Let me take you back to January 22-28, 1982. During that week, a huge snowstorm covered much of North America, the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in one of the most thrilling Super Bowls of all time, Air Supply was named as best pop/rock band at the American Music Awards, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat opened on Broadway, Ryne Sandberg was traded from the Philadelphia Phillies to the Chicago Cubs, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman were married, and On Golden Pond was the #1 movie in America.
This is the first film in the series that managed to hold on to the #1 spot for more than a single week, which was definitely more of the norm at the time. This happened after an incredibly successful limited release, with theater averages approaching or exceeding $100k in two or three theaters over its first seven weeks. Once it then expanded to over 500 theaters [and eventually over 1,000], the word-of-mouth and good critics' reviews helped it gross over $6 MM per week for the next 11 weeks straight. It would hold on to #1 for 7 consecutive weeks, holding off such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Reds, Taps, Chariots of Fire, Arthur, last week's #1 Absence of Malice, among others.
Undoubtedly, part of On Golden Pond's success was the bump it received from the Academy Awards. Because of its limited release at the end of 1981, it was eligible for the 54th ceremony which took place in March 1982. Overall, On Golden Pond received 10 nominations, the second most of the year [behind Reds, which had 12], including major awards nominations in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It would go on to win only three, but before the statues were handed out it was clear that this was considered one of the best films of the year and should be seen during its perfectly timed expanded release.
Even if you've never seen On Golden Pond you probably know that it stars screen legends Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn in their last major roles. They star as an aged couple enjoying their quiet life at their vacation home on the title body of water. Can't really say that either were box office stars at this point -- partly because there just isn't much data, though mostly because neither star were actively in major theatrical films [Guess Whose Coming to Dinner was a hit, for example, but that was released 14 years earlier]. The novelty, for lack of a better word, casting these two icons in what must have been known as their last real go-round, coupled with the praise for their performances [they would both eventually win the Oscar] gave it more than enough legs.
It also helps that this is a film with the most possible narrative appeal. It is perfectly wholesome, a quaint and simple drama. It may have been looked at differently at the time, but the way the film approaches topics of sex, in particular, is awkwardly cute. The way it reveals that its old stars aren't total prudes is fun. Still, crabby old people interacting with younger generations is a classic comic blueprint and On Golden Pond is just funny enough to add seasoning to the overall tone.
Is On Golden Pond a true classic today? Younger generations probably aren't going to care to discover it or have any sort of nostalgic connection, but it remains notable for its performances and success on the awards circuit and the box office. It also holds up fairly well as a modest, lightly comedic drama. And as I've seen my grandparents showing more of the effects of their age, On Golden Pond has more personal bittersweet poignancy.