Title: Kramer vs. Kramer
Release Date: 19 December, 1979
Oscar Ceremony: 14 April, 1980
Director: Robert Benton
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander
Nominees: All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now, Breaking Away, Norma Rae
“You look terrific.” – Ted Kramer
Ten Oscar ceremonies ago, Dustin Hoffman made me bawl my eyes out in Midnight Cowboy. Since then, I’ve barely been able to recover and now here he is again destroying me in Kramer vs. Kramer. It seems that there’s no stopping this man, but the truth is I’m not sure I want to. At least this time, he gave me hope and left me smiling.
I do not have children, I have never been married, and I have never had to go through my parents’ divorce. Still, Kramer vs. Kramer made me feel a lot of things, so I can only imagine what it can do to people who can truly relate to the situation. Dustin Hoffman plays Ted Kramer, a workaholic who lately has been too preoccupied to be fully involved in his family’s life. His wife, played by the incomparable Meryl Streep, cannot take it anymore and decides to leave him in order to find herself. Sadly, she also decides to abandon her only child, Billy, in the process. By the way, the actor who played Billy became the youngest ever Oscar nominee in any category, a record which still stands today. He was only 8 years old.
As a result of his wife’s departure, Ted Kramer is left to raise Billy by himself, all the while trying to handle a very important account he’s been put in charge with at work. He undergoes a tremendous change and dedicates everything to Billy’s well-being. His behaviour even leads him to gain the sympathy of one of his wife’s old friends, who initially supported her decision to leave. However, things take a complicated turn when Joanna shows up 18 months later and declares that she wants custody of Billy. Furious and heartbroken, Ted is determined to not give up that easily.
I’m not here to analyze gender politics. I don’t really understand them nowadays anyways. Yes, the movie makes us side with the initially absent husband, but that’s not the point. If the roles were reversed, the impact would still remain the same. People are flawed. People make mistakes. It’s obvious that when it comes to parenting, no one deserves to be judged because of their gender. Mothers aren’t always angels, and they do not inherently get more of a place in their child’s life than their spouses do; they have to earn it. When Joanna Kramer decides that she wants to come back, she needs to prove herself and give a damn good reason why she should be her child’s main guardian after having made a conscious decision to leave. Ted Kramer also has to justify his newfound sense of responsibility to make up for the years he lacked it. In other words, both Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman have to dig deep and let their emotions get the best of them in these intensely complex roles.
While watching the court scenes, I couldn’t help but feel anger towards Joanna (and the lawyers, but that’s another story). Considering that the movie begins with her leaving, I never got the chance to see the kind, motherly side of her. Instead, I got to witness about an hour of Ted’s remarkable transformation after his wife’s desertion really put things into perspective for him. Seeing Dustin Hoffman’s incredible portrayal of Ted’s initial panic, and then his extreme dedication to fatherhood was really powerful and convincing. Naturally, when the selfish-seeming Joanna comes back, it’s easy to think “too little too late.”
However, you eventually realize that this is not only Ted Kramer’s story; it’s the story of two people who, despite their obvious flaws and differences, have one very important thing in common: they deeply love their child and want what’s best for him. We never actually see Joanna’s side of the story, so it’s only normal that we want Billy to stay with Ted. It’s difficult to take a step back and realize that Joanna is not necessarily the antagonist, but in the end, I was able to.
Although I wanted Billy to stay with his dad, I could see the pain in his mom’s eyes. Meryl Streep’s acting is so masterful, which makes it very easy for her to control the audience’s perception of her character. I believe that when Joanna initially comes back and when she presents her opening statement in court, Meryl Steep’s intention is to make us reproachful. However, it doesn’t take long for her to explore a wide range of emotion and frailty. She reminds us that after all, we’re all human, and there’s no such thing as a perfect being that is liked by others 100% of the time.
As for Dustin Hoffman, what can I say? I can’t believe it took me this long to see him as more than an old man who occasionally appears in comedies and supporting roles. I always knew he was an iconic actor in his younger years, but I never really paid much attention; it was just something I sort of took for granted. However, after recently having watched The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, and Kramer vs. Kramer, I can safely say that he is one of the greatest actors out there. I can also say that I’ve kind of developed a crush on his younger self, which has grown after experiencing his extremely gentle and caring nature in Kramer vs. Kramer. I realize that that’s no indication of how he is in real life, but it fits the image of him I’ve conjured in my mind, and that’s good enough for me.
I know this movie does not necessarily tackle a unique topic that you can’t find anywhere else, but it still touched me. In fact, I rarely say this about Best Picture winners, but I wish this one was longer. I can think of so many places where the director/writer could have elaborated, but I respect and understand the final cut. Moreover, a movie that is 1 hour and 45 minutes long is much more accessible than one that is 3 hours, and I truly believe that a lot of people should watch this so in that sense it’s a very good thing. All I can say is that even if it was made almost 40 years ago, it still hasn’t lost its power. Even if this wouldn’t normally sound like your type of movie, I think you should give it a try.