Mark Rydell’s On Golden Pond is one of film’s greatest romances. Yet watching this great romance highlights the stupidity of the “holiday” celebrated today. Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) and Norman’s (Henry Fonda) romance is not one Cupid would approve of. Ethel claims that she won Norman as a booby prize in some of the best playful banter we see between the two. Their love is mixed with frustration, confusion, hurt from each other, and even baggage from their past before knowing each other even though Norman is 80 and Ethel in her 70s. Their romance is too real to fit the touch-feely Valentine’s Day ideal, but that’s exactly why I suggest it for viewing today. Ethel and Norman show what “for better or worse, till death do us part” really means.
Norman has heart disease and is slowly losing his memory. He’s easily agitated and has apparently always had a very sarcastic exterior though he is capable of great kindness. Ethel sums it up perfectly saying that he’s “the sweetest man on earth, only he’s an absolute muck about telling anyone.” It takes Ethel’s bubbly optimism and drivenness to see the best in people to realize this and to bring it out of him and to keep him from being a lonely, angry hermit. And it takes Norman’s logic and cautiousness to keep Ethel from acting according to her feelings and good intentions in ways that could make her vulnerable to her own type of self-destruction. The complementary nature of their relationship has created a great marriage.
On Golden Pond is set at a stage in Ethel and Norman’s marriage when their daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda), who they haven’t seen for many years, comes for Norman’s 80th birthday. Before she arrives, we can tell from the responses of the letter she sends them, that Ethel and Chelsea are very close but Norman and Chelsea have a strained relationship, nearing estrangement. The way that Ethel and Norman each relate with their daughter is the most straining aspect of their own relationship with each other. From the time she arrives through the rest of the movie, although she leaves after the birthday party and does not show up again until the end of the movie, we see the process of Ethel and Chelsea’s reconciliation and what that means for Ethel and Norman’s relationship.
Since Chelsea isn’t an active character in a lot of the story, we see the reconciliation process through Billy (Doug McKeon), the son of Chelsea’s boyfriend Billy Ray (Dabney Coleman). Chelsea, Billy Ray, and Billy are all together with Norman and Ethel for the birthday, but Chelsea and Billy Ray plan to travel to Europe afterwards and ask Norman and Ethel to keep Billy with them while they’re gone. They ask Ethel first, and then Ethel approaches Norman about it. The scene where she does this is the most romantic, even sensual moment in the movie. The way they communicate with each other about their daughter’s interests shows the passion they still have for one another.
Billy Ray has the exterior of a stereotypical rebellious, obnoxious teenager. Norman breaks through that exterior much like Ethel has broken through Norman’s. The two develop a friendship that naturally makes a way for Norman and Chelsea’s reconciliation. The father-daughter reconciliation in the movie is known to be a reflection of the real-life relational strains between Henry and Jane Fonda that were largely resolved through their work together on this movie. On the dvd’s audio commentary, Jane Fonda refers to On Golden Pond as a “very healthy movie.” She is right as it shows the possibility for healing of broken relationships. The story’s healing has many layers through different parts of the family as I’ve described, but it’s the romantic relationship between Ethel and Norman that has never cooled off that is ultimately responsible for all of that healing happening. It’s their unwavering love and devotion that makes On Golden Pond one of the most inspiring movies ever made, one of most beautiful romantic stories ever told. And it’s their stark differences from one another that complement each other that makes On Golden Pond one of the funniest movies ever made. It’s a beautiful slice of life that tells the truth of romantic love like very few other movies have been willing to do.