Note: This article ran in print in the July 24 Edition of Sippican Week. The original online version can be seen here.
Mattapoisett — Ernest Thompson, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of the 1981 classic “On Golden Pond,” spoke and answered questions before the movie was screened for the Harbor Days Festival crowd on Saturday night.
The Mattapoisett Lions Club hosted the showing, which followed the annual lobster dinner at Shipyard Park. His wife Kerrin is a Mattapoisett native. Thompson brought his Oscar and allowed guests to pass it around and take pictures with it.
“If you’ve ever wanted to make an Oscar acceptance speech, here’s your chance to do it,” Thompson joked.
One audience member asked about Thompson’s Oscar acceptance speech. He said that he had prepared one, but promptly forgot it when he got on stage.
“When you’re suddenly standing up on that stage, knowing that there is 70 million people watching you around the world, it’s hard to even remember what your name is,” he said.
Thompson started his career as a playwright. He wrote the play “On Golden Pond” at age 28 and acknowledged that was his breakthrough moment, noting the production company had faith in him to adapt it into a screenplay.
“I was really lucky that they let me adapt it because I was an unknown writer,” Thompson said. “I assumed they had some Oscar-winning writer waiting in the wings.”
The movie tells the story of Richard and Ethel Thayer (Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn), an elderly couple who spend their summers on Golden Pond.
Their estranged daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) visits them and introduces her parents to her fiancé, Bill (Dabney Coleman) and his son Billy (Doug McKeon). Richard and Ethel agree to take Billy in for the summer while Chelsea and Bill leave to have time to themselves. The movie follows the developing relationship between Billy and Richard – at first distant and brusque, then as the two bond over their fishing adventures, they become close. Chelsea, upon her return, notices this and is envious of Billy for his bond with her father that she never had.
One guest pointed out that the relationship between Richard and Chelsea is similar to the one Henry Fonda had with his daughter Jane Fonda. Thompson replied that the Fondas chose to work on his movie for that very reason.
“Jane immediately saw it as a chance to bond with her dad. They had an extremely tumultuous relationship all of their lives,” Thompson said.
When asked how he could create such a diverse group of memorable characters for his story, especially the elderly Richard and Ethel Thayer, at such a young age, Thompson said: “I get asked that a lot: ‘How can someone so young know so much about old people?’ I just use my imagination. I’ve written scores of films and that’s what artists do. It’s like asking Picasso why he put the two eyes on one side of the nose. It just occurred to him to do it.”
Beyond his imagination, Thompson’s stories come from his own life experiences.
“My fear. My joy. My excitement. My insecurity. I just graft them onto other characters,” he said. “I just assume that our life conditions are the same for anyone no matter who they are.”