As the 1960’s faded and the 1970’s rolled in, a new aura of social change was solidified into the era. The backdrop might have been Vietnam and economic challenges, but the United States also enjoyed a rush of eclectic creativity. Music trends gave way to lasting icons that new groups still reference today. Authors could create controversial material and be rewarded instead of condemned for their approach. Activists were expressing the call for social justice to make the fragmented layers of society become more equitable. Filmmakers were present to reflect all of this with their audacious cinema concepts.
A major part of these two time periods was a change in the American family structure. Roles were shifting to where women were becoming a prominent voice in the household and a prominent place in the work force. With new adjustments come new reflections. The idea of what the family should be about, as well as the individual placement, was being discussed and challenged. People were beginning to look inside themselves for guidance, instead of relying on older archetypes to show them the way. To many, the old rules did not apply in a transformed world of social consciousness. It was a time for speaking out as well as stepping out.
Kramer vs. Kramer was an unexpected hit to be released in 1979. The result was a stunning capture of five Academy Awards: (1) Best Picture (2) Best Actor (3) Best Supporting Actress (4) Best Director (5) Best Adapted Screenplay. The director and lead screenplay writer, Robert Benton, was nominated just two years earlier for directing and writing The Late Show, starring Lily Tomlin and Art Carney. The film was based on a novel of the same name, written by Avery Corman. His other famous novel, Oh, God!, was used in 1971 for the film of the same name starring George Burns and John Denver.
Kramer vs. Kramer was led from caring and in-depth performances by the two leads, Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. Hoffman had already gained fame in Hollywood with his breakout role in 1967 with The Graduate. Two years later he was solidified in superstar status alongside Jon Voight in The Midnight Cowboy. Streep was new to the acting game at the time, but was already on the road to success with an Oscar nomination a year prior in The Deer Hunter. Both Streep and Hoffman received their first award wins for this picture. They play a divorced couple fighting over custody for their son.
Hoffman plays Ted Kramer, a driven worker in the advertising field. His competitive drive has secured him a respected place amongst his peers. He is proud of his life and seeking to make steps in career in order to provide better for his family. He is the father of seven year old, Billy (played with incredible poise and authenticity by actor, Justin Henry). At home is his faithful but quiet wife, Joanna. Streep brings a chilling level of pain and drama to the role. Joanna has not been happy in her marriage for a long time, but has carried the misgivings inside and remained silent.
When Ted comes home at the beginning of the film to bring news of career success to his wife, Joanna surprises him by stating she is leaving the marriage. By the front door is a suitcase packed. The audience could already tell this was happening because the packing took place during the opening credits. She paid the monthly bills for the apartment and has her keys left on the table to be returned. She also has taken out of their joint bank account the same amount of money she had when they married. Ted is thunderstruck as Joanna reveals her decision without any specific explanation. His attitude goes from sarcastic to sad when he realizes this moment is lucid.
Joanna heads out the door and goes for the elevator. Ted chases her and is desperate in trying to appeal with reason. She brushes off her husband with a surprise answer by stating that she cannot do this anymore and it is her fault. Billy is left to be in the care of Ted. The father finds it hard to adjust with a variety of emotions in play. For one thing, he has to assume the role of both parents – provider and nurturer. He was the type of person who came alive at his job and it becomes hard for him to hone in his perception at this level. At the same time, he has to be delicate in trying to explain to his loving son why his beloved mother is no longer there. Unfortunately, the career suffers because Ted cannot make all things on time due to issues with his son’s health and school life.
The focus of the movie is the building relationship between father and son. Both sides have hesitation in getting to know each other fully. Ted suffers a great deal in the workplace in order to make sure the well-being of his son is accounted for. Billy is both irritated and hurt that his mother is no longer around and blames his father. In time the ties heal and a serious bond emerges. The two are able to turn to each other for comfort, validation and connection. Ted begins to see that perhaps his own temperament had kept Joanna from feeling fulfilled or heard in the household. Part of the improvement is due to his friendship with Margaret, played by actress Jane Alexander. She is a single parent and close friend to Joanna. While she previously advocated for Joanna to seek the divorce, Margaret grows to respect Ted and see the good side to his personality that was not visible before.
The critical moment for the drama occurs when Joanna returns home. Appearing refreshed and claiming satisfaction through personal therapy, the newly liberated woman announces that she wants to reclaim her role of motherhood and take sole custody of Billy. In a famous and heated moment from the film, Ted lashes out at his ex-wife in a café over her planned decision and smashes a glass on the table to prove his point. The acting was a pure Method style when Dustin Hoffman spontaneously thought of it and conferred with the cameraman in secret to ensure the shot was ready.
The two sides take their battle to court and assume position with lead attorneys. Ted is determined to hold onto his son at all costs. He is even willing to take a lower-paying job when the advertising firm he has long been with fires him. A combination of missed opportunities, due to necessity of personal involvement with Billy, cost Ted his title. However, he feels renewed and satisfied in his heart about being a hands-on and full-time parent. Joanna looks back on her choice to abandon Billy as the right thing at the time because she was in a severely depressed state. In her mind, there was no choice but to leave the unhappy marriage and not serve as an unfit mother to her beloved boy. Now she seeks to set things right and start over. Ted is very much in the same state of mind, having earned his time as a caring father and redeemed his personal deficits.
The court scenes are the most intense sequences of the film. Each time a new person takes the stand allows Hoffman and Streep to display their vast acting chops. Both characters are slowly able to look at each other in a different way and see their points of view clear. There is no clear indication as to who is winning the argument in court. At the end, the verdict is returned with a full victory to Joanna. Ted is devastated in defeat. He refuses the option of appeal because it would force Billy on the stand to testify. He tries to make the best of it and personally announces the decision to his son. Driven to tears initially, Billy becomes hopeful when he recognizes that his dad will still be in his life and see him on weekends.
Expectations on the film’s ending are split when Joanna makes a sudden move. On the day to pick up Billy, she has a change of heart. She summons Ted downstairs to explain her thinking and asks that her boy remain upstairs for it. The ex-husband is unnerved and confused but goes down right away. Covered in tears and looking shameful, Joanna declares that she will not take Billy away from what is clearly his home. The former couple embraces as the gravity of the instant provides sympathy. Kramer vs. Kramer closes the door on this grueling chapter as Joanna goes up the elevator to bid farewell to her son. Ted is able to comfort her appropriately and wish her well.
All players in the film deserve enormous praise. The script and dialogue were catchy and biting. Directing held sustained emotions. Every bit of detail was authentic and sometimes in an uncomfortable way. The legacy of the storyline is that there are struggles always going on beneath the surface. The role of spouse versus the role of individual is a never-ending battle that many will continue to sort through. Education was plenty here in how all characters emerged through positive growth. No matter what impressions were displayed at the opening, by the end all people are perceived fallible and considerate. No winners but instead lessons for all to take home and contemplate.
Kramer vs. Kramer is about domestic discourse as well as an individual journey. Each viewer, whether they have been personally confronted with divorce or not, will draw their own interpretation and feeling with it. The sentiment was (at the time the film was released) one of shock. Marriage was held as the pinnacle of true success and responsibility for a person to maintain. Teenage pregnancies or single parent homes were not discussed in an open way with as much understanding and tolerance as we see today. The culture has shifted. Trends are more in place with the realization that some unions, no matter how hard the people within try, do not succeed. Home life is not simple to manage and can end up broken with hurt feeling on all sides. The young can emerge old and the old can emerge young. What this film did was show that not everything happening on the surface was idyllic. In that respect, a remake would not have the same surprise and introspection that it did in 1979.
Movie: Kramer vs. Kramer
Director: Robert Benton
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Justin Henry, Jane Alexander
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Running Time: 105 minutes
Brian’s Rating: 5-of-5 stars