A few years ago Alan Pakula directed Jane Fonda in Klute, in which she portrayed a prostitute. Now he has directed her in another film, Rollover, in which she is a tycoon of international finance. Klute was better.
The story is of considerable interest, however. For one thing, films almost never concern themselves with the activities of the business community, even big business. (Patterns is one of the last ones I remember.) For another, it is intellectually challenging, which is rare for films these days. In fact, most members of the audience won't know much about what's going on, especially the information coming out of all those computers, which may help to explain the film's financial failure. The Arabs are the villains, pulling out of unbacked paper money and going for gold, causing paper worldwide to be worthless and thus precipitating worldwide depression and panic. One wonders whether Fonda was aware that she was involved in a plug for the gold standard.
Nevertheless, as financial writer John Pugsley notes (Common Sense Viewpoint, Jan. 1982), "the scenario presented in Rollover is impossible, not only because the Arabs wouldn't do it, but also because it just wouldn't work. When one depositor wants to take his dollar deposits out of a bank to buy something else, he must give those dollars to whomever he is buying his new asset from. The recipient now owns the dollars and has no choice but to put them right back in an American bank again. Even if the Arabs got out of dollars, someone else, whoever sold them the things they bought, would be in dollars to the same extent. Overall, the banking system would still have the same quantity of dollars."
If one wanted to make a really exciting film about the world of finance, there is a story made to order: the secret caucus of financiers on Jekyll Island, Georgia, in 1911, the aim of which was to form a federal bank, to take over from local banks the right to issue bank notes, and thus to inflate the nation's currency whenever they desired; and of the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in the closing days of the 1913 Congress just as it was disbanding for Christmas and most congressmen didn't even know what they were voting for. That the Fed became an "engine of inflation," as Charles Lindberg, Sr., warned, has been amply confirmed by history. The film would be dramatic, exciting—and true. Does anyone believe that it will ever be made?
Memories of the past and prospects for the future at the age of 80 are commingled in On Golden Pond. The performance of Henry Fonda as the old curmudgeon with a sharp tongue but a heart of gold is undoubtedly the best of his long career. That of Katharine Hepburn, as his wife, is more standard Hepburn, but no less effective for all that. There are really no other characters that matter. Even daughter Jane Fonda plays an insignificant role, and the part she is called on to play (not her performance) strikes the only false note in the film: that, with such a loving and understanding mother, an intelligent daughter should still feel such resentment for her father and be unable to see through his tough exterior, is very difficult to believe.
The film is full of humor, usually in the form of telling one-liners uttered by Henry Fonda, giving away the picture's origin as a stage play. But the humor is largely a relief from two kinds of tragic (or at any rate "sad-making") situations, which are presented without blunting their force: there is sad nostalgia for the past—marriage, having children, making love—whose joys can never be repeated but only captured in memory, and an even greater sadness involving the future: the inevitability of death and parting, the discomforts of old age, the inability of those who have lived long in wisdom to impart that wisdom to the young, who ignore it. The film pulls out all the stops on these subjects, and there are few dry eyes in the audience by the time it is over.
Critics have called the sentiments expressed in this film a series of tired clichés, and this may be true—what is there about life and love and death that has not become a cliché? But in the context of the film, and as voiced by characters with whom we strongly empathize, the lines are effective for all but the most jaded viewers; and though little external action occurs, the scenes are moving and dramatic. And surely that is enough. An unblinking look at life and death is rare enough in films these days. Very likely when critics first reviewed Shakespeare's The Tempest, they also described it as a series of tired clichés.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His book Understanding the Arts was recently published by Prentice-Hall.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".