Sunday, December 04, 2011

Golden Performances

"Sometimes you have to look hard at a person and remember he's doing the best he can. He's just trying to find his way, just like you."

Ethel Thayer (Katharine Hepburn)

I always admired Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn.

And it was a treat to see the two of them together, finally.

You know, when you consider their lengthy Hollywood careers and their many mutual acquaintances, it really is astonishing that they had never made a film together until "On Golden Pond."

When they did, though, they made movie magic.

I thought of this recently when I was watching "On Golden Pond" for what may be the 10th time in the last 30 years. I saw it when it was at the theaters, and I have seen it several times on TV. And I realized, as I watched it, that it is the kind of film that still speaks to people in all phases of life — even 30 years after it was released.

It even mirrored the relationship between Fonda and his own children.

I guess I was a little older than the actor who played Billy, the young boy whose character was left with Hepburn and Fonda for the summer while Fonda's real–life daughter Jane and her boyfriend in the movie (played by Dabney Coleman) went to Europe together. Consequently, I guess, I related more to his responses to things.

But, during more recent viewings, I have related more to Jane Fonda, who was probably in her 40s at the time, and her relationship with her father. And, I presume, if I live long enough, there will come a time when I will watch it and relate more to Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn than to the others.

I don't know if "On Golden Pond" was the best film either Hepburn or the elder Fonda ever made. They both won Oscars for it. That was not a new experience for Hepburn. She had been nominated 11 times before, and she had gone home with the statuette on three of those occasions. But it was the only time Fonda won, even though he had been nominated once before.

Really, Fonda should have been nominated more often. I don't think anyone could look at the body of his work and not conclude that he got short–changed by the Academy on several occasions.

That other nomination was in recognition of his work in "The Grapes of Wrath," which was a great movie, but what about "12 Angry Men?" Or "The Lady Eve?" Or "The Ox–Bow Incident?" Or "Mister Roberts?" Or "Fail–Safe?"

Or any of more than 100 brilliant performances over the years?

Perhaps the folks who voted for the Oscars in the early 1980s realized that Fonda had been overlooked, taken for granted. He had been a steady, reliable actor for decades — and he was dying. His health had been failing, and "On Golden Pond" seemed likely to be his final film — which it was.

Consequently, when he received the Oscar for his performance in the spring of 1982, it was seen by many as the Academy's way of rewarding him for a lifetime of brilliant performances — although some saw it as recognition for a singularly great performance.

Either way, it was well deserved. Unfortunately, Fonda was too ill to attend the ceremony, but Jane accepted his award for him — and later acknowledged that "it came just in the nick [of time]." Her father died a few months later.

But on that spring evening in 1982, I remember watching her accept that award and feeling deeply moved in a way that I have seldom felt.

Clearly astonished, Jane Fonda made her way to the stage, where Sissy Spacek gave her the statuette for her father, and Fonda looked directly into the camera and said, "Oh, Dad, I'm so happy and proud for you."

Fonda went on to say that she was sure her father's first reaction, upon hearing the news, had been " 'Ain't I lucky?' As if luck had anything to do with it. ... He has tremendous respect for the other actors who were nominated and has always felt a little strange about these things, these competitions, because it's like comparing apples and oranges. He feels very proud to have been among such a wonderful group."

As anyone who ever saw even one of his performances knows, Fonda was pretty special himself.

Roger Ebert said the experience of watching "On Golden Pond" was "something rare and valuable," and he attributed much of that to the acting. I can't argue with that.

What made the acting as great as it was? Its realistic portrayal of the stages of life.

Hepburn, of course, was her great self. Her character was the glue that held her family together, and that was something to which just about everyone could relate — because there is one of those in darn near every family.

Likewise, Henry Fonda's character tended to be a bit distant, a bit standoffish, perhaps a little rough, but you always suspected it was more a defense mechanism, intended to keep others from discovering the truth — which, in Fonda's case, was the realization that he was gradually losing his grip on his mental and physical health. Many families have at least one of those, too.

Jane Fonda played their adult daughter who had to confront issues that went back to her childhood. Those issues were complicated by the fact that Billy, in the space of a month, had forged the kind of relationship with her father that had eluded her for decades.

"Don't you think everyone looks back on their childhood with a certain amount of bitterness and regret about something?" Hepburn asked her at one point. "It doesn't have to ruin your life."

That's good, honest writing — but it takes good, honest acting to bring it to life and make it meaningful for the audience.

"On Golden Pond" had an abundance of talented actors, right down to young Doug McKeon, whose character felt abandoned by his father when he was left in the care of Hepburn and the elder Fonda and frequently spoke of "bullshit" — perhaps for the shock value, perhaps because it really expressed what he felt. I never felt the audience could be sure, and I wasn't really sure it mattered.

But I enjoyed an exchange he had with Henry Fonda after saying that fishing was "bullshit."

"You like that word, don't you?" Fonda asked. "Bullshit."

"Yeah," McKeon replied, almost defiantly.

Fonda nodded. "It's a good word."

Henry Fonda and McKeon bonded on the screen and may have had the best dialogue exchanges.

When they first met, McKeon observed that Fonda's character was marking his 80th birthday. "Man, that's really old," the teenager said.

"You should meet my father," Fonda said.

"Your father is still alive?" McKeon asked incredulously.

"No," Fonda said, "but you should meet him."

Ironically, Fonda didn't live to see his 80th birthday, but just about everyone who saw him in "On Golden Pond" must have felt that they knew him.