Kramer vs. Kramer: Learning on the Job

THERE ARE THREE SIDES TO THIS LOVE STORY!

”Wall-to-wall sentiment”, Time Out wrote in a disdainful review. Sure, if that’s what you choose to hate. Kramer vs. Kramer became the biggest hit of the year and won the Best Picture Oscar. In this day and age, a time of endless superhero movies battling it out in cinemas, can you imagine a movie for grown-ups about a divorce beating everything else in your multiplex?

You could say that Kramer vs. Kramer has aged, but only in the sense that now we can talk about it in a different way. It hasn’t become spoilt. In that sense, it’s a fine wine.

Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) should have seen what was coming, but he was too busy working as an ad executive. One day, his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) tells him that she’s leaving him, but she’s not taking their young son Billy (Justin Henry) with her. Joanna says she needs to be alone and find herself. Now, Ted will have to juggle a very demanding job with being a single parent. His homemaking skills are not what they should be and Billy misses his mom; the relationship between father and son deteriorates while Ted’s boss is becoming increasingly irritated at his lack of attention. After a rough period, where Ted is forced to find a new job, he begins to get the hang of being a father… then, suddenly, Joanna reappears.

Hotly debated cultural phenomenon
Kramer vs. Kramer
became a hotly debated cultural phenomenon in 1979 and may seem quaint today. Watching a mother abandon her family was not a common thing. Back then it was easier for audiences to sympathize with a young man having to learn how to cook for his son and take care of a home; now we expect that from a dad as a natural thing. Watching Ted’s boss act like it’s a huge inconvenience that his male employees have families may seem jarring… but, hey, the wives were expected to deal with all that, not the men. This film serves as a reminder that it wasn’t very long ago that men and women were constrained by their roles.

Kramer vs. Kramer offers entertainment for the audience as Ted and Billy stumble through the first period after Joanna’s departure; this is where the film’s most memorable scenes come. Who can forget that perfectly directed breakfast where Ted enthusiastically tries to make Billy French toast and fails miserably? Or that dinner where Billy tries his father’s patience by defiantly taking out ice cream from the fridge? Apparently improvised, that scene is an example of how director Robert Benton and his cast and crew brought a lot of authenticity to the film. The courtroom scenes in the second half were criticized as ”legally outdated”, which is certainly how they feel 40 years later, but they nevertheless give Hoffman and Streep excellent moments to shine. They are so incredibly good throughout this film as two people we understand; their motivations and desires, even though they clash, are clear and very human. We in the audience are likely to agree on which one of them should get custody of Billy, but none of them is a villain.

The fact that they are so good makes it painful to know that both stars were in a bad place during the making of the film. Hoffman was about to get divorced and Streep was mourning the death of her fiancé, John Cazale. Over the years, we’ve learned that their working relationship was contentious, leading to several occasions where Hoffman seemed to confuse method acting with harassment.

This film looks deceptively simple, but its emotional impact is brutal and that takes real talent to achieve. Young Henry’s performance is another reason why the film is unforgettable, along with the filmmakers’ canny decision to use music by Vivaldi and Purcell.

Kramer vs. Kramer 1979-U.S. 104 min. Color. Produced by Stanley R. Jaffe. Written and directed by Robert Benton. Novel: Avery Corman. Cinematography: Néstor Almendros. Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Ted Kramer), Meryl Streep (Joanna Kramer), Jane Alexander (Margaret Phelps), Justin Henry (Billy Kramer), Howard Duff, George Coe… JoBeth Williams.

Trivia: Remade in India in 1995.

Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Hoffman), Supporting Actress (Streep), Adapted Screenplay. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Actor (Hoffman), Supporting Actress (Streep), Screenplay.

Last word: “Before I started the movie, I said to my wife and to our 11-year-old son, when this is over, we’re gonna go away. I’d always said we would learn to ski. My wife Sallie knows how to ski and my son wanted to learn. So, I said we’ll go to this place in northern Italy or in Switzerland and we’ll have this lovely holiday and we’ll learn to ski. That sounded great. At one point, in the middle of shooting ‘Kramer’, I came back and said to my wife, ‘cancel the vacation, not only is the picture not any good, I’m probably never going to work again’. Then, I forgot about it. When the picture ended, I said, ‘OK when are we leaving?’ And she said ‘you cancelled the trip, remember?’ I said ‘OK I’ll have to remember not to ever do that again’. Don’t do a movie and live by your day to day emotions about it.” (Benton, New Romanticist)

 

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