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Kramer vs. Kramer


Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

     A movie from 1979 pretty much teeters on the edge of the time element for what I consider a classic film, but Kramer vs. Kramer won the Oscar for Best Picture that year, so I need to check it off my Best Picture list. But whether you consider the film a classic or not, it certainly is a significant mark in film history. Not only did it win the big prize at the Academy Awards, but took home Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman, Best Supporting Actress for Meryl Streep, and Best Director and Screenplay both to Robert Benton.

     I thought going into Kramer vs. Kramer, however, that I was facing a comedy about divorce. I blame this on the movie posters that depict the smiling happy family that is the Kramers, something that is never seen in the film. The movie is a stark drama that is less about the divorce of Ted and Joanna Kramer and more about the impact on their son Billy (Justin Henry) and the ensuing custody battle.
     The picture opens on a close up of Joanna sitting in a dimly lit room resting her troubled face on her hand. The hand bears a wedding band, so we immediately deduce she is married. She says, “I love you, Billy” with a worried tone and we are unsure if she is speaking to that husband or a child. Cutting back to an image of the whole scene, we see she is sitting on the bed of a boy mostly asleep, uncaring of her presence. Joanna next packs a suitcase and sits nervously watching the door. Ted returns home late from work after learning he is set for a major promotion at his advertising firm. He is excited to tell Joanna of the news, but all she can do is say, “I’m leaving you” enough times until he hears her. She has thoughtfully set out her house key, credit card, checkbook and dry cleaning tickets and shows them to Ted before walking out the door. He tries to stop her but her mind is made. She has been miserable in the marriage.
     I found it curious the organized way Joanna leaves that night. Most women having come to this conclusion might flee before the husband comes home and likely do so either in a fit of emotion or with enough anger toward the spouse to not care whether he knows when to pick up the dry cleaning. The character is very cold as she explains she is leaving behind the son because she’s “no good for him.”
     The next morning, Ted must go through the struggle of both preparing himself and his child for the day ahead. Ill-equipped in the kitchen, he fails miserably in making french toast –mixing the eggs in a mug and trying to fit the bread therein and burning his hand on the cast iron skillet’s handle. The following days are hard on the man and boy as Ted is unused to being bothered by a seven-year-old in need of attention while he tries to accomplish some work. The two fight and it seems to take several weeks before they fall into a routine. Ted begins to enjoy taking care of his son, but it is affecting his work and his boss is becoming impatient. He also has enlisted the help of a divorced woman in the building, Margaret (Jane Alexander), with whom he has become good friends.
     Joanna eventually makes contact with Ted and says she is ready to take care of her son. By this point the father has no interest in giving up his boy, so the next step becomes a custody suit. Just before the divided family is set to go to court, Ted is fired from his job and must find another on the Friday before Xmas, no easy feat. He takes a demotion only to ensure he will not lose his rights to his son. The trial becomes a horrible assault on both parties via their lawyers who dig up all sorts of dirt to make the other seem an unfit parent. Joanna and Ted exchange sympathetic glances across the court room that show us neither is as nasty as the tactics employed by their attorneys. As audience members, we get the outcome we want but not in the manner one would expect.
     I mentioned the Oscar winners, but I should also point out that eight-year-old Henry and Alexander were both nominated for their supporting roles. Additionally, Streep was still fairly new to film at this time, but I do not need to tell you about the fantastic performance she gave. She has earned more Oscar nominations that anyone in film history and I have frequently heard her called the best actress of her generation, which I decline to dispute. Hoffman is the real prize in Kramer vs. Kramer, however. To me he has always been a likeable actor but never one I thought of as the best in his class. Here he proves that. His character is subjected to a whole slew of emotions and responsibilities and we watch as Ted morphs into a different, more likeable person.
     I really cannot say enough good things about this movie. It is an unhappy story probably 50 percent of the time, but the in between moments warm the heart cockles. Streep only appears in probably a third of the picture, but for anyone who has not witnessed young Meryl, I’d recommend it. She’s gorgeous and Ted’s photography of her highlights that.
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