Fonda and his intense commitment to a role that hit uncomfortably close to home is boundless. He also lauds Dabney Coleman and Doug McKeon, talks about Jane Fonda's nerves and her father's anxiety over their scenes together that mirrored their real-life relationship, and rues the absence of human films in our contemporary society. "The ultimate drama is human drama," he says. Anecdotes abound in this 1996 track that mirrors the picture's emotional timbre.
Featurette: "Reflections on Golden Pond" (SD, 30 minutes) - More of a celebration of Billy Williams' exceptional cinematography than a wide-ranging production chronicle, this rather dull, plodding featurette includes remarks from Rydell, Williams, writer Ernest Thompson, and a host of other crew members. Maddeningly, no one is identified on screen, so it's difficult to determine each speaker's relationship to the film. The piece looks at how several scenes were shot, explores Williams' penchant for employing natural light whenever possible, and examines the emotional impact of the climactic confrontational scene between Henry and Jane Fonda. Williams, who won an Oscar the following year for 'Gandhi,' calls 'On Golden Pond' the "happiest picture I ever made," and though this featurette provides an intimate glimpse of his style and perspective, it runs on too long and lacks panache.
Featurette: "A Woman of Substance: Katharine Hepburn Remembered" (SD, 16 minutes) - Much more interesting, this far too brief salute to the great Kate includes reminiscences from Rydell, Williams, and Thompson, as well as director George Cukor, director Anthony Harvey, film critic Richard Schickel, and writer David Thomson, and includes a number of rare photos and a couple of film clips from such Hepburn hits as 'The Philadelphia Story' and 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.' Hepburn's supportive family, fierce independence, acute business acumen, unique screen persona, and transformative relationship with actor Spencer Tracy are all discussed and analyzed, which makes for very interesting viewing.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - The original preview for 'On Golden Pond' almost completely encapsulates the story, so if you haven't yet seen the film, don't watch this trailer until you've finished watching it in its entirety.
Some films just get better with age - our age, not their age - and 'On Golden Pond' is definitely one of them. Though this simple story of an elderly couple coming to terms with their mortality and repairing fractured familial relationships may seem trite on the surface and of little consequence to twenty- and thirty-somethings, the ideas and emotions it so delicately expresses resonate deeply with more mature viewers, who can better relate to all the characters' travails, foibles, and wide-ranging attitudes. Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda create a classic rapport and craft finely etched, often heartbreaking performances that earned well-deserved Oscars, and Mark Rydell's sensitive direction embraces the understated beauty of the piece. Shout Factory's Blu-ray presentation skimps a bit on supplements, but strong video and audio transfers ease the pain by fully immersing us in the bucolic setting, quiet drama, and exceptional portrayals. All of us grow old and must deal with family tensions, and in a forthright manner, with wisdom, humor, and grace, 'On Golden Pond' tackles these universal issues and drives home the point that the little things in life are a lot bigger than most of us realize. Highly recommended for all, but especially those over 40.