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On Golden Pond (1981)

Updated on July 12, 2010

"On Golden Pond" is one of those movies which makes me sad and not because of the tender, amusing and poignant storyline. It makes me sad because it featured two of my favourite stars of the golden era of Hollywood Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn and together they combine to deliver a movie which has that touch of old style Hollywood to it, old style class which modern movies and movie stars sadly lack.

Having returned to their cottage on the lakes, Norman (Henry Fonda - 12 Angry Men) and Ethel Thayer (Katherine Hepburn - Rooster Cogburn) are welcomed back by the birds who have also returned to the Golden Pond. It's a special year of rthe Thayer's because it's Norman's 80th birthday and although he shares a difficult relationship with their daughter Chelsea she is paying them a visit along with her new boyfriend and his son Billy Ray Jr.. With Chelsea's visit quite short Ethel suggests that they leave Billy Ray Jr. with them and over the space of the summer a friendship forms between the teenager and the grumpy old Norman.

One thing you notice about "On Golden Pond" it's both a simple movie but like an onion has many layers. It starts off feeling like a tale about Norman accepting old age, the fact that his years are numbered and that with each year that passes his mind slowly becomes less reliable. But at the same time you get a sense about the enduring love which Norman and Ethel share. Then there is the next layer that of their difficult relationship with their daughter Chelsea and how through the friendship Norman forms with Billy Ray jr. the difficulties and awkwardness start to ease. All of which is very straightforward, even simple but in the hands of director Mark Rydell he turns these simple layers into a charming story that draws us into the charming life on Golden Pond.

It's very much down to director Mark Rydell's eye for a scene and deft touch which manages to make "On Golden Pond" not only a rose tinted tale of a summer on the lake but also a tale with some poignancy. He constantly captures the beauty of the lake, the surroundings and the laid back life style where fishing and swimming are about as strenuous as things come yet he manages to deliver those moments of drama, even tension which punctuate the tranquil life style when it all seems little too laid back. When Norman's mind fails him whilst walking, you get a sense of the panic he feels and it is moments which like these which not only inject a sudden burst of life but lay way to the poignancy. It's thanks to Rydell's touch that "On Golden Pond" ends up being remarkably well balanced delivering poignancy and a rose tinted view in equal measures.

On Golden Pond Trailer

But it's not just Mark Rydell's touch which makes "On Golden Pond" such glorious viewing it is also the wonderful characters most notably that of Normam Thayer played by Henry Fonda. Fonda creates such a memorable character, mischievous and cantankerous but because you watch him struggle with his advancing years and shortening of memory he is also lovable. With his own daughter Jane Fonda appearing as his onscreen daughter there is something rather poignant about their onscreen relationship and it's touching to watch the difficulties start to melt between them.

And Henry Fonda's performance is made all the more better by the pairing up with Katherine Hepburn as his feisty and forthright wife Ethel. It almost feels like Hepburn is playing herself on screen, quick spoken, to the point but in doing so it makes her character both interesting and believable. You can see how much Ethel loves Norman yet is abrupt with him as she is with everyone else. The partnership of Fonda and Hepburn is so good that without them and of course Jane Fonda I doubt for one minute "On Golden Pond" would have been much more than just a pleasant drama.

All in all "On Golden Pond" is a joy to watch. It is a very rose tinted movie painting a picture of this fabulous life of this beautiful lake but at the same time it injects drama to make it more. It also delivers up some surprising tender moments and a lot of poignancy as it covers old age and family relationships. But most importantly it has that touch of classic Hollywood thanks to the outstanding performances of Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn.


Title: On Golden Pond
Year: 1981
Length: 109
Cert: PG
Director: Mark Rydell
Cast: Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Jane Fonda, Doug McKeon, Dabney Coleman, William Lanteau


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