Kramer vs Kramer (1979)
“I want my mommy!” – Billy Kramer
“I’m all you got.” – Ted Kramer
A growing trend during the late 70’s was divorce. This film takes a close look at this issue, but not from the woman’s perspective, as expected, but from the man’s. Seeing the perspective from his point of view is eye opening. The couple also have a young son, adding to the emotional complexity and pain they must go through. This was the first film, headlined by major stars, to tackle this issue, propelling the subject into the headlines and into mainstream America as a growing problem.
The film opens quickly, not wasting any time setting the story in motion. Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is a workaholic advertising exec and given an important new account. After a long day, he comes home to his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) to let her know the good news, but she’s barely listening, her face grim, tears in her eyes, as only Streep can do. She wants to leave him. She’s unhappy and needs to “find” herself. She feels suffocated in their marriage and feels she’s not a good wife or mother. She leaves abruptly, leaving their son Billy (Justin Henry) to Ted.
We see Ted adjusting to his new responsibility and loss. It’s heartbreaking as he struggles to provide his son with the things he needs while Billy constantly reminds him of his shortcomings, comparing him to his mother. Ted has to juggle his son’s needs along with his ever increasing workload, the lines blurring at the office and home. After sometime, Billy finally begins to understand his mother’s departure, blaming himself first but eventually understanding it’s a larger problem between his parents. Ted and Billy begin to form a close bond eventually, mending the damage and filling the hole with Joanna’s absence. There’s a remarkable scene in which Ted and Billy begin their morning, in perfect sync with each other’s habits, washing up, setting the table and preparing breakfast, not exchanging a word to each other, but their closeness easily apparent.
Eventually, Joanna returns to Ted to explain she wants to have a divorce and retain custody over Billy. Ted is shocked at her request after making many sacrifices in the past year to raise Billy but also now has a very close bond with his son. Joanna believes she is now prepared to raise her son after establishing a successful career and seeing a therapist. Also, she believes a son should be raised by his mother. Ted’s lawyer isn’t optimistic for his chance of success, as these cases are frequently ruled in favor of the mother. Then ensues a cruel, bitter and emotional court battle, the lawyers exposing every flaw ruthlessly, picking at them like scabs, leaving the decision into the hands of the judge.
This film justifiably launched Meryl Streep into stardom, building on the success she had with “Deer Hunter” from the previous year. Dustin Hoffman was already a legend at the time, but this maybe his finest role. And even Justin Henry plays the son with great conviction. These outstanding performances are supported by a wonderful script that director Robert Benton handles perfectly. The quick pacing of the film keeps us captivated but also the remarkable timelessness of the film’s impact is as effective today as it was then. It never sinks into melodramatic hodge podge but uses humor to keep things moving, the story perfectly balanced and delivered.
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Tags: 70's, child custody, Deer Hunter, divorce, Dustin Hoffman, Justin Henry, Kramer vs Kramer, Meryl Streep, Robert Benton