On Golden Pond (1981): Mark Rydell’s Oscar Winning Family Melodrama, Starring Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn and Jane Fonda

Historical Teamings

Mark Rydell’s On Golden Pond marks the only screen teaming of father Henry and daughter Jane, whose real-life relationship was reportedly as tense and wary as that of Norman and Chelsea. The movie is also the only screen teaming of Henry Fonda and Hepburn, who in the 1970s went out of her way to appear with all the screen icons–including John Wayne, in Rooster Cogburn–that she had missed in her youth.

Cantankerous retired professor Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda) and his lovingly loyal wife Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) arrive at their summer cabin in New England, just as they have been doing year after year for the past half a century.

Except that this year, the couple are joined by their daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda), who brings along her new fiance Bill Ray (Dabney Coleman) and his 13-year-old son from a previous marriage, Billy (Doug McKeon). They plan to leave Billy at the cottage while they had for a vacation in Europe.


Crabby old Norman is fretting about getting oldhes nearing 80and has never gotten along with Chelsea. However, when Billy is left with him for a few days, he somehow gets through the kids veneer of toughness. Eventually, with the aid of his wife, he effects reconciliation with his daughter, too.

As a social problem picture–a family melodrama–one of the few efforts from Hollywood to deal with aging and dementia on the big screen, “On Golden Pond” does a good public service. But, ultimately, it’s the inspired casting that elevates the sentimental melodrama, which is like an upscale TV drama. Screenrwiter Ernest Thompson, working from his hit play, and director Mark Rydell try to open up the work with shots of the lake and birds and nature, but the whole thing smacks of theatricality.


Possibly intimidated by the caliber of talent, Rydell (also a former actor), not a particularly good director in the first place, allows his two stars to take center-stage, and inevitably gets some good moments from each one of them, particularly Fonda. At 75, frail and unhealthy, Henry Fonda must have realized this was his last screen roleand his last chance of wining the elusive Oscar. The three-generational plot appealed to the public and the movie became a huge box-office success, further helped by the multiple Oscar nominations and awards.

Oscar Nominations: 10

Picture, produced by Bruce Gilbert

Director: Mark Rydell

Screenplay (Adapted): Ernest Thompson

Actor: Henry Fonda

Actress: Katharine Hepburn

Supporting Actress: Jane Fonda

Cinematography: Billy Williams

Film Editing: Robert L. Wolfe

Sound: Richard Portman

Original Score: David Grusin

Oscar awards: 3

Screenplay Actor Actress

Oscar Context

In 1981, the British sports melodrama “Chariots of Fire” was the surprise winner of the Best Picture Oscar, with 7 nominations and four awards, including Original Score to Vangelis.

The other four nominees were (alphabetically): Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City,” The schmaltzy family saga “On Golden Pod,” with 10 nods, Warren Beatty’s semi-successful epic “Reds,” which received the largest number of nominations (12), and Spielberg’s nostalgic adventure “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

The winner of the Supporting Actress Oscar was Maureen Stapleton for “Reds.” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” won the Sound and Editing Oscars.


(ITC Films/IPC Productions)