I had promised to share remaining pivotal thoughts on ON GOLDEN POND, apart from my previous post that I had published two days ago ; I keep my promise and here I am.
Named after its titular lakeside location, ON GOLDEN POND is an understated celebration of one’s sunset years and there is unbridled, uncompromised beauty to the communication of a life long bond between Ethel and Norman Thayer ( Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda)
Opening with shimmering, sun kissed, golden specks of light on the water, it’s the Thayer’s map of the world, the soul’s landscape where sky and water melt into each other.
This screenplay that won them both Oscars besides scoring one for Best Adapted Screenplay for Ernest Thompson, writer of the play from which he derived its cinematic value, emphasizes the tenacity of filial and conjugal bonds that have a tendency to endure with passing years, possess frictions caused by distances and past regrets but outlast those almost naturally with the sheer strength of shared love and understanding. In this case, the Thayers ring in Norman’s 80th birthday on their country estate by the serene lakeside cocoon of New Hampshire and with their daughter Chelsea ( Jane Fonda), her fiancé Bill ( Dabney Coleman) and his teenage son Billy ( Doug McKeon) joining them, a poignant tale gets underway. The poignancy itself extends from the location and as the focus is on the elderly couple, we see how nature envelops them as much as the permanence of their mutual co – dependence. The essence of their long lives is one with the unchanging panoramas of this country estate.
You have to then experience nuances of the gently uplifting storytelling that packs no unnecessary messages or saccharine moments of manufactured charm. The wisdom is in the pithy narration and dialogues that are lived in, practical and humbling. No wonder then that ON GOLDEN POND has gone down in cinematic echelons as a timeless yarn, applicable to contours of dotage / old age for every era.
The Thayer’s unbreakable respect for each other is traced by the titanic performers embodying their everyday concerns. This kind of purity, innocence and rich inner dialogues , transplanted from the realm of life’s long, arduous but eventful whole to the screen, truly is the mark of an era. This kind of silence, peaceful foregrounding cannot be replicated in our notoriously kinetic times. As we often see in couples who have been married for years, a true partnership is cemented between the two. Ethel, here, clearly the outgoing and assimilative one, constitutes their collective life in the wake of Norman’s advancing days and a natural ‘fear of death’. But the projection of the two together is that of a marriage of equals. She is his true sanctuary.
The other part of the film is centered on the return of their daughter and the young teenager who will be left in their care as she and her fiancé, the boy’s father, take off for an European summer tour. The bonding and interpersonal dynamics rule the roost then.
The subtext of the daughter harboring regrets, of not being ‘the son’ to her father is palpable. Given Jane Fonda’s casting here, the alchemy of the real life parent – child bond is special. But the true alchemy of cinema is that despite echoes of a conscious truth being supplied from their behind the scenes bonding, we look at them as Thayers. These personal stakes here add a welcome layer of naturalism.
With eventual blossoming of Billy Jr.’s profound relationship with the senior Thayers, especially with Norman on several fishing trips, the warm embrace of grandparents ( that I miss since they have all passed away) and their steady grip on us is beautifully etched.
A soothing background score by Dave Grusin , expert cinematography by Billy Williams , editing by Robert L. Wolfe and timely use of humour on the part of a cantankerous Norman all complement its progression.
Mortality and its natural correlation is hence found with the two loon birds on the lake, one of the many birds appearing dead as both males go fishing while the fish named Walter is captured but let go as he’s lived for too long. Water, here, is also a source of freedom and its vastness echoes the long lives of the protagonists and possibilities that each individual journey upholds. Also the lake and its adjunct landscape is captured like a watercolor painting, many of them Monet style.
The two loon birds are like ETHEL and NORMAN, eternal voyagers who welcome them back to their beloved summer home each year.
Ultimately, it’s about these two voyagers and soulmates as the ending scene suggests. Cue these immortal lines that Ethel/ Katharine enunciates to Norman, capturing in simple words their joint journey of a lifetime during the early passages in ON GOLDEN POND :
# These two quotes from the film, especially the former, have been recognized by the AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE as also by countless cinephiles. I knew about these lines since years . Watching them unfold is magical to say the least.
It’s all the more poignant since its concerns of mortality on Norman’s part are so closely hewn to the man playing him, i. e Mr. Fonda. He passed away in 1982 before even having the privilege of receiving his Oscar for Best Actor. It was perhaps fate that this script chose him, his on screen arc borrowing from his own life script to let him subsume his finest, final moments committed on screen. The concluding scenes, especially, are just too close to his own saga of ill health and implicit fear of death. ON GOLDEN POND, as I look back on it, was perhaps God’s plan all along, in anticipation of a glorious curtain call for him. We can never forget his portrayal here.
Some among us deride aged people as if their advanced years make them exclusive, outside life’s purview of everyday joys, as if life was a selective beacon cut out only for youth and solemn middle age . I have often called such insensitive people out for their downright offensive and deeply prejudiced attitude to the anchors of our world who have seen and felt all. Life is God’s precious gift and we must never decide for others or renounce our own pleasures and hopes, at any stage whatsoever.
In the later years of one’s journey, there is no need to look for an ending and nobody needs sympathy or wise words because a whole lifetime of self sufficiency has made them sturdy like an evergreen tree shown in the film.
Only cinema can raise these ideas to such diurnal glory and ON GOLDEN POND, with great, timeless sensitivity, anchors them. It’s one for the ages.
Also, I captured most of these images as screenshots while viewing it for a second time. The imagery is bountiful, beautiful.