Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Recasting 1981 (supporting): "On Golden Pond"

Jane Fonda purchased the film rights to Ernest Thompson's 1979 play, On Golden Pond, with the specific intention of having her father star in it. She and her father, screen veteran Henry Fonda, apparently had a similarly strained relationship that paralleled the lives of the father and daughter depicted in the story. The screen version was filmed in 1980, and was released in late 1981 to critical acclaim and major box office success. Katharine Hepburn famously co-starred in her last Oscar-nominated role (a performance for which she also won). 

It's a bit difficult to imagine a scenario that might've included Streep in the role of the younger Fonda. But as I've commented numerous other times in my pair of recasting projects to date, stranger things have happened. It's been documented that Jimmy Stewart was interested in acquiring the rights prior to Fonda having secured them. I've also read that he was offered the lead role of Norman, but I find that more difficult to believe, considering Jane Fonda had her father in mind for the part from the beginning. Had Stewart snuck in before the younger Fonda had, Hepburn would also seem like a natural choice as his co-star. She and Stewart had starred in the 1940 film, The Philadelphia Story, which just so happened to be filmed forty years to the month prior to On Golden Pond. And then it could've been anyone's guess who would've ended up portraying Chelsea, Norman and Ehthel's somewhat estranged, only child. Why not Meryl?

One of the obvious first questions that comes to mind is that of age. The character of Norman is about to turn 80 when he and his wife, Ethel (Hepburn) return to their summer home on a lake called Golden Pond somewhere in New England. While Henry Fonda would've technically only been 75 during filming, that's still a pretty big stretch to expect to see his character's only child to be around 30 (Streep would've turned 31 a month prior to filming). Ethel is supposed to be in her late 60s, which is a bit more plausible, if atypical for most American families in the mid 20th century. But if the story were changed ever so slightly to have Norman turning 75, we'd have a pair of parents whose estranged daughter was born when they were in their early forties. As mentioned, that wasn't common back then, but even Meryl's own parents were in their mid to late 30s when they had Meryl (the oldest of three), with her father being in his early forties when he fathered his last child. If we imagined that same scenario for Norman and Ethel, it actually might add some interesting backstory as to why Chelsea and her father didn't always see eye to eye. Had the couple perhaps either not wanted children when Chelsea came along, or had struggled for a long time to conceive only to have a girl, there are some inherent complications and potential resentments at play that could've fueled the actors' performances. The same could be true if Dabney Coleman remained in the cast as Chelsea's boyfriend (then husband), Billy Ray, who is seventeen years older than Meryl. Not to get too Freudian, but some might suggest that seeking or being interested in the romantic affections of partners much older is not an uncommon feature in folks who had a detached or strained relationship with their father. We don't really get a concrete sense of that for Chelsea and Norman in the film. Were they to play it in a way similar to what I suggest here...who knows? It would not only allow for fewer raised eyebrows in response to the age gaps, but possibly even enhance our understanding of the characters' motivations, fears and regrets.


I'm not sure how thrilled Meryl would've been to be in a bathing suit for some scenes, but I imagine she'd have been great at the back flip. Part of what has made this film so appealing to me over the years is how closely its setting resembles much of my upbringing. My parents have owned a cabin in northern Minnesota since I was a child, and so many of my summers were filled spending time on boats, in the woods, on porches, in lakes, and around campfires. The cinematography is extremely nostalgic, as it so well captures the essence of lake culture in the great American forests of the North and Northeast. I actually didn't see this movie until I was an adult, but young Billy Ray Jr. (Doug McKeon) does such a splendid job that the first time I watched it I was almost immediately drawn into his experience. 

As mentioned above, On Golden Pond was a huge hit in 1981. In addition to it being the second-highest-grossing film of that year, it was nominated for ten Academy Awards (including Best Picture). Hepburn and the senior Fonda both won in lead as well, with Thompson scoring a win for Best Adapted Screenplay. It would've been amazing to see Meryl opposite Katharine Hepburn (who probably hadn't made her negative comments about Meryl being her least favorite actress by that point yet). I wonder if that would've changed if they'd worked together, as it seemed to have changed Hepburn's less than stellar impression of Jane Fonda prior to when they filmed. I'm sure I've mentioned this somewhere else in this blog at some point, but Meryl was the frontrunner that year for her lead performance in The French Lieutenant's Woman. I would love to have seen the final tallies in her category. Had she squeaked it out over Hepburn, and things played out the same way over the next thirty years of awards, Hepburn would've finished with three lead wins and Streep would be sitting at three lead and one supporting wins. Jane Fonda was nominated in supporting that year as well (Maureen Stapleton won for Reds), and after already having two lead wins for Klute and Coming Home, Hepburn famously phoned Fonda after the ceremony (which Hepburn did not attend of course) and quipped, "You'll never catch me now!"


  1. Love that story of Hepburn's phonecall and secret competitiveness! I must watch this movie soon