The only thing I liked about On Golden Pond was the cinematography.
Netflix has it for streaming so I watched “On Golden Pond” last night. I thought it held up well. The one scene you mentioned about Jane Fonda diving off the diving board comes at the end and is a relatively minor event but does symbolize one of the main themes of the movie: redemption. And I think she did a wonderful job of evincing the adult who turns into a frightened child when in the presence of her parents.
She had need for Norman’s approval. One of the best lines of the movie came at the end between father and daughter, first set up by Ethel’s insistence to Chelsea that if she wanted to repair things that she not wait too long:
Ethel: Chels, Norman is 80 years old. He has heart palpitations... and trouble remembering things. Just exactly when do you expect this friendship to begin?
Chelsea and Norman have a little talk at the side of the dock (this coming just before Chelsea’s dive).
Chelsea: It seems that you and me have been mad at each other for so long.
Norman: I didn't know we were mad. I thought we just didn't like each other.
Given how consistently cantankerous and verbally abusive Norman is, you could hardly fault Chelsea for thinking that her father didn’t approve of her. She would doubtlessly hit back and you’d get to the point of not just being mad but not liking each other. The way Norman spars with Dabney Coleman shows you something about how quickly you could come to dislike this man.
But the dutiful wife, Ethel, insists that Norman is really just a warm-fuzzy Teddy bear if you’ll take the time to see the real him.
The only thing that makes the redemption and change of attitude plausible (in both Billy and Norman) is the magical quality of Golden Pond. It’s the redemptive beauty of nature. And who’s to say that little future-school-shooter punks such at Billy couldn’t do with getting away form the mean (or at least sterile) streets of the city and perhaps even to spend time with an adult male who, although cantankerous, is a real man, the bull elephant of the herd?
However condensed some of these transformations are to accommodate the runtime of a movie, they do happen. And I think the writer, Ernest Thompson, has captured the dynamic that often exists between parent and child. I doubt most of them get redeemed this quickly or completely because there are underlying reasons why Norman is such a “poop” other than having a daughter who isn’t sufficiently touchy-feely.
Having an elderly parent, and hearing the stories of so many others who have responsibility for an elderly parent, I’m beginning to believe that The Greatest Generation has transformed into The Cranky Generation. Forgiveness and a certain amount of tolerance is required, but I’m not so sure that Norman didn’t have it right in the first place: They didn’t like each other anymore.
But certainly Chelsea has some deep-seated anger. And some of the best scenes are of her mother, Ethel, basically telling Chelsea to stop being a Snowflake and to grow up.
Chelsea returns from her trip to Europe with Dabney Coleman. They got married in Brussels. She’s happy about this but thinks (with good reason, one would suppose) that her father will rain on her parade once again. It culminates in a good exchange (ended with a slap) between mother and daughter:
Chelsea: He is a selfish son of a bitch.
Ethel: That old son of a bitch happens to be my husband.
The “tell” of this movie is when father and daughter seem to come to an agreement to try to work things out.
Chelsea: I want to be your friend.
Norman: Oh. This mean you'll come around more often? Mean a lot to your mother.
Chelsea: I’ll come around more often.
In a nutshell, many old people are just isolated and lonely. And they help make themselves more so by lashing out at those around them. Not everyone has a dutiful Ethel to see the big picture and guide people through the immediate rough patches.
Norman is also obsessed with dying, of course. It’s a major theme of the film. And younger people can have the same obsession, so this isn’t necessarily about age. (And, honestly, I’m not really sure what it’s about.) As dislikable as Norman is most of the time (notwithstanding his “playful cantankerousness” being overly romanticized), he is a sympathetic character if only because he has the sympathies of a good woman such as Ethel. Without Ethel, there is zero chance of anyone vacationing on Golden Pond and coming out the better for it.