Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kathryn Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, Dabney Coleman, Doug McKeon
Director:  Mark Rydell
Audio:  Dolby Digital Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Live Entertainment
Features:  See Review
Length:  105 Minutes
Release Date:  May 19, 1998

Film ****

It's clear, maybe now more than back then, when you watch On Golden Pond, that you're witnessing a very special, magical moment in motion picture history, and for many reasons.  Chiefly, this was Henry Fonda's last film before his death, and it garnered him an Oscar for his work.  This was also the only screen pairing of him and Hepburn, two of Hollywood's true legends.  It was the only pairing of Henry with daughter Jane, and you get the sense watching the film that some of their real life wounds were healed during the making of it.  Plus, it's just an extraordinary picture all around, and one that seems to grow more and more meaningful when you watch it.

The story takes place on a summer cottage overlooking a beautiful lake.  Norman and Ethel Thayer (Henry and Kate) have arrived for the summer.  Both are elderly, but have taken different views on aging.  Ethel still feels full of life, while Norman is bitter about losing the virility of his youthful body and mind, and growing closer to his own death.

When their daughter Chelsea (Jane) comes for Norman's 80th birthday with fiancée Bill (Coleman) and his son Billy (McKeon), it's clear that there is a long history of tension between father and daughter, one that ultimately leads to an emotional confrontation at the film's climax.

It almost feels trivial to sit here and write about the storyline to this movie.  After all, there's so much more going on in this picture than just a plot.  What makes this movie great is the way it shows through both dialogue and symbolism our reaction to the one great inevitable, death, and we as the audience tend to think about that ourselves a little as we watch these people deal with the subject.

When this picture came out, I was 11 years old, and I loved the movie.  It was warm, funny, and filled with great people.  I could identify with Billy's character, who was 13.

Now, I'm 29, and exactly the same distance from Billy's age of 13 to Bill's age of 45, and when I watch the movie now, it's a bit deeper experience than when I was a child.  I think if I'm lucky enough to get to be 80 myself, this film will continue to grow in meaning to me over the course of those years.  And that's something that's truly extraordinary.

Video **1/2

The picture shows it's age a little bit, and considering the lush cinematography of the lake and woods, it's a real shame that a little restoration effort wasn't put into it.  As such, it looks better than a VHS copy of the movie, but not as good as most DVD's—an anamorphic transfer might have helped a bit.  Plus there's a really distracting layer switch change between two scenes that overlaps the previous image with the new one. 

Audio **

The soundtrack is only Dolby 2.0, but given the film's relative lack of explosions and crashes, serves nicely enough.  I didn't notice anything happening behind me, but I didn't really miss it.  This is a quiet film, with a quiet but beautiful score by Dave Grusin.

Features ****

The disc includes an extraordinary recently made documentary on the making of the film, which features Jane Fonda, Coleman, McKeon, writer Thompson and director Rydell.  The documentary is as moving as the picture, as the principals recall working with Henry Fonda and Kathryn Hepburn, and knowing it would probably be Henry's last film.  The stories are amazing, warm, and told with much love.  There's also a trailer, and a wonderful commentary by Rydell, who's a soft spoken, unassuming man who really relishes his memories of a magical moviemaking experience.


It's a shame the disc didn't look a little better, but you can't ask for a better movie, nor for such wonderful, meaningful features.  I'm grateful for the durability of the DVD medium in this case, because this is a film I, like many, look forward to growing old with.