On Golden Pond
The backflip as cultural solution

by Deborah H. Holdstein

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 3-4
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

As entertainment and as problem film, ON GOLDEN POND comes as somewhat of a surprise. And it argues well for Hollywood-formulaic entertainment value. Mark Rydell's film, adapted by author Ernest Thompson from his play, insures success by casting Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda as a loving couple in the twilight of their years. The three Oscars awarded the film — for Hepburn and Henry Fonda as best actress and actor, and for Thompson for best adaptation — reinforce its emotional value, already underscored by the connotative power of a Hepburn-Fonda pairing.

The film offers audiences several important contemporary themes: the difficulties of growing old, the bonds between woman and man, the difficulties of being someone's child (someone's daughter, especially), and the difficulties of being someone in your own right and retaining that dignity throughout life. Admittedly, these are all things that any audience "can relate to," and easily. However, while the film poses these questions, it stubbornly refuses to treat them with the depth or integrity they merit. The answers remain convenient, stereotyped, and simplistic.

The hackneyed visual metaphor of sunset over a Golden Pond, revived by breathtakingly beautiful birds-eye pans of beautiful New England scenery, reinforces the inevitable sentiment of the film. The context of that sentiment comes from the filmmaker's reliance on the well-publicized problems between Henry Fonda and his son and daughter, the plight of that deserving yet only now rewarded actor who had never won an Oscar, and the well-wrought image of Katharine Hepburn in spunky roles. Audience members may have their expectations formed before they've actually seen the film. In that sense, perhaps we’re expected to fill in any developmental flaws regarding theme and characterization with what we already know — that is, to appreciate the resonance of real-life relationships and personalities.

ON GOLDEN POND opens with appropriately somber, "educated" music, underscoring our protagonists' nature: educated, witty, affluent. The hymnlike theme accompanies fine, godlike pans over the beautiful water and natural life of rustic New England. Rydell's insistence on this panoramic splendor courts our recognition of this as the characteristically appropriate place where a crusty, old, celebrated college professor and his devoted wife would "go summering." As the couple drives up the path to their cottage, the car seems almost an intrusion. The use of nature in this film reinforces our sense of the main characters privileged status. The water's lovely loons and fish become the admirable objects around which the story revolves, around which Hepburn and Fonda captain their several boats. For they have enough privilege in old age to support the time and leisure for learning more of "life's inner meaning," hardly reality for most other Americans.

Rydell uses extreme high angle and bird's eye shots to advantage in maintaining an illusion of characters immersed in their surroundings. Rather than make our characters appear vulnerable, though vulnerable at times they are, the technique instead integrates them with their environment. Rydell attempts to suggest visually as well as through situation that Hepburn and Fonda are somehow "in their element," that they are as realistic as the natural beauty surrounding them.

But more importantly, the film notes how and why the characters interact with one another and integrate into the environment as they do. The film contrasts male senility (and one’s fear of it) with female strength, forcing us to confront role reversals and their consequences, especially where women are concerned. Hepburn lives up to an active ideal, a predictably devoted, yet free spirited wife; she acts "cool" — goes singing into the woods to herself, and all. It is she who hauls in the firewood, ventures out into the woods for strawberry and flower-picking, and is at the controls of the powerboat as she and Fonda do the errands. Henry Fonda, on the other hand, purposefully the curmudgeon, "bahs" and "humbugs" his way through most of the film, bemoaning his enforced leisure and facing the terror of a shaky memory and physical uncertainty. He especially tries to mask his inability to "like" his daughter — and his defensiveness about her presumed unwillingness to like him.

In ON GOLDEN POND, however, only older women have the dignity befitting women; Henry Fonda has become completely dependent upon Hepburn. She acts as his mouthpiece, his oral historian, so to speak. She interprets him, explains him away for people. She stands as his fence in the real, potentially hostile world. Information from a letter to her parents — about a divorce, several boyfriends, her father's negative responses to information about her — leads us to perceive Jane Fonda as their neurotic daughter, Chelsea. In part through merciless interrogation from her father over her rented car’s make (she doesn't remember, and that certainly doesn't help in gaining anyone's esteem), she seems frivolous because she has not reconciled her horrible relationship with him. Her only dignity appears to be her sexy, bikini-perfect body ("Doesn't Jane Fonda look great at 42?"), instead of any mature attempt on her part to initiate reconciliation or face her emotional problems squarely.

Early in the film, the Fonda-Fonda conflict comes to us not with gentle hinting, but with fierce bludgeoning. As Hepburn and Henry Fonda arrive for another summer, he putters about, checking the telephone, accusing the operator of having called him (classic "Exhibit A memory loss"). He notices an old picture of himself and Hepburn with a young child. “Who IS that?” he mutters. Within the first five or ten minutes of the picture, even we know that Chelsea appears in the photograph. The dialogue provides our first major piece of contextual information to prepare us for father and daughter’s generally unpleasant confrontation. And throughout these early sequences, we learn the serious consequences of retirement. Fonda senses that he has control of his life only when he can boss people around. The friendly mailman, a kind, passive sort, becomes one of Fonda's favorite victims. Fonda's foray to the outdoors fails, as he can no longer remember the way to the Old Town Road for berries. The man, here, reduced by old age and retirement to assuming the womanly, dependent role, finds nagging his only recourse for status and control. Our response is of course to be sympathetic, to bemoan his “lost power." In a woman, these traits would damn her, as they are unforgivable, “classic.”

Part of the role reversal, however, is role affirmation. That is, Hepburn still retains firm control of the environment that has been her life: her home, her husband. Consequently, she remains vital, has, in effect, "lost less” or nothing at all because her commerce between her world and the outside — as a wife — still exists as before. She's wise, warm, “permissive,” as her husband puts it. When daughter Chelsea comes home, Hepburn's "mommy" sharply contrasts with Henry Fonda's "Norman." And it appears that the older Hollywood woman can retain her dignity these days (remember the Davis-Crawford caricature in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?) because in ON GOLDEN POND, Hepburn has been a devoted wife and — we assume — mother. She has limited her interactions to the intellectual spheres allowed a good faculty wife. But our image of the younger woman is one of a person who has not come to terms with her life and herself. Jane Fonda/Chelsea has a failed marriage behind her. Although she has a career of sorts (one hinted at), only for marrying her boyfriend-dentist do her parents reward her with praise. They're happy for her, as Chelsea herself puts it, because her marrying shows she's "finally gotten her life together." Simple solution #1.

And Chelsea's role and conflicts fare even less well in the film's narrative solution. As for her neuroses — Chelsea's years-long battle with her father's coldness, his inattention — well, all she needs is a good "talking to." Hepburn's wise words, which in effect warn Fonda the younger to simply "grow up" and forget the past, work magic! By the end of the film, father and daughter have a three-minute conversation in which all is reconciled. Simple solution #2. Yet these simplicities reveal a more crucial ideological issue: this film shows the boy-child as being far more desired, important, and valued than the girl-child. When Chelsea's fiancé's son, thirteen-year-old Billy, is “dumped” at the house while the young couple head for Europe, the elder Fonda finds the companionship, understanding, and kinetic relationship possible only between a man and his son or grandson — as the film would have us believe.

Chelsea can't quite make it as a daughter, and has had limited success as a “son.” Throughout, we perceive her as being inadequate for not having been the "pal" Fonda wanted. Though she is quite an athlete (translate "tomboy"), to be a pal to dad one must be a boy. In fact, all of the serious family problems and difficulties raised by the film are apparently solved when at the end Chelsea achieves the ultimate rite of passage. Now middle-aged, she wins her father's admiration by tackling the back flip, a dive that had stymied her in her youth and that still scared her as an adult. Chelsea's passage allows us somehow to think that she's now "regular” enough, "boyishly" tough enough, to be OK. With analysis, this scene smacks of the high school fraternity initiation: "You'll like me now, dad, and this oughta really do it." Even when everybody's various neuroses are apparently reconciled, Chelsea/Fonda's mode of reconciliation comes from a childish, "I can do it” form of attention. And she gets it.

Years ago, Jean-Paul Sartre, in his novel Nausea, condemned his own characters for narrowly following stereotypes. That is, men were conditioned to seek adventure, to take risks. Women, on the contrary, sought only perfect, static moments. These modes of being become reversed in ON GOLDEN POND. During pivotal scenes in the middle of the film, when Chelsea and her fiancé come back to visit, Henry Fonda holds court in the house, having his turn with each major character of the film who comes into talk with him, except Chelsea. Hepburn, however, is out in the water — predictably skinny-dipping.

And the contrast of home/safety vs. outdoors/adventure parallels Hepburn's strengths and her husband's weaknesses. The traits become confused in Chelsea, an indecisive, whiny child-woman, because of her sense that a boy would have been the preferred, better-treated child. Where her father was socially useful and her mother still is, Fonda seems useless, unable to confront her family problems: "When I'm in Los Angeles, I'm in control, but when I'm here, I'm always answering to him." She's just not good enough, it seems. Only with young Billy does Henry Fonda have his adventures again. But even they have a boating accident. It's mommy/ Hepburn who impetuously dives from her friend's cruising patrol boat to save them.

ON GOLDEN POND touches on the tragic events of life as it passes, as death becomes reality. But it also deals in a complex type of sexism against both woman and man. Henry Fonda's inability to deal with increasing age and his feeling of uselessness depict a real and important issue. Yet his carping, "womanish" coping mechanisms belittle him, make him “less than a man." And only Hepburn appears capable of resolving, of interpreting these mechanisms, which derive from an elderly man's resentment at his powerlessness. Only she can justify the defenses — and the man — to a world which, mocking, has ceased to really care.

But the women in the film are allowed strength only when they have lived long enough to have proved themselves beautiful, tough old birds within the confines of acceptability — marriage and devotion to home. Rather than admire the honesty within Henry Fonda's dependence, we’re to feel sorry for him. Rather than merely admire Hepburn's agility and physical and mental strength, her abilities provide some of the greatest "laughs" in the film. After all women aren't supposed to act that way, and she's therefore an anomaly. (And when the characters mention with admiration the age, 97, of a woman in town who's just died, Henry Fonda caustically replies that she was a "lesbian, anyway." Aside from the woman he depends on, he has to degrade long life and strength in a woman — it must make men look bad.)

As for Jane Fonda, she's now "gotten her life together" through the communion of the instant family — her dentist and his son. And still the film falsely communicates the notion that simplistic "talkings-to" are enough for a mother and daughter to straighten things out, instead of suggesting the strength, abilities, and life-force that women can and do give their daughters. If the Hepburn character were as realistic as the rustic setting, then one would believe that she'd have done that all along. ON GOLDEN POND fails when it reinforces the sexism that forces woman to be strong at the expense or degradation of man, the sexism that prohibits the reasonable legacy of strength and commitment to life that a woman can impart to other women, not just to their men.