Saturday 29 September 2007

On Golden Pond (1981) Mark Rydell

It's quite scary to think that Jane Fonda won more Oscars than her father, and it's even scarier to think that she won them both before he got his turn in the limelight. Henry Fonda appears here for the last time, after a career that included such classics as Jezebel, The Grapes of Wrath, The Lady Eve, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Longest Day and Once Upon a Time in the West. Then there was that little film 12 Angry Men, which still resonates with me as one of the greatest American films of all time and in which he dominated proceedings. Yet none of those got him up onto the stage to pick up an Oscar. This one did, or at least it should have done. Daughter Jane had to deliver it to him.

He's Norman Thayer Jr, a retired professor, and as the film starts he's back at his summer cottage on Golden Pond, with his wife Ethel, played by Katharine Hepburn who apparently he had never even met up until his very last film. He's obviously suffering from age: loud, irascible and forgetful, which naturally gives him plenty of charm. Ethel is far more dynamic, which is hardly surprising for Hepburn, but she's also supposedly ten years younger than him: seventy or so instead of eighty or so, even though she considers herself middle aged.

Kate Hepburn had proved herself solid a few times in later years opposite long established leading men towards the end of their career: Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen and John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn especially. I've seen almost all her early films, the first half of them, and she suffered in my eyes from horrific miscasting, bad material and all sorts of craziness up until 1938 when suddenly she had a string of classics on her hands. Then came the Spencer Tracy era, which was fascinating even though some of their pairings on screen didn't live up to their performances. Finally there was the elderly period when to my mind she really came into her prime. This one brought her an unprecedented Oscar number four, even though she's obviously playing second fiddle to Fonda when they're on screen together. That says plenty all on its own.

Anyway, after a little while Jane Fonda turns up for Norman's eightieth birthday party. Just as she's Henry Fonda's daughter in real life, she's Norman Thayer's daughter here, Chelsea. She brings along Bill Ray, a bearded dentist played by Dabney Coleman like a cross between Robin Williams and Richard Dreyfuss. He's apparently a nice guy, we're told, but he doesn't seem to be much of a catch for various reasons, just like Chelsea herself.

Chelsea and Bill are planning to head out to Europe for a month or so, but want to leave Billy Ray, Bill's thirteen year son, with the parents. Given that he seems to have only just got him back from his mother, that seems to be a little callous. He's also scared of the wildlife on Golden Pond and Chelsea looks good but would look a lot better if she'd quit bitching and forget the makeup and the outrageous glasses. I'd take the parents any day, regardless of or perhaps entirely because of their characters.

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