The 54th Academy Awards

The only Oscars ceremony that had a specific effect on my life happened thirty years ago, when I was six years old. It was the 54th Academy Awards, and On Golden Pond was our local hero, having mostly been filmed about ten miles away from my house. Everybody I knew seemed to have at least a little connection to it somehow, or claimed to. At six years old, I didn't really understand what any of it meant, but I knew how much the adults seemed to care, and how special the moment seemed to them. The movie immediately became an indelible part of my life.

If that had been it, I'd look back on the 1982 Oscar ceremony with the sort of gauzy nostalgia that fills the movie. But Ernest Thompson won an Oscar that night for adapting his play into a screenplay, and I've known Ernest now for an amount of years neither of us will admit to, and worked with him on numerous local projects. We have really different aesthetics, and I love that — he's been at times the ideal teacher, editor, and director for me because he would never approach a story the way I do, and vice versa. He's intimidatingly smart and articulate, and so better than anybody I've ever met at steering me away from self-indulgent flourishes. (Ernest's commentary track on the anniversary edition DVD of On Golden Pond is a gem, and gives a good sense of his tell-it-like-it-is personality.)

Golden Pond is as close to a part of my DNA as a movie can be, and it's a film that is sacred to folks around here, because Squam Lake still looks quite a bit like it did in the movie, and plenty of people remember seeing Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, and Dabney Coleman around town.

I hadn't paid much attention to what the other nominees were that year until recently. If I remembered anything, it was that Chariots of Fire won for Best Picture and Ernest beat Harold Pinter for Best Adapted Screenplay (Pinter's adaptation of The French Lieutenant's Woman verges on genius, finding cinematic/dramatic ways to replicate the novel's very novelistic complexities of narrative and structure, making an "unfilmable book" into a generally interesting film. I'm glad Ernest won, though.) But though 1981 was hardly an annus miribilis for cinema, there was some interesting work released that year. Among the movies not getting major notice from the Academy, there was Fassbinder's Lola and Lili Marleen; Blow OutCoup de Torchon; Escape from New YorkThe Road Warrior; Mommie Dearest; Ms. 45My Dinner with André; Pennies from Heaven; Polyester; Scanners; Thief; Time Bandits; and a bunch of horror movies: American Werewolf in LondonThe Evil Dead, Friday the 13th pt. 2, Halloween 2The Howling, Wolfen, etc. (It was a good year for werewolves and slashers.)

The nominees for Best Picture were a fairly diverse lot: On Golden Pond, Chariots of Fire, Atlantic City, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Reds. People are saying this year is a particularly nostalgic one for the Academy, but look at that list — the only movie on there that takes place in the present in Golden Pond!* That tends to be how the Best Picture nominees go. It's not easy to find a set of Best Picture nominees where the majority are concerned with present-day realism. (I'm not saying there should be. But to be surprised that the Oscars favor nostalgic or historical films is to be surprised that the Oscars are the Oscars.)

I have great love for the great mess that is Reds, but it wasn't until I looked at the various Oscar nominees and winners that I realized it came out in the same year as Ragtime, another politically-charged film about the early 20th century. While Maureen Stapleton won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Emma Goldman in Reds, the character of Emma Goldman was cut out of the film of Ragtime (though a scene with her is available as an extra feature on the DVD). I hope in the coming weeks to revisit both films and write about them a bit here.

For now, though, I just wanted to note that 30 years have passed since On Golden Pond was at the top of the world. For me, that fact alone presents plenty to get nostalgic about.

*Update: As Patrick Murtha points out in the comments, my memory of Atlantic City (which I haven't seen in at least a decade) is faulty. Though I remember it as set in the past, it's set in my past, not the movie's past. So I was wrong. Golden Pond and Atlantic City are both set in their own present, but both are certainly concerned with the past and nostalgia, so my larger point remains.


  1. Isn't it interesting to be old enough to be nostalgic? I wonder when we hit that point in our lives.

  2. "Atlantic City" takes place in the present of that era. In fact, a good deal of the point of that movie lies in the tension between the Atlantic City that was and the Atlantic City that is (Burt Lancaster: "You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean back then"). The film is not so much nostalgic as a meditation on the meaning of nostalgia.

  3. Mark Rydell, director of "On Golden Pond," directed A Clean Escape," the episode of MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION based on my short story of that title, starring Sam Waterston & Judy Davis. Small world.

  4. I always remember On Golden Pond, but for a different reason. When I worked as a film projectionist, I showed the reels out of order ... and nobody seemed to notice!


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