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On Golden Pond
Remind Me

On Golden Pond

The highest grossing film of 1981 and winner of three Academy Awards, On Golden Pond almost became an unproduced screenplay because no one was interested in financing it. An off-Broadway play that caught the attention of Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, the story centered around an elderly couple dealing with the intricate dynamics of a life together and the relationships with their own families, primarily focusing on the estrangement between the father and his daughter. Both actors were in their seventies; Fonda's rapidly declining health was well known in Hollywood and Hepburn's palsy was worsening. Unable to find a backer to foot a $7 million production tab, the script found its way to Fonda's daughter Jane, a two-time Oscar® winning actress by that point.

According to her biography, Citizen Jane, by Christopher Andersen, "Her first reaction to the script was, 'I could hear my father saying those words.' She called Hank as soon as she put the screenplay down. 'It's wonderful,' she told him. 'I want to play the daughter.' At first he balked - the part was too small for her, he pointed out. But Jane was excited about this golden opportunity - to bridge the emotional gap that had always separated them." The relationship between the two Fondas had always been strained: Henry had a lifelong reputation of being distant and cold, and Jane was fiercely independent and certainly no stranger to controversy. The younger Fonda realized, however, that time with her father was running out and it had been a lifelong dream to work together with him on a film. She also saw his role in On Golden Pond as one that could garner him the elusive Oscar® his career thus far had inexplicably not provided. Her production company quickly raised the funds, and shooting started quickly thereafter.

Surprisingly enough, Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn had never made a film together before; in fact, they had never even met! A few of the accounts differ, but most stories go that Hepburn, in classic Kate fashion, strode confidently up to Fonda, hand outstretched and exclaimed, "Well, it's about time!" Jane was not there at the historic meeting; she was on a research road trip with her costar from Nine to Five (1980), Dolly Parton. Hepburn, however, interpreted her absence as a slight, making their first meeting a little more than awkward. Jane Fonda's autobiography My Life So Far recalls the event: "'I don't like you!' said Katharine Hepburn, pointing her finger straight at my face, her anger making the famous voice and classic head, which quivered at the best of times, shake with tsunamic tremors. I have never met the legendary actor before, and it was a terrible moment...terrible not only because someone only a notch below God was damming me, but also because in less than two weeks she was supposed to travel to New Hampshire to begin rehearsing On Golden Pond with my father and me."

The tensions, however, quickly dissipated between the two actresses; Fonda quickly caught on that while Hepburn tested the younger actress often, she was also a pillar of strength and support for Jane throughout the filming. In the script, Jane's character does a back flip into the water, something the actress was absolutely counting on a stunt double to perform...until Kate asked her if she intended to perform the stunt herself! For weeks, Fonda practiced the dive until she finally perfected it. Climbing out of the water, exhausted and shaking, she was surprised by Hepburn appearing seemingly out of nowhere. "She wrapped me in a towel and said, 'How do you feel?' recalled Fonda in Citizen Jane. "When I told her I felt great, she smiled and said, 'Of course you do. Nothing is more important than overcoming fear.'" Later, in her own autobiography, My Life So Far, Fonda stated, "It was odd. In the film the back flip was to prove myself to my father. In real life I had proved myself to Ms. Hepburn."

It could certainly be argued that Jane used On Golden Pond as a kind of therapy to work on the issues with her father; in Henry Fonda's biography My Life, she said, "I knew what that woman in the movie was feeling. My father could still evoke the same emotion in me as he evoked when I was young. Here was this forty-three-year-old woman whose dad determined her life. We were supposed to look at each other at one point with a tremendous amount of intensity and hostility." The filming allowed for a few breakthrough moments for father and daughter, both personally and professionally. During one of the most emotionally-charged scenes of the film, Jane relates a turning point. From My Life So Far:

"We had rehearsed many times, and I had stifled the urge to touch his arm, wanting to save it for when it would matter most: his close-up. Dad very rarely had tears on camera, and I wanted him to have tears in this scene, which meant so much to me on a personal level. When the moment came and the camera was rolling for that close-up, I reached out and placed my hand on his arm as I said, 'I want to be your friend.' What I saw amazed me: for a millisecond he was caught off-guard. He seemed angry, even: This isn't what we rehearsed. Then the emotions hit him, tears came to his eyes, then anger again as he tensed up and looked away. All this, though barely visible to the camera, was palpably clear to me, and my heart went out to him. I loved him so much just then. It amazes me what a great actor he was in spite of his fear of spontaneity and real emotions."

For a film that no one wanted to pay for, those involved were richly rewarded. Not only did On Golden Pond earn more than $100 million, but all three actors received nominations for their performances. Jane lost hers to Maureen Stapleton for her role in Reds (1981), but both Hepburn and Fonda won: her fourth, his first. Jane accepted the statuette on behalf of Henry, now too ill to leave home. An hour later, she was by his bedside with her family; in typical Fonda fashion, he whispered, "It was in the wind." Jane still calls the night, "The happiest moment of my life." Fonda died five months later; in her autobiography she concludes, "I was grateful for having had On Golden Pond with him and that I'd managed to tell him I loved him before it was too late. I could feel myself making peace with the fact that though he hadn't given me all I needed from him, he'd given me plenty."

Producer: Bruce Gilbert
Director: Mark Rydell
Screenplay: Ernest Thompson
Cinematography: Billy Williams
Film Editing: Robert L. Wolfe
Art Direction: Stephen Grimes
Music: Dave Grusin
Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Ethel Thayer), Henry Fonda (Norman Thayer, Jr.), Jane Fonda (Chelsea Thayer Wayne), Doug McKeon (Billy Ray), Dabney Coleman (Bill Ray), William Lanteau (Charlie Martin).
C-109m. Letterboxed.

by Eleanor Quin