Wednesday, August 2, 2017

What-To-Watch Wednesday - On Golden Pond (1981)

On Golden Pond is one of the first non-kid movies I can remember seeing in the theater.  My mother took my older sister and me to see it at the old Layton movie house in Seaford.  Her friend and co-worker, Shirley, joined us.  I don't know what possessed Mom to take a nine year old and a six year old to a movie about an older couple dealing with family strife at a quiet lake retreat, but nonetheless we went.

As I recall, the Layton was one of those small town theaters that showed only one movie and had fold-down wooden seats.  It was one of two movie theaters in Seaford at the time.  The other was the Twin Cinema, and it showed TWO movies, hence the name.

Both are gone now as is much of anything that was memorable or worthwhile in Seaford.  Nowadays, the town seems only able to support fast food restaurants and a Walmart.  One has to drive nearly fifteen miles south to Salisbury, Maryland to get to the closest movie theater and bookstore.

If my nostalgic trip down memory lane while lamenting the loss of what once was seems out of place for a movie review, it really isn't when it comes to examining On Golden Pond.  That idea is a central theme in the film and is explored to varying degrees by the circumstances of every character in the story.

In Norman and Ethel Thayer, the elderly couple at the center of the story, we see the results of a long term marriage in which the two people have an almost preternatural understanding of one another, especially Ethel towards Norman.  Here are a husband and wife who are comfortable with each other and in their routine, but that comfort doesn't denote staleness in the relationship; there is obviously a deep love between the two grown out of years of shared experiences and forging a life together.  Soon into the story, we learn that Norman's health is failing, and he is lamenting no longer being the man he used to be, coping through sarcasm and pitiful humor.  This serves as another reason for the two to cling so close to each other.

There is also Chelsea, their only child, who as a grown woman wrestles with feelings of resentment and inadequacy due to not receiving the love and support she feels she should have gotten from her father.  She yearns for a past that cannot be changed and later shifts her focus to try to connect with her ailing father in the present.

At this point, everything I've told you can be found in both the film and the stage version upon which it is based.  What the film offers is the chance to see two screen legends, Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn, still at the top of their game, bringing Norman and Ethel Thayer to life in ways I doubt could have happened on stage.  Fonda, in his late seventies at the time of filming and also in bad health, brings a frailty to Norman that I don't think could have been accomplished on stage for the simple fact that an actor would require significant stamina to maintain the energy for a live performance and, therefore, wouldn't be able to get across Norman's diminished physicality quite as effectively.

As for Hepburn, her persona of being strong and independent flows into her portrayal of Ethel resulting in the central conflicts becoming more nuanced and powerful.  In scenes where she could easily have been the put-upon-wife, Hepburn instead creates a sense that Ethel is using her inner strength to support a man she deeply loves and to help keep him from falling away into old age and senility.  For the moments in which she appears to referee the resentment between Norman and Chelsea, she manages to be a guide that allows each to find his and her own way towards reconnection.  Again, these are qualities that would not readily come across in the stage version.

Of course, none of this assessment occurred to my six-year-old self while I watched the film in that dark theater so many years ago.  Only subsequent viewings and an inkling of life experience have allowed me to understand the deeper complexities of the film.  All I knew at the time was that I liked Ethel and I was afraid Norman was going to die at the end.  All very simple, visceral reactions to what I saw happening on the screen, which is, I believe, the point of it all anyway.

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