Kramer vs. Kramer seems like one of the overlooked BP winners, one that was probably a big deal at the time but just seems like Oscar bait now. That’s probably true, but I still really appreciate this movie. Watching it in the context that I did, marathoning the first three seasons of Mad Men, really had me appreciating all of the social context in this movie. It might be stuck in 1979, but 1979 is a pretty fascinating place for this drama to unfold.
Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is an enterprising advertising man in New York. One night, after landing a big account, he comes home to tell his wife the good news and discovers she is leaving him. Joanna (Meryl Streep) feels unfulfilled in their marriage and walks out, leaving Ted along with their young son, Billy (Justin Henry). Ted at first can’t believe that Joanna is really gone, but slowly starts to realize that he is going to have to raise Billy on his own. He struggles to balance his work and his new found parenthood. Slowly, they fall into a pretty good rhythm. However, one day Joanna returns from California and although she certainly doesn’t want Ted back, she thinks she’s found herself with the help of therapy and believes herself ready to be a mother again.
The things this film does with gender roles of the time aren’t revolutionary, at least from today’s standpoint, but considering that they are still relevant even today I’ll defend it. It’s much easier for Joanna to get custody of her son, even though she left him with Ted who she pretty much knew would have a tough time with him, just because she is a woman and therefore believed to be more naturally suited to parenting. It’s also easy to fall into the trap of blaming Joanna for everything because she did neglect her “natural role” as a wife and mother by leaving. However, one has to admit that Ted did that every single day when he went into the office before the start of the film. The first time he takes Billy to school, he passes him off to the first woman he sees and doesn’t even know what grade his son is in. The blame for the failed marriage and rocky parenting clearly lies on both sides, and the triumph of this film is that it clearly shows this rather than just having you root for Hoffman’s character because the story is told from his point of view.
I think these gender politics are what the film does really well, but of course one can’t ignore the acting. There are good performances throughout, which one would only expect from the powerhouse team of Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman in the late seventies. They both really do a terrific job, making self-obsessed people really relatable. You really need actors of their caliber and likability to not hate these characters, especially in the beginning of the film when they are failing their son so much. Streep especially really conveys the interior life of her character is relatively little screen time. Jane Alexander also turns in a great performance as Joanna’s friend who is still living in New York, helping out Ted, and going through a divorce of her own.
The cinematography credit was pretty interesting. Though it’s a far cry from Days of Heaven, the cinematographer here is Nestor Almendros, who also did that Terrence Malick film. Obviously, due to the nature of the content, the film is not as visually spectacular as that movie, but there is a lot to appreciate here. One thing that stood out to me is how early on in the film, he shoots Dustin Hoffman and his son against white walls. Normally, that’s a big no no because A. white walls are boring, and B. they don’t make anybody look good. However, it just goes to show that you can’t uniformly write off a technique and you always have to take the rest of the film into context. By the end of the film, the white walls in the family’s apartment are covered with Billy’s artwork. It’s an effective way of showing Dustin Hoffman’s character’s evolution through cinematography and prod design.
At the 1979 Oscars, Kramer vs. Kramer was nominated for nine Oscars and took home five. Up against Apocalypse Now, All that Jazz, Breaking Away, and Norma Rae, Kramer vs. Kramer ended up with best picture, best actor for Hoffman, best supporting actress for Streep, and best director and original screenplay for Benton. It lost out on supporting actress for Jane Alexander (obviously who would vote for her when Streep in the conversation), supporting actor for Justin Henry, best cinematography (Storaro wins for Apocalypse Now, also not surprising), and editing. I actually really like Kramer vs. Kramer, even though it doesn’t get a lot of love these days, I think it’s a good story dealing with some tough issues and holds up surprisingly well. However, All that Jazz would get my vote for sure, and Alien would have to be in the mix as well.
“I’m all you got.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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