November 16, 1981
Photo Editor: Arnold H. Drapkin

Hebpurn and Fonda in “On Golden Pond”

At Last, Kate and Hank!

On Golden Pond burnishes age with the art of Hepburn and Fonda.

It begins with images of serenity: wild flowers gently stirring in an almost imperceptible spring breeze; loons, bright-eyed and sleek, afloat on untroubled waters; the lake itself shimmering in the backlight of a dying sun. The first glimpses of Golden Pond are washed with the kind of burnished light that colors our recollections of better places and better times past.

The first glimpses of the aged couple who are reopening their comfortable old summer house are suffused with a similar light, though that is more a trick of the moviegoer's memory than of the cinematographer's art. For Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda arrive in On Golden Pond bearing with them not merely their vacation baggage but a montage of beloved images assembled from a combined 95 years of motion picture acting in 129 features, not to mention uncounted stage and television appearances.

Spunky Kate and Honest Hank! If people were allowed to vote on such matters, the pair would probably be grandparents to an entire nation, since they are among the very few movie stars who have gone on working while four or five movie generations have grown up. By this time, their personal crotchets and graces, the events in the chronicle of their lives, have merged in the public mind with fragments from all those movies. Down the long corridor of the years, it seems we have encountered them at every turning. When they were young they gave lessons in romance; in middle age they taught steadfastness and honor; now it seems not only right but almost inevitable that they should come together--astonishingly--for the first time, to share some of the pains and puzzlements of age with us.

It comes as a gift that the vehicle is literately written by Ernest Thompson and sensitively directed by Mark Rydell. On Golden Pond is a mature movie, and for the first time in years that does not make it an oddity. The youth audience the film industry has been wooing for more than a decade is growing up. According to an industry source, 43% of those Americans who regularly go to movies are now over 29 (only 25% were in that age group eight years ago). Very few major movies aimed at adolescents are being released this holiday season. Instead, the next weeks will offer Ragtime, an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's panoramic vision of turn-of-the-century America; Reds, Warren Beatty's life of Revolutionary John Reed; Absence of Malice, a serious examination of journalistic ethics; and Whose Life Is It Anyway?, which is about euthanasia. Even the new John Belushi-Dan Aykroyd feature is far from Animal House; it is an adaptation of Thomas Berger's Neighbors, a farcically structured but coruscating novel about friendship. As if to stress the point, such legendary figures as James Cagney and Fred Astaire will be back on-screen before the year turns.

In any season, On Golden Pond would be welcome. Like last year's Ordinary People, the film addresses itself seriously and intelligently, without sermon or sociology, to an inescapable human issue: in this case, finding a decent ending for a life. By inviting audiences to contemplate the struggle of two attractively idiosyncratic old parties coming to terms with mortality, On Golden Pond gently requires them to confront that same inevitability in themselves. In short, those serene images of the film's opening are deceptive; age is not entirely golden on Golden Pond; dark currents flow just beneath its surface.

As the lives of Norman Thayer Jr. and his wife Ethel unfold, it becomes apparent that they have been spared none of the vicissitudes of aging except poverty. He is a retired professor, and there is obviously good breeding and a bit of money in their backgrounds. But the isolation of old age is upon them. No close friends are left on the pond; their only child Chelsea has been estranged from her father since childhood and now almost never comes home. Divorced, childless, she is living the worrisome ad hoc life of the fortyish woman who is still trying to find herself. The promise of a visit from her before the summer ends does not cheer Norman.

But then, it seems, nothing could. He suffers from angina; he suffers from the thought of his approaching 80th birthday that is to be the occasion for Chelsea's return; he suffers from a constant preoccupation with death. "Don't you have anything else to think about?" his wife inquires. "Nothing quite as interesting," he answers. There is a bitterness as well as wit in that reply, as there is in most of Norman's sinker-ball deliveries. But bitter or not, jokes are Norman's last line of defense, for if he is afraid of dying, he also dreads living mentally and physically diminished. He can't remember things--the faces in an old photograph near the phone or, for that matter, why he picked up the phone in the first place. He can no longer do simple chores--can't repair the screen door, can't start a fire in the fireplace without imperiling the house. One day Ethel seeking to get him stirring, sends him out to pick berries. He becomes confused, can't recall the turns in the road, and stumbles home in shame. In one of the film's most moving moments, he confesses to Ethel why he returned so quickly: "I was scared to death--that's why I came running back. To see your pretty face, to feel safe."

In his wife's deliberately overstated response-she insists he is still her "knight in shining armor"--there is irony. For as Norman's apologist and mediator between him and his daughter, him and the world, she has become the defender of his faltering faith in himself and the emotional stability of their narrowing world.

Soon Ethel is harder at work than usual as a go-between. Chelsea arrives with her new lover, Bill (well played by Dabney Coleman), a dentist whose laid-back manner does not hide a will hard as a platinum inlay. Then there is his 13-year-old son, Billy (Doug McKeon, who gets the bravado, vulnerability and candor of adolescence just right). He is toughing out a feeling that since Mom and Dad divorced he is essentially homeless, that the idea of dumping him with the old folks while Dad and Chelsea go to Europe is desertion.

Things do not begin promisingly. Norman will still not concede his daughter is an adult ("Look at this fat little girl" is his greeting), and soon he is hectoring Bill about where he and Chelsea will sleep ("You could have the room where I first violated Ethel"). As for Billy, he is wary, always ready to sulk or run. But there are possibilities in the situation. It could break Norman's habit of turning ever more tightly in on himself, and teach Billy his conviction that no one is interested in him is wrong. If an old man starts to show a young man the ropes (or at least how to handle a fishing line), perhaps Norman will see he still has useful work to perform as a teacher. Perhaps Billy will see that even if affection is crankily stated, it is still affection, and that he is worthy of it.

The psychology may be taken a little too straight out of Erik Erikson, or even Gail Sheehy, and the plot verges on the melodramatic (it takes a boating accident to seal the bargain of friendship between the generations). But emotionally On Golden Pond is no less valid for being something of a cliché. Anyway, the characters are so strong that the piece does not play as a cliché. Hepburn, for example, may have a less chewy part than has Fonda, but the briskness of her manner, her well-justified image as a no-nonsense individualist who is nevertheless a good sport, serve her wonderfully. There is a vivifying touch of tension between an actress who was a liberated woman before the movement was born and her role as traditional wife and mother.

But Golden Pond finally belongs to Henry Fonda, who has had to wait until the end of his life for the part of his life. As Norman he is able to bring together, in a single character, the two main strands of his talent. The old gentleman's character is grounded on the main line of Fonda's star career. The fundamental decency and intelligence that were basic to the likes of Tom Joad and Mr. Roberts still infuse his presence. Indeed, so powerful has that image been that one sometimes forgets how splendid he has been as a character actor. The military martinet of Fort Apache, the cold-eyed outlaw of Once Upon a Time in the West, even the hilariously befuddled herpetologist "Hopsy" Pike of The Lady Eve-they all light up in one's memory as the spirit that animated them flashes in Fonda's eyes. Without raising his voice he gives a bravura performance as he moves from depressed withdrawal to momentary rages, from the struggle to express affection to the struggle not to express it, lest it be mistaken for weakness.

When Chelsea reappears, the old man even manages a tentative truce, acceptance of the sort Ethel has been struggling to bring about. Whether that truce signals a real reconciliation the movie does not definitively promise. But if it refuses to go for a big, emotional finish that would leave its audience awash in grateful tears, neither does it leave them without hope.

With all their visitors departed, the last bags and boxes stowed in the station wagon, Norman and Ethel go down to the pond to say goodbye to the loons that have been their summer companions. The bird family turns out to be diminished too--just the mother and father are left. Fonda eyes them and in the wry, dry voice that has drawled through our consciousness for almost half a century, speaks a kind of generational epitaph, weary but accepting. "Babies are all grown up ... and moved to Los Angeles or somewhere."

The spirit in which he speaks--realistic, humorous, but with feeling--is precisely what claims one's respect for On Golden Pond. When it sometimes seems the whole society has spiritually decamped for Tinseltown, the movie offers the hope that people can come home again-at least for a visit.

By Richard Schickel

Two Who Get It Right

"Now we're cooking!" says she, and so they are.

There could have been trumpets, a heavenly choir, an enveloping cushion of fleece and lots of silver streamers--at least a few moguls and a newsreel camera. Someone important might have been there to introduce these two acting legends about to cross paths for the first time. "Alice Adams, meet Young Mr. Lincoln. Mary of Scotland, this is Wyatt Earp. Tracy Lord, Tom Joad. Tess Harding, Mister Roberts. Ethel Thayer, say hello to Norman Thayer Jr. Katharine Hepburn... Henry Fonda." But no: Olympians are entitled to their privacy, and these are two very private people. So Fonda was alone in the basement of a 20th Century-Fox sound stage in May 1980 when, as he recalls it, "Kate just came in, smiled, looked directly at me, and said, 'It's about time.'

Go Golden Pond, which unites Hepburn, Fonda and his daughter Jane in a warm familial embrace, is also about time. It is about the time, 46 years, that has soldered Norman and Ethel Thayer to each other, with complementary quirks and habits, tolerance and humor, love and concern. The time it takes to bind wounds the generations can inflict on each other. –Norman and his daughter, Henry and his Jane. The time Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn have taken to travel their separate roads to this special union. The time on the screen that displays the deceptively easy effects of two actors, two half-centuries committed to getting it right in the theater and the movies. It is about this time--now--when two careers that might honorably have ended years ago have instead ascended to proud new peaks.

In his 77th year, Fonda has published his autobiography (with Howard Teichmann as his Boswell). Though disabled by serious heart disease, he still hopes to appear on Broadway next year as F.D.R.'s confidant Harry Hopkins. In her 75th year, Hepburn is magnetizing the attention of Philadelphia theatergoers in The West Side Waltz, prior to its Broadway opening next week. The play, written by On Golden Pond's Ernest Thompson, takes its own sweet three-quarter time to penetrate the twilight life of a Manhattan widow, but Hepburn triumphantly skirts sentimentality, displaying her radiance even as her character limps, hobbles and crawls toward accommodation with old age. The next time they meet, Hepburn might well say to Fonda what she exults at the end of each scene of her new Broadway show: "Now we're cooking!"

Like Ethel and Norman Thayer, Hepburn and Fonda are bound by similarities and differences in background, career and temperament. Both their families were established in the colonies by the 18th century, and the pedigree shows in the two who took up acting. In the archetypal old-line American family, Kate and Hank might be twins: she the precocious one, the go-getter and do-gooder, believing her way to success; he the shy gangler, the late achiever, listing like Nebraska wheat on a windy summer day, yet rock-stubborn when his pride or principles are challenged. She crackles, he drawls. She pushes, he won't be pushed. She's an actor, he's a reactor. In mind and body she is an irresistible Circe storm; he stands his ground, stoic and stolid. And in the fusion between person and persona that the movie public wishes upon its most enduring stars, Hepburn and Fonda came to symbolize the generous spirit of American liberalism.

Toward the end of a long career, every good thing a good actor does becomes precious to the informed moviegoer. Youthful exuberance ripens into heroic perseverance; the comically awkward silhouette of an actor's apprenticeship lengthens as the earth turns, and his shadow deepens and darkens the moviegoer's response. Sometimes, late at night, we flip through the TV channels as we would through a family album; actors provide a glamorized photo essay of our mortality and, captured on film, they become immortal.

So to see Henry Fonda as Norman Thayer, presiding with gruff irony over his own disintegration, is a special privilege. To see Hepburn looking great in her straw hat and pink sundress, a lady out of Gauguin, revives the spirit. The fond, girlish way she swings herself between his legs; the look of love and respect she lavishes upon him; the tenderness with which an old man peels back an aging lady's lapel, and bends to her, and kisses her neck: these are moments that turn actors' autobiographies into art. The screenwriter, the director can only allow them to happen. The emotional intensity of these special moments wells not from the demands of story and action but from the accrued movie histories of Fonda and Hepburn, and the viewer's belief in the idealized lives of the people he sees on the screen.

In Hepburn's case art and life have blended to create an actress and woman of spectacular integrity. Passion and intelligence were her birthright. Her father was a surgeon in Hartford, Conn., her mother a suffragist who stumped for birth control. "I was brought up in a generation where excuses were not acceptable," she recalls. "And I was taught to speak out. My parents welcomed debate. My smell for reality comes from them." Educated at home and at Bryn Mawr, Kate learned her lessons well. At 24, with her debut film A Bill of Divorcement--co-starring John Barrymore, and directed by George Cukor, who would guide her in nine more movies over the next 50 years--she seemed to burst through the screen. Two dimensions couldn't hold her. The angular form, the tilted chin and cutting voice made her a secular Joan of Arc.

Hers was a fervor that transcended sex; to a '30s movie-audience it may have looked threatening, even mannish. She was the most aggressive and patrician of the '30s liberated ladies, and moviegoers wanted some extraordinary ordinary guy to sweep her off her pedestal and bring her down to earth. In the '30s that man was Cary Grant, a spirit as blithe as Hepburn's and a lot breezier. In the '40s and beyond, it was Spencer Tracy, the stolid, sensitive man of whom Laurence Olivier said: "I've learned more about acting from watching Tracy than in any other way." Tracy and Hepburn may have seemed intractable opposites--the anchor and the billowing sail--but a love of their craft and an eye for home truths brought them together and kept them there. On-screen and off, he played her leading man until his death in 1967.

What could the mature years hold for such a spectacularly eccentric presence? Two things, on the evidence of Hepburn's films of the '50s and '60s: the lonely triumph of spinsterhood (Summertime, The African Queen, The Rainmaker), the sad decline into dementia (Suddenly Last Summer, Long Day's Journey into Night). These later roles gave her the opportunity to soar, and she played each lovely chance to the hilt, whether she was getting morosely drunk over a lemonade in Pat and Mike (1952) or losing herself in heroin and reverie as O'Neill's Mary Tyrone. 

Hepburn fashioned a career as distinctive as any in screen acting, and if there are reservations to be stated about her work, they must come from the source. "With all the opportunities I had," she says today, "I could have done more. And if I had done more, I could have been quite remarkable."

Now this quite remarkable woman divides her free time between her townhouse in Manhattan’s exclusive Turtle Bay and the home she shares with her younger brother and her secretary-companion in Fenwick, Conn., on Long Island Sound. Vigorous as ever, she regularly bikes, swims, plays a fiercely competitive game of tennis. She talks easily about her life and her work. The Hepburn mind still functions dexterously. The odd detail may elude her, but her memory is radiant and rich with the large patterns of life, its experience and meaning, its jokes and ironies. And all of it falls into Yankee perspective.

“The me I know is the person at Fenwick," she says. "When I'm talking about acting, I feel I'm talking about somebody else. Acting is a nice childish profession--pretending you're someone else, and at the same time selling your own self." After a hearty Fenwick dinner of meat, fresh vegetables and a homemade pie, the company may retire to her brother-in-law's house to watch one of Hepburn's old films. The star herself is not unduly impressed: "I don't feel any particular connection with that poor creature up on the screen. I'd rather watch the home movies my father took of us as children. They're hilarious. You can see me trying to be a fascinator--before I was an accepted fascination. Just desperate!"

Hepburn does not disdain the actor's craft; she puts it in perspective. She is happy to talk about some of her favorite leading men. Spencer Tracy (nine films with Hepburn, from Woman of the Year in 1942 to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in 1967): "Spence was a magic actor, funny and quick." Cary Grant (Sylvia Scarlett, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story): "He was great fun. He had a wonderful sense of comedy." John Wayne (Rooster Cogburn). "He wasn't as clever as Spence, but a brilliant actor nonetheless, bigger than life in his performance--and often when he didn't have to be." Peter O'Toole (The Lion in Winter): "He can do anything. A bit cuckoo, but sweet and terribly funny." Humphrey Bogart (The African Queen): "Bogart was like Fonda--proud and happy to be an actor."

Like Tracy and Fonda, Hepburn has little patience for actors who surrender to the tortuous introspection of the Method. "Spence and Hank felt the same way I do," she says. "The camera sees through the performance. We were brought up in the school that teaches: You do what the script tells you. Deliver the goods without comment. Live it--do it--or shut up. After all, the writer is what's important. If the script is good and you don't get in its way, it will come off O.K. I never discussed a script with Spence; we just did it. The same with Hank in On Golden Pond. Naturally and unconsciously, we joined into what I call a musical necessity--the chemistry that brings out the essence of the characters and the work."

For Hepburn, the old couple on Golden Pond mark less a career departure than a return to the themes of her strongest films, to her most tenaciously held beliefs. "Ethel and Norman represent the kind of couple I admire very much. They've put up with a lot. They’re no quitters. There’s no self pity. They've been in love all these years, and she is satisfied to let him be the star of the marriage. Now, that may seem old-fashioned to some, but I'm part of a generation, an era of women who saw to it that their men were not alone, who backed up their husbands against growing old and afraid, and who never lost their sense of humor. You lose your sense of humor and you might as well cut your throat. That's Ethel: a woman of deep common sense, who finds joy in life and in the beautiful things around her. She's an authentic human spirit. She also makes me laugh." And the smile in Hepburn's voice breaks into the chime of an unselfconscious laugh--for, surely, the woman being described is not only Ethel Thayer but Katharine Houghton Hepburn.

The man she describes might not be just Norman Thayer Jr., but Spencer Tracy.. Or Henry Jaynes Fonda. One of this film’s reverberant pleasures comes from watching Fonda play with what might have been a Tracy role if Spencer had lived a dozen or so more years. Norman, after all, possesses the hearty irascibility that Tracy seemed born with, and that Fonda achieved only in the making of On Golden Pond. At the beginning of the film, as Fonda lumbers about in gusts of frail menace, he angles toward playing a New England Lear with overcareful pungency.. One gets the sense of Fonda’s working hard both to convince the viewer that Norman is one ornery old sumbitch and to distance the character from the person we believe we have come to know as Henry Fonda. But coming as it does just after Fonda’s autobiography, his performance in On Golden Pond ultimately becomes a courageous act of revelation from one of the shiest men in a very public art. In 1966 Critic Manny Farber wrote that Fonda "seems to be vouchsafing his emotion and talent to the audience in tiny blips... Fonda's entry into a scene is that of a man walking backward, slanting himself away from the public eye." Playing almost any character early in his career, Fonda seemed profoundly ill at ease. It amounted to a compact with the movie audience that he was one of them: callow, inarticulate, salt-of-the-earth, or if need be, soul-of-the-nation. This social squirm served him well, in comic or dramatic roles. His Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) was all elbows and ideals, winning debates by making fun of his opponent's eloquence. In Jesse James (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Fonda is virtually cornered into renegade political activism; a corrupt system flays him, but under the vulnerable Midwestern skin is a species of American hero. In his best comedy, The Lady Eve (1941), Fonda is the perfect patsy for a con-woman, Barbara Stanwyck--so perfect that she falls in love with the sap. Watching Fonda endearments remains one of the high delights of screwball farce.

As Mister Roberts (on stage 1948-51, on screen 1955) he could still show surprise that the men of the U.S.S. Reluctant would confer so much moral authority on him. But from then on the Fonda character was at ease with his place in American history, whether as a lone righteous juror in 12 Angry Men, or as any number of military men, government officials-and desperadoes. Through age and exposure, The Wrong Man had become The Best Man. It was a role that life had carved in Fonda, the quiet son of a pleasant, rigorous Christian Scientist family in Omaha in the century's first decade.

This Fonda is the lad whose growing pains, according to his autobiography, "forced him to walk across the street to avoid saying hello to a girl," and whose most cherished childhood memory is being awakened by his mother to see Halley's Comet because "it comes around only once every 76 years." He is the young man taken by his father to see a black man lynched in the center of town. He is the aspiring actor who, briefly married at 26 to the effervescent young actress Margaret Sullavan, would stand in agony outside their Greenwich Village apartment as, inside, Margaret made love to Producer Jed Harris. He is the star who never once spoke with his close friend Agent Leland Hayward about the curious fact that they had both been married to the same woman, Maggie Sullavan. He is the five-time husband whose first two wives--Sullavan and Frances Brokaw, mother of Jane and Peter--committed suicide. He is the father who effectively isolated himself from his children. Peter finally spanned this distance one night five years ago when he called Henry and blurted, "I love you." For Jane, the chance for reconciliation came when the two met in July 1980 on New Hampshire's Squam Lake-on Golden Pond.

By several standards of the film actor's profession, Jane is the most successful Fonda. She occupies a pantheon of superstardom that Henry could never quite enter. Her company fashions movies to fit her, then tailors them into hits (Coming Home, The China Syndrome, Nine to Five). Jane has won two Oscars for acting, in Klute and Coming Home; Henry was nominated once--for The Grapes of Wrath--but did not win. In the '70s, Jane became a celebrity who earned headlines wearing khaki to free the army from the Vietnam war or, later, sporting the sensible shoes of feminism and aerobics. Most important, Jane is a ferociously talented actress who puts pain and passion into every role-the image of her father, but with an intensity that recalls... the young Katharine Hepburn. The Golden Pond set was likely to be a volatile one.

"We were both aware," says Henry Fonda, "that in certain respects it was a reflection, sometimes uncannily so, of the pain we'd known in real life as father and daughter. In our big scenes together, Jane became very emotional. There's a moment when she's groping to find the right relationship with her dad, and I'm playing that I'm not sure what she's up to. When it was over, I could see Jane was proud. She pointed to the film crew--by that time everybody was crying--and whispered to me, 'I guess they all had problems with their father.'" He pauses a moment--after two pacemakers and endless rounds of medication, the words are not always easy to form--and says: "I love Jane very much."

I’ve always thought of On Golden Pond as a present to my father," says Jane, 43. She and her partner, Producer Bruce Gilbert, had been looking for a property in which the three Fondas could star. Thompson's play--a critical success and modest hit on Broadway, with Frances Sternhagen and Tom Aldridge as the Thayers--almost filled the bill: it had everything but a role for Peter. "My dad isn't exactly Norman Thayer, but there's a lot of Dad in the part. And I guess there's a lot of Chelsea, Norman's daughter, in me. Like Chelsea, I had to get over the desperate need I once had for his approval, and to conquer my fear of him. We've never been intimate. My dad simply is not an intimate person. But that doesn't mean there isn't love. There's a lot of love. And I think you can see it on the screen. On Golden Pond gave all of us the chance to say out loud something you could admit to yourself only at night. I can't tell you how lucky I feel that we actually got it done."

The father-daughter bond can still show strain, and did on the movie set. Now, though, the differences were professional. Like Hepburn, Fonda has the veteran's disdain of the Actors Studio, where Jane studied two decades ago. "Jane goes through more crap to act," Fonda says, "instead of just doing it. I don't believe you study acting. You feel it, know it, play it." When Jane and Dabney Coleman, who played Chelsea's beau, would take time to discuss motivation, Kate and Hank would have giggle fits. In one scene, Jane recalls, "we were setting up a light, and I wanted it moved so I could see Dad better and he could see me. Dad said, 'I don't need to see you. I'm not that kind of actor.’ I felt humiliated; I wanted to cry. Kate understood. She put her arm around me and said, 'Tracy did it to me all the time. That's just the way they are.'"

Throughout the shooting, Hepburn played the fond or firm parent to Jane--so much so that Jane says, "I couldn't help fantasizing what would have happened if she and my dad had become lovers 40 years ago, and Kate had been my mother." It was Hepburn whose daunting presence made Jane realize she would have to perform a key scene--a difficult backflip into Golden Pond herself--without a stunt woman. Mama Kate's lesson: "If a child never learns to overcome its fears it will become soggy."

Hepburn had other, sterner lessons in store for two prominent young men on the Squam Lake location. One was Gilbert, who produced the $7.5 million film. "She was always testing me," recalls Gilbert, 33. "Kate's an old-fashioned star who makes demands of old-fashioned protocol--flowers, meetings, dinners--and argues constantly in front of the crew. Of course, I'd make another film with her in a minute. This time, though, I'd give her a pair of boxing gloves." Ernest Thompson, 31, who adapted his play for the screen, calls himself "Kate's runaway son. Same stock, she's got more money. She brings out the fighter in me, because she's a fighter. Kicked me off the set the first day. She said: 'I wasn't in the room when you wrote the play--why should you be here when I start acting?'

Two men on Golden Pond have nothing but praise for Hepburn. Says Director Mark Rydell: "The bravery was heroic. Here was Fonda, fading, dealing with death, playing a man afraid of what he saw ahead. And Hepburn was his support. Their naked emotions were real. It was a privilege to be a part of it all." And Henry Fonda offers his own testimony: "It was a magical summer for both of us. We worked together as though we'd been doing it all our lives. Kate is unique--in her looks, in the way she plays, most of all in herself. I love Kate for playing with me in this film. Other movies have had a lot of meaning for me--Grapes of Wrath, The Ox Bow Incident, Mister Roberts, 12 Angry Men--but Golden Pond is the ultimate role of my career."

A memory alights. "It was just the second time Kate and I met, that first morning on Squam Lake. People kind of melted away and there were just the two of us. She had this thing clutched in her hand and she held it out to me. 'For you,' she said. 'It was Spencer's favorite hat.' I wore it in the first scene." Fonda is a painter of delicate still lifes, and that night he was inspired to start a painting--of the three hats he wore in the film. He made enough prints of the finished work to give one to each member of the crew, suitably inscribed. The original is in the Turtle Bay town house.

And so Fonda turned himself into Norman Thayer, presiding with gruff irony over the outrage of his own disintegration. He knows it, he feels it, he plays it. Says his wife Shirlee: "He wants to live as much as we want him to. He's promised me that he'll live to see his 83rd birthday, and I have to believe he'll keep that promise." Stargazers of every stripe, take note: In Fonda's 82nd year, Haley's Comet is due to make another pass.

Hepburn, too, looks at life with few regrets or apprehensions. "It's so endless to be old," she muses. "It's too goddamned bad that you're rotting away. Really, it's a big bore for anyone with half a brain. But you have to face it, and how you do it is a challenge." Then she holds her head up, looks you straight in the eye, and lets that incandescent smile light up the room. "If there is a heaven," she announces, "and if that's where I wind up--and if I'm a tennis champion--then I'll be happy."

If there is a players' paradise, rest assured: when Kate Hepburn and Hank Fonda arrive, there will be trumpets, and comets, and a celestial Wimbledon waiting for them.

By Richard Corliss.
Reported by Dean Brelis/New York and Los Angeles