Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond (1981)


Henry Fonda

Henry Fonda received his second Oscar nomination and won the Oscar for playing Norman Thayer in On Golden Pond.

On Golden Pond is a surprisingly good film that I really enjoyed. I remember actively disliking it the first time I watched it years ago, but I this time round I found myself being to appreciate it for its simplicity. In fact, I probably prefer it to its best picture competitor Reds. The score is fantastic, and the whole film is very beautiful and relaxing to watch. I didn’t think Mark Rydell needed to be nominated for his standard direction though. And I feel a bit bad for saying this as I usually like her performances, but I found Jane Fonda’s acting a bit weird here. I understand that this role is a very personal one for her, and obviously it meant a lot, but it feels as if she really wanted to prove this point. Maybe I should re-watch her performance but I felt that she was over-doing it a little. Her final scene was utterly fantastic though, and it really redeemed her performance.

Henry Fonda’s win is often attributed to his veteran status, but this time round, I found myself appreciating his work a lot more than I did the first time. Fonda is not an actor I am familiar with, although I really liked his performance in The Grapes of Wrath (my pick for 1940 best actor). I enjoy reading about his relationship with Jane, and in a way, I felt like he managed to utilize this personal aspect of his performance better than she did. What I really appreciated about his performance as Norman Thayer is how wonderfully layered it is, which might not be obvious at first glance. On the surface, Norman seems like the typical curmudgeon you don’t want to talk to, but Fonda justifies Norman’s abrasive personality in a way that allows us to understand him inside-out. Norman’s fear of death is something that was very well-played by Fonda, probably because of how close it was to reality. He handles the gradual physical and mental deterioration of the character well, and shows how this is something that is he is truly frightened of. He also manages to express his regrets over his estranged relationship with his daughter more effectively than Jane, even though he had fewer lines to do so. I always found myself sympathizing with Norman, and you can sense that he is actually a kind person inside.

The main bulk of On Golden Pond focuses on Norman’s relationship with Billy, the young kid. It’s a cliche, yet Fonda allows us to see a fatherly side of Norman. Personally, I don’t care for the kid’s performance and yet I found their relationship devleopment extremely moving thanks to Fonda. Norman always had difficulty expressing himself, and Fonda potrays this fantastically – we know that he truly cares for the boy, even though he has never expressed it out loud.

It might not be the flashiest performance, but I found Henry Fonda’s  performance as Norman Thayer extremely moving and beautiful. It’s not the most original, but it’s an Oscar win that I feel is largely deserved.

Katharine Hepburn

Kate Hepburn won her fourth Oscar for playing Ethel Thayer.

I don’t really have that much to say about Hepburn’s performance as much as Fonda. The last time I watched it, I remembered being extremely disappointed and underwhelmed because I watched this film immediately after his brilliant turn in The Lion in Winter (1968). This time round though, I found myself understanding and appreciating her performance a lot more.

Unlike the Fondas, Hepburn’s character isn’t as complex or layered – which is fine, although having watched Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Lion in Winter, you will know that this performance is probably nothing for an actress of her calibre. Ethel Thayer is essentially the “wise lady” of the household, the devoted and emotionally supportive matriarch whom everybody turns to for advice. For the most part, Hepburn’s performance involves her being spunky and humorous, while being the big supporting column of her family as well.

The “knight in armour” speech she gave to Fonda is fantastic, and she is definitely a cheery and warm presence throughout the film. Even though she’s the lead of her film, she just gives reaction shots to the conversations happening around her, such as an approving smile or a disappointed glance. I might sound critical, but I assure you I really appreciated her work and I think she gives a thinly written character a lot of weight. It’s a pity the film doesn’t focus that much on her story, but I think Hepburn does a very good job, even if I don’t necessarily agree with her Oscar win – 4/5.


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