On Golden Pond (1981)
Okay, I’ve dodged this film since 1981. It looked cloying and ghastly then; it proved worse when Jacketta pitched up and decided we should have some Dad-Daughter time. My, what a nice choice. If we weren’t estranged before, and we weren’t, I’m genuinely tempted to throw a panic attack next time she pops up on the visitors sheet. Or – new rule – I choose the film until she’s the one wiping my arse.
Oh God. Where to start.
This film is very very keen – from the first shots to the very end – to make the point that it is set on a golden pond. The sun shines across the water to make it golden. The ducks and loons play, paddle, burst off and crash land on golden water. In case you don’t get that point, the shots are slow, bucolic, watery….gooooooooooooooolden. It’s like those moments in old music videos when the pictures match the lyrics so literally you want to stab a New Romantic Duranny twat in his hair.
On come the old movie stars as modern, crumbly movie stars. Henry Fonda (ex professor Norman Thayer, all nastiness and a magnet for tolerance) is snarky and cold throughout: not a hint of humanity. He intellectualises emotions, the rejection of his daughter, the affections of his wife; he does this with sarcasm and bitchery. Katharine Hepburn (Ethel Thayer) is his weirdly difficult to like wife. She has all the emotions and tolerance to give, but is cold in moments that matter. And those moments are when their daughter, estranged for many a year, turns up with her tentative new family. Both women say ‘poop’ a lot.
Cue Jane Fonda (Chelsea), in full-on 1980s hair, attitude, post-therapy emotions and a cloud of utter-utter awfulness. From disliking her parents for turning Golden Pond to permafrost (that’s a metaphor), old Jack moved on to wanting to yell at Chelsea. She’s deeply into whinging self-pity, actually begging for the paternal affection that is properly unlikely to come. Especially given the whinging. Her mum helps by telling her she’s boring and to grow up.
So – odd moment – I hated everyone on screen, but agreed with them all.
Then the boyfriend (Dabney Coleman as startled Bill Ray) and Chelsea go off for a few days and leave his son (Doug McKeon as Billy Ray). The boy is 14, monumentally irritating, punctuates every sentence with “bullshit” like he’s asking to be drowned, and is so obviously destined to become best buddies with old bullshitter Norman that I spent the next sluggish pan across the goooooooooooooooolden pond screaming.
There are pleasures to be had as the old misery and young misery get to know one another – chiefly watching Henry Fonda’s stuntman get hurled from a boat into the pond of gold, narrowly missing a giant rock as warm as his personality. The boy tries to help, they both end up clinging to it for longer than humans can live. And…
Okay. I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending should your transfusion force you to watch that long. But. Chelsea comes back, sees the nascent friendship, and has a fit of 1980s-post-therapy petulance that…that…oh God, I don’t have the words. These scenes are horrible. Norman Thayer is a mean old fucker and had the chance to stop this shit several times: he could beat Hepburn to death with an old phone; smash the boy’s brains out on that rock; hold Chelsea under the pond ’til it goes blood–golden. Does he? Nope.
I hated On Golden Pond with the loathing of the just. Whilst the performances of Hepburn and old Fonda are competent, with Coleman a close second, the boy a long third and young Fonda a country mile of cloying pond water and in-your-face emoting behind, the script is often just horrible. There are moments of excellence, oh yes, but they float like diamonds on a swamp of brown. And as for insights – turns out the old should probably die to get away from the young.
By the by, CBS did a TV version in 2001 with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. I ran into it on the YouTube. Plummer is instantly more likeable, warm even; Andrews fends off invisible bugs like a nutter, and…old Jack couldn’t bear the thing again.
It’s available on…oh, don’t. Just don’t. Hollywood was wrong.
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