Kramer vs. Kramer

Released:  1979

Cast:  Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Justin Henry, Jane Alexander

Oscar Wins:  Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Benton), Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Benton)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Supporting Actor (Justin Henry), Best Supporting Actress (Jane Alexander), Best Cinematography (Nestor Almendros), Best Film Editing (Jerry Greenberg)

SUMMARY:  At her apartment in New York, Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) puts her son Billy (Justin Henry) to bed, then begins packing a suitcase.  Her husband, Ted (Dustin Hoffman), and advertising executive, is still at work, socializing with his boss.  Ted is then given the news that he has been given a huge account at the company.  Realizing what time it is, he then rushes home to tell Joanna the good news.  However, when he arrives, Joanna announces that she is leaving him – and leaving Billy, too.  Ted is stunned, but Joanna simply walks out the door.  The next morning, Ted has to get both himself and Billy ready for the day.  Since he had done little of the childcare in the past, he is fairly clueless about what to do.  Over the next few days, while the two get by, they begin to get very frustrated with each other.  Ted is unable to work the same hours he used to, and Billy misses Joanna.  However, after a few months, they settle into a routine.  Ted gets advice from their neighbor Margaret (Jane Alexander), who had been a friend of Joanna’s.  Margaret’s husband left her and their two children, leaving her in much the same predicament as Ted.  The two develop a very close (platonic) friendship, frequently taking their children to the park together.  Ted and Billy grow closer and closer:  when Billy falls off a jungle gym at the park and has to get stitches, Ted refuses the doctor’s request that he leave the operating room, saying that Billy is his son and he will be right there next to him.  Ted also explains that Joanna did not leave because of Billy (as Billy thought), but because he (Ted) tried to force her into being somebody she wasn’t.

Fifteen months after Joanna left, she comes back to New York.  Ted agrees to meet with her, but is stunned to learn that she wants Billy back.  Since their divorce has been final for some time, Joanna intends to sue for custody.  Ted immediately hires a lawyer, who informs him that even though Joanna left, chances are she will win custody.  To make matters worse, Ted is fired from his job after slipping up one too many times.  Not having a job will have a severe negative impact on his custody case, so Ted sets out on a marathon job hunt – only a few days before Christmas.  He is able to find a job in another ad agency, but at a lower level and a significant pay cut.  During the court hearing, both lawyers attack the character of the other parent.  Joanna is forced to admit that she was a failure at her marriage, and that she willingly left her child.  Through the (unwilling) testimony of Margaret, it is revealed that Joanna was severely unhappy with Ted and that Margaret had actually advised Joanna to leave.  Margaret attempts to say that Ted has changed, but is stopped by the lawyer.  When Ted testifies, he is forced to reveal how his parental responsibilities had a negative impact on his job, and ultimately led to his firing.  The incident at the park also comes out, and Ted is made to look negligent.  At the end of the trial, custody is granted to Joanna (popular opinion of the time being that a child is best with its mother).  Ted wants to appeal, but decides not to after his lawyer tells him that Billy would have to testify.  A few days later, Ted gets Billy ready to go live with Joanna.  However, Billy is distraught, and clearly wants to stay with his father.  Just then, Joanna buzzes on the intercom and asks Ted to come downstairs.  When he does, Joanna tells him that after a lot of thought, she has decided that Billy should remain with Ted.  She asks Ted if she can tell Billy personally, and Ted agrees, even volunteering to stay downstairs so that they can have privacy.  As she gets into the elevator, Joanna wipes away tears and asks Ted how she looks:  he answers, “Terrific”.

MY TAKE:  This was a landmark movie at the time, because it dealt with divorce and custody agreements – and the father is more sympathetic.  Nearly forty years later, it’s still pretty impactful and touching.  Ted has left the raising of his son to Joanna, and really doesn’t have any idea of how to care for Billy when she leaves:  the first morning, he attempts to make French toast out of a coffee cup, much to Billy’s disgust.  Neither of the boys is very happy about the situation, which is made obvious by their frequent fights.  However, it’s a very realistic relationship, and one that parents can sympathize with.  During one fight, when both are worked up, Billy yells, “I hate you!” and Ted yells “I hate you too!”  Obviously, this is not the best choice of responses, but I think that most parents can understand it:  sometimes, even though you still love them, you really don’t like your children.  Ted also has to come to grips with the fact that he can’t work the same way he used to, because he has home responsibilities.  He seems to handle this better than his boss, who is completely unsympathetic.  As time passes, Ted and Billy develop a very close, loving bond, and really begin to enjoy each other.  Of course, this is just when Joanna reappears.  I thought Joanna had a lot of freaking nerve to show up after fifteen months and demand to have her son back, and I was even more stunned when she was actually granted this in court.    Leaving your spouse is one thing, but in my mind, leaving your child is a whole ‘nother thing.  That child is not the cause of your discomfort, and doesn’t deserve your crappy decisions or treatment of him.  I couldn’t believe that the judge didn’t see it this way – she left him for 15 freaking months, and he was doing very well with his father!  Thankfully, Joanna comes to her senses, and leaves Billy with Ted.  I did get the impression that she was going to stay in New York so that she could see Billy, which is good for the kid.  This movie was Meryl Streep’s second major film role (after The Deer Hunter), and for it she received her first Oscar.  Interestingly, she was not the first choice for the role:  that was Kate Jackson, but she was unable to accept due to her Charlie’s Angels shooting schedule.  The world is grateful.  However, it is one of the few roles in which Meryl plays a completely unsympathetic character.  In The Devil Wears Prada, she’s a bitch, but she’s amusing, so it’s forgivable.  She’s a terrific villain, and there’s enough backstory revealed to give you a little insight into her.  In this movie, I just really didn’t like her.  She left her son because she needed to “find herself”, which she apparently needed to go to California to do (because they don’t have shrinks in New York, you know).  While I understand this desire, I cannot accept leaving your child behind.  Divorce your husband if you need to, go to a therapist, but step up and realize that your child needs you.  You willingly gave up a lot of freedom when you had him, so I don’t have any sympathy for you.  However, I do think this proves Meryl’s talent, because it demonstrates the range of emotions and characters she is capable of.  She isn’t typecast:  she seems to do everything extremely well – and has a record 19 nominations and 3 Oscar wins to prove it.

RATING:  Very thought-provoking; touching.


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