On Golden Pond (1981 film)

On Golden Pond

Movie poster by Bill Gold
Directed by Mark Rydell
Produced by Bruce Gilbert
Screenplay by Ernest Thompson
Based on On Golden Pond
by Ernest Thompson
Music by Dave Grusin
Cinematography Billy Williams
Edited by Robert L. Wolfe
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • December 4, 1981 (1981-12-04)
Running time
109 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $15 million[1]
Box office $119.3 million[2]

On Golden Pond is a 1981 American drama film directed by Mark Rydell. The screenplay by Ernest Thompson was adapted from his 1979 play of the same name.

Henry Fonda won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama and the Academy Award for Best Actor in what was his final film role. Co-star Katharine Hepburn won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role and the Academy Award for Best Actress as did Thompson for his script, and there were a further seven Oscar nominations for the film, including Jane Fonda, who played the daughter. The film co-starred Dabney Coleman and Doug McKeon.


An aging couple, Ethel and Norman Thayer, continue the long tradition of spending each summer at their cottage on a lake called Golden Pond, in the far reaches of northern New England. When they first arrive, Ethel notices the loons calling on the lake "welcoming them home". As they resettle into their summer home, Norman's memory problems arise when he is unable to recognize several family photographs, which he copes with by frequently talking about death and growing old. They are visited by their only child, a daughter, Chelsea, who is somewhat estranged from her curmudgeon of a father. She introduces her parents to her fiance Bill and his thirteen-year-old son Billy. Norman tries to play mind games with Bill, an apparent pastime of his, but Bill won't hear of it, saying he can only take so much. In another conversation, Chelsea discusses with Ethel her frustration over her relationship with her overbearing father, feeling that even though she lives thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, she still feels like she's answering to him. Before they depart for a European vacation, Chelsea and Bill ask the Thayers to permit Billy to stay with them while they have some time to themselves. Norman, seeming more senile and cynical than usual due to his 80th birthday and heart palpitations, agrees to Billy's staying. Ethel tells him that he's the sweetest man in the world, but she is the only one who knows it.

Billy is at first annoyed by being left with elderly strangers with no friends nearby and nothing to do. He resents Norman's brusque manner, but eventually comes to enjoy their Golden Pond fishing adventures together. Billy and Norman soon grow obsessed with catching Norman's fish rival, named "Walter", which leads to the accidental destruction of the Thayers' motorboat. Chelsea returns to find out her father has made good friends with her fiance's, now husband's, son. But when she sees the change in her father's demeanor, Chelsea attempts something Billy accomplished that she never could: a backflip. Chelsea successfully executes the dive in front of a cheering Norman, Billy, and Ethel. Chelsea and Norman finally fully embrace before she departs with Billy back home.

The final day on Golden Pond comes and the Thayers are loading the last of the boxes. Norman tries to move a heavy box, but starts having heart pain and collapses onto the floor of the porch. Ethel tries unsuccessfully to get the operator to phone the hospital. Norman then says the pain is gone and attempts to stand to say a final farewell to the lake. Ethel tells him she has always known about death but for the first time it felt real, thinking Norman was going to die on the spot. Ethel helps Norman to the edge of the lake where they see the loons and Norman notes how they are just like him and Ethel, that their offspring is grown and gone off on her own, and now it is just the two of them.

Production notes

Jane Fonda purchased the rights to the play specifically for her father, Henry Fonda, to play the role of the cantankerous Norman Thayer.[3] The father-daughter rift depicted on screen closely paralleled the real-life relationship between the two Fondas.

Screenwriter Thompson spent his summers along the shores of Great Pond, located in Belgrade, Maine, but the film was made on Squam Lake in Holderness, New Hampshire.[4] The house used in the film was leased from a New York physician and was modified significantly for the shoot: an entire second floor was added as a balcony over the main living area at the request of the production designer. After the shoot, the production company was contractually obligated to return the house to its original state but the owner liked the renovations so much that he elected to keep the house that way and asked the crew not to dismantle the second story. A gazebo and a small boathouse were also relocated during the shoot.

Despite their many common acquaintances and long careers in show business, Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn not only had never worked together, but had never met until working on the film. On the first day of shooting, Hepburn presented Henry Fonda with her longtime companion Spencer Tracy's "lucky" hat, which Fonda wore in the film. Hepburn, who was 74 at the time of filming, performed all her own stunts, including a dive into the pond. The scene in which Norman and step-grandson Billy run their boat into the rocks was filmed repeatedly. The vintage 1951 mahogany Chris-Craft boat, used strictly for the crash scene, was so sturdy that it kept bouncing off the rocks without any damage.[5][6][7] The crew had to modify the boat so it would break away in the wreck. The water level in Squam Lake was so low during the summer of production that Fonda and Doug McKeon could have stood during the scene in which they were supposedly clinging to the rocks for fear of drowning. The September water was barely knee-deep, but it was cold enough that the pair had to wear wetsuits under their clothes.Hepburn, on the other hand, dove into the water without the aid of the wetsuit because she wanted the scene to keep its authenticity. Some of the scenes in which Billy takes the boat out on his own were filmed on nearby Lake Winnipesaukee. While filming the scene where Fonda and Hepburn were watching the loons on the lake, the speedboat that zoomed by and disturbed them was so forceful it overturned their canoe in one take; Fonda was immediately taken out of the water and wrapped up in blankets as his health was fragile by that time. The speedboat was piloted by the screenwriter, Ernest Thompson.

When visiting Holderness, New Hampshire, one can take a boat tour of Squam Lake and view the filming sites from the movie. There is also a restaurant called "Walter's Basin", which is named after the trout called "Walter" that Billy catches with Norman. For filming, "Walter" was brought in from a trout pond at the nearby Castle in the Clouds estate. He was released after his capture back into Squam Lake. Leftover footage of Fonda and Hepburn driving through the New Hampshire countryside, as seen in the opening credits, was later used for the opening of the CBS television sitcom Newhart.

The studio behind the film was ITC Entertainment, the British company presided over (until late 1981) by Lord Grade, the television and film mogul. It was Grade who largely raised the financing for the film.

With a box office take of $119,285,432, On Golden Pond was the second-highest grossing film of the year, following Raiders of the Lost Ark, which earned $209,562,121.[8]


Critical reception

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times said "On Golden Pond was a treasure for many reasons, but the best one, I think, is that I could believe it. I could believe in its major characters and their relationships, and in the things they felt for one another, and there were moments when the movie was witness to human growth and change. I left the theater feeling good and warm, and with a certain resolve to try to mend my own relationships and learn to start listening better . . . watching the movie, I felt I was witnessing something rare and valuable."[9]

In his The New York Times review, Vincent Canby said, "As a successful Broadway play, On Golden Pond was processed American cheese, smooth, infinitely spreadable and bland, with color added by the actors . . . the movie . . . still American cheese, but its stars – Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Jane Fonda and Dabney Coleman – add more than color to this pasteurized product. On Golden Pond now has the bite of a good old cheddar . . . Mr. Fonda gives one of the great performances of his long, truly distinguished career. Here is film acting of the highest order . . . Miss Hepburn . . . is also in fine form. One of the most appealing things about her as an actress is the way she responds to – and is invigorated by – a strong co-star . . . she needs someone to support, challenge and interact with. Mr. Fonda is the best thing that's happened to her since Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart . . . an added pleasure is the opportunity to see Dabney Coleman [in] a role that goes beyond the caricatures he's usually given to play . . . On Golden Pond is a mixed blessing, but it offers one performance of rare quality and three others that are very good. That's not half-bad."[10]

TV Guide rates it 3½ out of a possible four stars, calling it "a beautifully photographed movie filled with poignancy, humor, and (of course) superb acting . . . there could have been no finer final curtain for [Henry Fonda] than this."[11] Channel 4 sums up its review by stating, "Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn both shine in an impressively executed Hollywood drama. [It] has its mawkish moments but there's a certain pleasure in that, and writer Thompson's analysis of old age is sensitive, thought-provoking and credible."[12]

Not all reviewers were impressed, however. David Kehr of the Chicago Reader called the film "the cinematic equivalent of shrink-wrapping, in which all of the ideas, feelings, characters, and images are neatly separated and hermetically sealed to prevent spoilage, abrasion, or any contact with the natural world . . . Mark Rydell's bright, banal visual style further sterilizes the issues. The film exudes complacency and self-congratulation; it is a very cowardly, craven piece of ersatz art."[13] Time Out London says, "Two of Hollywood's best-loved veterans deserved a far better swan song than this sticky confection."[14] Mad magazine satirized the octogenarian-themed film in their typical unsubtle manner, titling it On Olden Pond.

American Film Institute recognition


Academy Awards[18]
Golden Globes


  1. Box Office Information for On Golden Pond. The Wrap. Retrieved April 4, 2013.
  2. "On Golden Pond, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved March 9, 2012.
  3. "Barbarella comes of age", The Age, May 14, 2005. Accessed January 9, 2008. "If Barbarella was an act of rebellion, On Golden Pond (1981) was a more mature rapprochement: Fonda bought the rights to Ernest Thompson's play to offer the role to her father."
  4. Squam Lake website
  5. The Brass Bell – Official Publication of the Antique Boat Club serving the interests of owners of Chris Craft and other antique and classic boats. October 1985. p. 10.
  6. Savage, Jack. "Chris-Craft – Enthusiast Color Series". P. 79
  7. New Hampshire Business Review. May 1982.
  8. On Golden Pond at BoxOfficeMojo.com
  9. Chicago Sun-Times review
  10. New York Times review
  11. TV Guide review
  12. Channel 4 review
  13. Chicago Reader review
  14. Time Out London review
  15. AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies Nominees
  16. AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes Nominees
  17. AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) Nominees
  18. "The 54th Academy Awards (1982) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-10-08.
Wikiquote has quotations related to: On Golden Pond (1981 film)

* Squam Lake (On Golden Pond) Official Website

Preceded by
Coming Home
Academy Award winner for Best Actor and Best Actress Succeeded by
The Silence of the Lambs
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