Movie Review: On Golden Pond (1981) #atozchallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: On Golden Pond 
Release Date: December 4, 1981
Director: Mark Rydell
Production Company: ITC Entertainment | Associated Film Distribution

An elderly couple, Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) and Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda) return to their summer home in New Hampshire. The curmudgeonly Norman is disoriented by memory loss and frequently talks about his imminent death. Their estranged daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda) comes to visit with her new fiance Bill (Dabney Coleman) and his son Billy (Doug McKeon). They have some tense moments, but Ethel and Norman agree to let Billy stay with them while Chelsea and Bill visit Europe for a month.

Not surprisingly, 13-year-old Billy is not thrilled to be stuck with a pair of elderly strangers.  But over time Norman and Billy bond over fishing. They also suffer a boat crash while pursuing the giant trout Walter in a giant cove.  Chelsea returns and is initially resentful that Norman has bonded with Billy in a way he never did with her, but seeing a different side of her father also provides an opening for them to reconcile. The movie concludes with Norman having a heart scare as they pack up to leave.  Ethel recognizes their mortality for the first time and they express their love and devotion.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This was one of those movies that was on tv a lot when I was a kid.  I remember it being treated as a “serious, grown-up” movie and being surprised when I watched it and found out how funny it is.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered the basic outline of the movie, and major incidents like the boat crash, but for the most part I watched this movie afresh.

What Did I Forget?:

One of the biggest things I forgot is that Dabney Coleman is in this movie.  It’s kind of hilarious that I’m posting back-to-back movies starring Jane Fonda and Dabney Coleman. And this is a rare movie where Coleman is not playing “the man we love to hate” although his nice guy character has a jerky edge when he threatens to send Billy back to his mother.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, two of Hollywod’s 20th century greatest stars, act the hell out of this movie.  It’s amazing that not only had they never appeared in a movie together before On Golden Pond, but they never even met before they started filming.  It’s a rare Hollywood film that provides a nuanced depiction of elderly people as well as such an honest story about family struggles.  You get the sense that some real-life Fonda family drama is occurring in the scenes between Henry and Jane. Plus the scenery, filmed at Squam Lake in New Hampshire, is absolutely gorgeous!

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

For all the accolades On Golden Pond received in 1981, it doesn’t appear on greatest films lists.  I feared that its sentimentality would come across as cheezy, but I feel that I liked this movie even more than I did as a child.  The last time I watched this movie I was younger than Billy, and now I’m older than Chelsea, so there’s something to be said for the perspective of age.  I’ll have to watch it again when I’m Norman’s age.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes, a definite classic, and apparently something of a hidden gem.

Rating: *****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with O:

  1. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
  2. Office Space (1999)
  3. On the Waterfront (1954)
  4. Orlando (1993)
  5. Outside Providence (1999)

What is your favorite movie starting with O?  What is your guess for my P movie (Hint: this movie was shot on a low-budget with a tv film crew)? Let me know in the comments!

6 thoughts on “Movie Review: On Golden Pond (1981) #atozchallenge

    1. It’s a lesser known movie from the Farrelly Brothers (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, Fever Pitch). I think it’s more of a personal story for them than there broader comedies.


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