Film review: On Golden Pond (1981)

Dec 22, 2017

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Film review: On Golden Pond (1981)

Film review: On Golden Pond (1981)

Posted in : All, Film Reviews on by : Kinga Antal

“Sometimes you have to look hard at a person and remember that he’s doing the best he can”

An elderly couple, Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) and Norman (Henry Fonda), return to their lake house on Golden Pond. Although they are expecting a quiet summer by themselves, their daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) visits them and they agree to take in her boyfriend’s teenage son for the summer.

Missing puzzle pieces – the film’s portrayal of dementia

Norman is said to have always been a difficult person, however it does seem that things have been getting worse lately. He is easily upset and angry at things that no one is to blame for. He snaps at unexpected moments and never cares to apologize or explain himself. The movie lines up plenty of small scenes which hint to Norman’s condition. For example, as he keeps staring at an old family photo he asks himself in a distressed manner: “Who are these people?”. He then proceeds to call the telephone exchange only to forget he was the one calling them and begins to question the operator why he called him. Upon Ethel’s return from her walk in the woods she starts telling Norman about the new neighbours: “I met this nicest couple in the woods” – “A couple of what?” he snaps instantly. He also confuses numbers; after listening to a story about a 79-year-old lady he re-tells the story but the woman becomes 97 in his account.

Also worth mentioning is the scene, where he blames the postman for breaking their door and requests him to fix it, when in fact it was broken from the moment they have arrived to the house. To add to the crumbling image, he doesn’t seem to care about societal norms and common courtesy one bit. He purposefully mocks and teases others around him. It is sometimes difficult to tell if Norman’s anger and bitterness are due to his slowly creeping condition, or if it is his nature as the movie hints at his ‘impossible’ personality from the get go. His biting and often self-ironic humour lightens the mood however. In his birthday scene, he makes fun of himself for his own forgetting, as he gives his own toast: “I’m glad to have spent so much time with this beautiful woman… what’s your name again?” as he hugs Ethel closer, smiling. His jokes still paint him as a quick-witted mind, but his own agony over his forgetting is a tell-tale sign of the fact that his condition is getting worse.

Panic, shame and worry – the most striking scene

In an almost thriller-like scene, Norman is sent out for a simple little walk in the neighbourhood to pick strawberries. He soon becomes completely disoriented in the forest and despite knowing the area like the palm of his hand, he gets lost. The agony and desperation with which Fonda conveys Norman’s confusion and panic, makes the viewer feel like being inside Norman’s head. He pulls us into the experience of that fearful and disoriented state of not finding his way while being well-aware that something is going wrong as he’s supposed to know the path well. Upon returning home, he keeps what happened from Ethel and only shares his experience with her some time later. He is both shook and embarrassed about what had happened and what keeps happening to him; his forgetfulness and neglectful behaviour is becoming dangerous to him and later to others as well.

“That’s why I came running back to you. So your pretty face would make me feel safe that it was still me”

Billy and Norman – the beginning of a beautiful friendship

„You mustn’t get upset at Norman, Billy. He wasn’t yelling at you… He was yelling at life.”

The movie tells the story of a beautifully unlikely relationship that blossoms between Norman and Billy – a neglected child, whose feelings of abandonment get the better of him as he has a lot of misdirected anger; just like Norman. In a very touching scene Billy calls out Norman for yelling at him without any good reason. Almost completely out of character, Norman genuinely apologizes to the 13-year-old boy. Though a seemingly strange match, Billy the neglected pre-teen and Norman the elderly man struggling with his dementia make a great pair, and have more in common than one would assume. They connect through their mutual love of fishing and taking the boat out for a spin on the lake. Billy learns that there are plenty of ‘cool’ and ‘fun’ things to learn from the 80-year-old Norman, and Norman realises how much the little rebel can teach him about compassion, patience and camaraderie. As Ethel points out, Norman is angry at the world for his confusion. So is Billy for being constantly left behind by his parents. Their friendship builds them up and brings out the best of both of them. It fills their time at Golden Pond with meaning and transforms their outlook on life.

“He’s trying to find his way… just like you”

Representation and de-stigmatization – why the movie matters

This movie has historical significance in terms of dementia portrayal. It was one of the first Hollywood productions with big names to portray this condition, and showcase it through the main character in detail as a multidimensional issue. When this film was released in the beginning of the 80’s it was somewhat of a taboo topic still – people assumed that ‘forgetting’ just comes with old age. Although today dementia and related illnesses appear to be common knowledge as so many families are affected by them, this movie played a role in bringing public awareness to it and starting this conversation.

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