I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The next on my list was the 1979 winner, Kramer vs. Kramer, directed by Robert Benton and starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep
Kramer vs. Kramer is a family drama focusing on a father forced to become a single dad and then, during his divorce, fights for custody. Although divorce is as common today, the film feels dated.
The other Best Picture nominees that year were All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now, Breaking Away, and Norma Rae. Kramer vs. Kramer also won Oscars for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Hoffman), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Streep), Best Director, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (the Avery Corman novel).
The movie follows the Kramer family, in particular husband and father Ted (Hoffman), who at the beginning of the movie is excited, having just won a promotion at work. Upon arriving home, his wife, Joanna (Streep), informs him that she's leaving him. Refusing to talk about it, she leaves her keys and rushes out of the apartment, leaving behind their son, Billy. This forces Ted, who until then had been a career-minded advertising executive, into a new role: single father.
Just as Ted and Billy are getting comfortable with their life together, she returns and demands custody. Thus, the two battle it out in court.
Now I'll be honest with you: I had never watched this movie before because the premise sounded so excruciating. Why would I want to sit through a protracted, ugly, personal court battle? So imagine my surprise when I saw the film: although there are often high emotions, the divorce was far from nasty. The lawyers, in fact, are the only ones in that go for blood. Perhaps I'm influenced by having attended an all-women dinner party a few weekends ago, where several guests shared terrible stories of their own divorces. The Kramers, by contrast, are remarkably civil. Ted, in particular, is ever the diplomat when he explains to Billy what is going on in their family. He never says a bad word about Joanna in front of their son, except for one accidental outburst immediately after she leaves.
The movie seems to be an argument for giving men greater consideration for custody. Although he had to learn on the fly, Ted does everything expected of a parent. While Hoffman plays Ted as flawed, he imbues the character with humanity and empathy.
Streep only spends 15 minutes on screen, and yet she creates a sense of Joanna as being uncomfortable in her own skin. She looks down a lot, shifts her gaze away from people who are talking to her, and generally uses body language to portray a lack of confidence, a perpetual anxiety. In the behind-the-scenes documentary that was on this DVD, Streep reveals that she felt Joanna was dealing with some mental health issues, so she worked that into her portrayal.
Notable, as well, is Justin Henry, who plays Billy Kramer. He holds his own against acting heavyweights Hoffman and Streep, delivering his lines with such naturalism it seems like he isn't acting. Sometimes, this is heartbreaking. And that is one of this movies flaws: at times it is too weepy, and at times, too saccharine, with loving close-ups of Ted and his son, bonding. All the better to make an emotional appeal.
When I tried to find this movie for this project, I discovered that there was a long wait to rent it from Blockbuster.com, usually meaning there's either a high demand or they have few copies. In this case, I'm guessing the latter. The clerk in the local retail store said there were no copies in the entire Philadelphia area, so I purchased a used DVD online. In my online searching, I came across a couple articles revealing that Kramer vs. Kramer is not terribly well-regarded in film circles. I think I know why.
When this movie came out, 30 years ago, it was a more groundbreaking film. Until the '60s and '70s, divorce was not the subject of polite conversation and certainly no subject matter for a film. In the late 1970s, the Women's Liberation Movement brought up issues of women's rights within marriage and divorce. This movie shows, however, that women aren't the only ones hurt when a marriage goes wrong. Back then, the movie must have seemed important (and everyone knows Academy voters are a sucker for important films).
Today, sadly, divorce is no longer shocking. With a TV schedule crammed full of legal shows ranging from fiction (such as The Practice) to reality TV (Divorce Court), it's no longer a rarity to see such cases play out on screen. Hoffman's portrayal of a caring but flawed father was eye-opening at the time, but in today's world, his role is no longer unique.
The documentary provided interesting insights into the filmmaking process, emphasizing the fact that the actors brought a lot of themselves to their roles. Hoffman, for example, was going through a divorce at the time and did not have to work very hard to get himself character. He worked hard to form a bond with Henry, so that their on-screen bonding seemed more genuine. Streep was going through personal grief over the death of her lover, actor John Cazale. Director Benton allowed the actors free range to bring ideas to scenes and improvise lines (including the famous ice cream scene), which helped make the dialogue feel more naturalistic.
Yet, the movie's deus ex machina ending feels unrealistic, serving as a sort of wish fulfilment. No matter how much pain a divorce brings, the film says, everything will eventually turn out all right. If only that were always true in real life.
Rating (3 out of 5): ***
If it were up to script writers, all divorces would have happy endings.