The Set-Up: Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda had never worked together before On Golden Pond, for which they both won the Best Actor Oscars that year. In fact, they had never met. When they did, at the behest of director Mark Rydell and author Ernest Thompson, they shook hands, hugged and regaled each other with stories about mutual acquaintances.
I don't suppose much work got done, but a lot of history was reviewed.
Whatever one may think of Thompson's work—and the film is less manic than the play—that it paired these two lions of the cinema is something that one must pay homage to. Fonda was at the end of his life, and a lot of the work he'd been doing was not great. Hepburn, after the death of her love Spencer Tracy, threw herself into work and rarely stopped, usually picking tough roles with strong co-stars who had the capacity to keep up with her as Tracy did, starting with Peter O'Toole in The Lion in Winter. In the 80's, she was actively seeking roles opposite strong actors with whom she'd never worked including Fonda, Laurence Olivier (in the George Cukor-directed TV-movie "Love Among the Ruins,") and John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn—a sort of grafting of The African Queen and True Grit.
Both Fonda and Hepburn were pro's. They could milk the juice out of scenes, him with restraint, her with exuberance. As a pair, they were a bit like fire and ice. But, they could spark off each other, the way Tracy could working with Hepburn. Fonda, weak and frail, shows more vulnerability than he ever had before except when playing comedies. Hepburn, frail herself, displays steel in this scene, but never wavers her commitment, getting into Fonda's face during this scene. Both must have been calling on their pasts for this (and, indeed, on the first day of filming, Hepburn gave Fonda Tracy's old beat-up hat). The excellent cinematographer, Billy Williams, claims to have shot the film without filters, so as to see every earned wrinkle in the actors' faces. And this scene, with its long last shot done in one take (and a difficult tracking move—with a "bump" in it that Williams regrets to this day), shows two old pros going into uncomfortable acting territory for them both.
I saw Katherine Hepburn performing on-stage once...interestingly enough in Thompson's later play "The West Side Waltz." It was well-timed as to be a gift to my Mother on Mother's Day—she was a big fan of Hepburn's, having won a "Hepburn look-alike" contest in college. The play was clever enough, but the reason to go was to see Kate...live...74 years, at that time, and a spit-fire, a small figure commanding the stage, the play and the audience. One of those memories that contains not a shred of regret. She would film On Golden Pond the next month. She left us in 2003. Happy belated birthday. Thanks for the gifts.
The Story: Retired professor Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda) and his wife Ethel (Katherine Hepburn) make their trek to their cabin getaway on Golden Pond, the occasion being a planned get-together with daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) for Norman's birthday. Norman's been sent on an errand to get strawberries but came back soon enough to harangue the local mailman, Charlie.
ETHEL THAYER: Norman! The loons are teaching their baby to fly.
ETHEL: Isn't that exciting?
NORMAN THAYER, JR.: Listen to this. "Retired people sought for handbill delivery. Some walking involved." I should call. I can walk.
ETHEL: Is that why you came rushing back here? To read those goddamned ads?
NORMAN: I couldn't remember where the old town road was.
NORMAN: I wandered a way in the woods. There was nothing familiar. Not one damn tree.
NORMAN: Scared me half to death.
NORMAN: That's why I came running back here to you...
NORMAN: ...to see your pretty face.
NORMAN: I could feel safe I was still me.
ETHEL: You're safe, you old poop.
ETHEL: And you're definitely still you...pickin' on poor old Charlie.
ETHEL: After lunch...after we've gobbled up all those silly strawberries...we'll take ourselves to the old town road.
ETHEL: We've been there a thousand times, darling. A thousand. And you'll remember it all.
ETHEL: Listen to me, mister.
ETHEL: You're my knight in shining armor. Don't you forget it.
ETHEL: You're gonna get back on that horse...and I'm gonna be right behind you, holding on tight...and away we're gonna go, go, go!
NORMAN: I don't like horses.
NORMAN: You are a pretty old dame, aren't you?
NORMAN: What are you doin' with a dotty old son of a bitch like me?
ETHEL: Well, I haven't the vaguest idea.
On Golden Pond
Words by Ernest Thompson
Pictures by Billy Williams and Mark Rydell
On Golden Pond is available on DVD from Artisan Home Entertainment.