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Movie Review: On Golden Pond

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Nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and eventual winner of three Oscars, On Golden Pond is an unconventional Hollywood blockbuster. Based on the play of the same name by Ernest Thompson, the film offers a character-driven storyline that explores themes such as aging, abandonment, and family relationships.

Veteran film and TV director Mark Rydell packs the big screen with a star-studded cast for this 1981 release. Because of its well-developed characters and realistic portrayal of human interactions, it’s a film that’s almost certain to make you laugh, cry, or at least smile. In fact, if you don’t find Norman to be one of the most hilarious and eccentric characters ever created, then you must not be watching the same film.

On Golden Pond follows the lives of a retired New England couple on their annual summer vacation to Golden Pond. Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda) is an aging, long-retired college professor. Sarcastic and crotchety, he manages to distance himself from just about everyone but his wife Ethel (Katharine Hepburn). In fact, his biting demeanor nearly destroys his relationship with his daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda). When Chelsea brings her new boyfriend Bill (Dabney Coleman) to visit, it isn’t long before Norman stirs things up once again.

But Norman and Ethel get an unexpected summer guest when Bill and Chelsea take a prolonged European vacation and leave Bill’s 13-year-old son Billy in their care. It makes for an odd threesome, but as the three learn to live with each other’s quirks, they also learn from each other. But the true test for the new family comes when Chelsea and Bill return from Europe. Can she learn to accept her father’s vices? And can Norman finally be proud of his daughter for who she is?

Hollywood veterans Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda turn in two of the best performances of their respective careers. Fonda is brilliant as the doddering and cranky Norman. One can’t help but laugh at his antics, although it helps that he has the best lines in the movie. Dabney Coleman, despite his brief appearance, makes an immediate impression when he engages in a classic dialogue with Henry Fonda over the evening’s sleeping arrangements.

However, in the end, On Golden Pond works because of the chemistry between the three characters who encompass the majority of the story – Ethel, Norman, and Billy. They bind together to create an epic drama rife with conflict, conquest, and chaos without all the usual Hollywood blood and gore. It’s truly rare to have a film of this nature capture audiences without boring them, and On Golden Pond pulls it off.

Complementing this strong cast and screenplay is a simple yet memorable instrumental soundtrack composed by Dave Grusin, veteran TV and film composer known for such works as Tootsie (1982) and The Goonies (1985). Filmed on location on and around the Squam Lakes in New Hampshire, the beauty and majesty of this untainted landscape blends perfectly with its tailor-made soundtrack to create a theme of endless peace and tranquility. Overall, it makes for an enjoyable movie experience. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and watch On Golden Pond. Then, see if you can say “Ethel Thayer” really fast without a lisp!

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