Art and Life Making On Golden Pond

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Yearning to be closer to her emotionally distant father, Fonda hoped their co-starring in a movie about the reconciliation between a father and daughter would bring them together.

Everyone on the set was sensitive to the fact that my father and I had had a complex relationship and that this film in many ways mirrored real life—but with a resolution at the end. I hoped that somehow the resolution between father and daughter in the film would lap over to Dad and me. He always said that acting gave him a mask that allowed him to reveal emotions he did not feel safe revealing in real life. Maybe showing his emotion about his daughter in the film would release the real ones.

There is a scene with the mother when [her character] Chelsea comes back from Europe to pick up [the son of the character's fiance] Billy. She is hurt that her father has developed such a close relationship with the boy, and her mother is trying to get her to realize that underneath the gruff exterior her father loves her, that she just needs to talk to him and pay close attention. From the first, every time I read the script I would come to that scene and tears would pour down my cheeks. In rehearsals I was so emotional that it was hard to speak the lines. Finally the day of reckoning came. I woke up and ran to the bathroom to vomit, more scared than I had ever been before a scene and knowing it was because I had to say intimate words to my father that I had never been able to say in real life. We blocked the scene for the camera and lighting crew, he in the boat, me waist-deep in the water. Even then I was nearly overcome with emotion....

We began with the wide shot that included the two of us, the boat and the pier. Though I knew a scene like this was ultimately going to play in close-up, I was unable to hold back my emotions. Next we shot over my shoulder onto Dad, and still I gave it my all, partly because I couldn't help myself and partly because I wanted him to be emotional, too. I waited until his last shot to touch his arm as I tell him I want to be his friend—I wanted to take him by surprise. It worked. Tears welled in his eyes and he ducked his head, not wanting it to show. But it did. I was so happy.

Then the camera swung around for my close-up. We did a rehearsal for the camera and ... oh, no, the actor's ultimate nightmare: I was bone dry, spent, unable to call up any emotions. No one knew it, of course, because this was just a rehearsal, but I panicked. What to do? It wasn't that I had to be overtly emotional in the scene, but I needed to feel emotional and then stifle it. I tried to relax, as [Method acting teacher Lee] Strasberg would have wanted. I tried all the sense-memories I had, sang my old song that always made me cry, everything. But nothing seemed to work. As I was pacing around onshore waiting for the camera to be ready (dreading that the camera would be ready), up came Ms. [Katharine] Hepburn. She wasn't even supposed to be on set that day, but there she was. She looked at me.

"How are you?" she asked, sensing something.

"I'm in trouble. I've gone dry. Please don't tell Dad," I answered weakly, and then I was called to the set. The time of reckoning had come.

Hoping that some last-minute miracle would unleash my heart, I said to Mark [Rydell, the film's director], "I'm going to turn my back to the camera while I prepare, and when I turn around, it means that I'm ready for you to roll." He understood.

I turned away to prepare, though I had no idea what to do, and as I was staring at the shore, trying to relax and bring myself into the scene, there was Hepburn, crouching in the bushes just within my line of vision. Nobody could see her but me. She fixed me intensely with her eyes, and slowly she raised her clenched fists and shook them as if to say "Do it! Go ahead. You can do this!" She was willing me into the scene: Katharine Hepburn to Jane Fonda; mother to daughter; older actress, who'd been there and knew about drying up, to younger actress. It was all those layers of things and more. Do it! Do it! You can! I know it. With her energy she literally gave me the scene, gave it to me with her fists, her eyes and her generosity, and I will never, ever forget it.

That night I asked Dad and Shirlee [her stepmother] if I could come over to dinner. The scene had been so utterly personal for me, so intimate in a way that he and I had never been. I was raw and felt so close to him, and I needed to acknowledge it and see if he felt the same. I wanted to tell him how terrifying it had been to dry up like I did, and to ask if this had ever happened to him—at least, you know, share some actor's talk. But mostly I wanted to know if he had changed in any way as a result of the intimacy. I told him about drying up and asked if such a thing had ever happened to him.


I couldn't believe it. "Never? Not once in your whole career?"


My heart sank. That was it, just "Nope." Why did these things happen to me and not to him? What was I doing wrong? Moreover it was all too clear that he was no more open or forthcoming now than he'd been before the scene. I was so sad. I felt like a dope for getting all soft and fuzzy over what to him was obviously just a scene.

But despite this and despite my father's coldness, in the genetic scheme of things I am glad I am my father's daughter. I never loved him more than when I watched him, day after day, as he sat on the set between takes in his canvas chair with his name printed on the back panel, waiting to be called before the cameras: quiet, demanding little, not looking to fascinate. He was what he was.