Saturday, February 20, 2010

1981 - On Golden Pond

Matt vs. the Academy's next year of review seems like a foregone conclusion, but there's still time for a late rush of voting, so make your voice heard in the poll on the right.

In the meantime, let me conclude my summation of the 1981 Best Picture nominees with my thoughts on...

On Golden Pond
Mark Rydell
Ernest Thompson
(based on his play)
Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, Doug McKeon, Dabney Coleman
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
3 wins, including Best Actor (Henry Fonda) and Best Actress (Hepburn)

Elderly couple Norman (Henry Fonda) and Ethel Thayer (Hepburn) spend their summers in a lake house on Golden Pond. This year, their daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) visits with her new beau Bill (Coleman) and his son Billy (McKeon). When Chelsea and Bill leave to travel on their own, Billy is left in the care of the aging duo. Estranged with his own child, Norman at first has difficulty bonding with the boy, but soon learns to let loose.

Considering the cast's pedigree, I really wanted to like On Golden Pond. Unfortunately, my overall impression of it is of a superficial melodrama. There are occasional moments of wit and poignancy but they are just too occasional to outweigh the overwhelming sweetness.

The fault, as I see it, is mostly in Mark Rydell's direction. Too much cheese. Everything is just a little overdone. Despite witty dialogue, the script is often made to sound like a soap opera. Despite naturalistic performances, the relationships between the characters are mostly clichéd and unreal. Despite beautiful cinematography, some wordless sequences are reminiscent of the background montages on a karaoke machine. Despite evocative themes, the score is overproduced and used far too often. This musical diarrhea is particularly evident during the scene in which Norman loses his way in the woods. The use of dramatic suspense music borders on parody.

The main conflict in the story is the strained relationship between father and daughter and, to be honest, I just didn't buy it, which is especially troubling considering that Henry and Jane (real life father and daughter) were said to have had a similar relationship. There is plenty of talk within the script that portrays Norman as a cantankerous curmudgeon, yet instead of coming across as emotionally distant, he just seemed like a lovable old fuddy-duddy to me. Sure, he was sarcastic and a bit grumpy, but I never took his grouchiness too seriously. It just seemed like he was playing around. And yet, everyone around him was positive he was nasty and aloof.

None of this is in any way a criticism of Henry Fonda's performance. He is absolutely delightful. But it's almost as if he's in a different movie than the other characters. Katharine Hepburn, too, is a pleasure to watch. She and Henry both won Oscars for their roles here and I certainly can't begrudge them that. And for all my quibbling, their final scene together is genuinely touching, proving that the film is not completely without merit. Jane Fonda is surprisingly the most artificial, as is her 80s hair. And I was particularly impressed with Dabney Coleman, delivering an intelligent and vulnerable performance.

1 comment:

  1. In a rare occurrence, I saw On Golden Pond first on stage in a road show production starring James Whitmore and Sada Thompson. I thought the film adaptation opened it up nicely and in general I enjoyed the touching family story. Yes, it still sounds theatrical at times and tries to hard to manipulate the emotions. It is worth it to see Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda in their only screen appearance together, although I can't help but wonder how it would have played if Spencer Tracy had lived to make it with his Kate. Still, it was nice to see Henry Fonda get his Academy Award after such a distinguished career.

    Jane Fonda was in terrific shape for the film, but that lion's main of a hairdo was a distraction.