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On Dec. 19, 1979, Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman’s landmark 105-minute drama Kramer vs. Kramer hit theaters. The film claimed five Oscar wins at the 52nd Academy Awards ceremony, including best picture. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Columbia’s Kramer vs. Kramer may not be what is termed in contemporary usage an “event” movie. It has no earthquakes, no towering infernos, no colossal meteorites on a collision course with old Manhattan. What this Stanley R. Jaffe production does have is wisdom, insight, compassion and an extraordinary sensitivity to present-day problems and pain, which is more than enough to make it an event in my book.
As both writer and director, Robert Benton has fashioned from Avery Corman’s novel a film that is so fresh in its theme, so true in its observation, and so understanding of its people and their motivations that it’s like a bolt of lightning which both startles and electrifies. It’s also like open heart surgery. It lays bare that most vital and delicate organ to make it perform better. Not its, but ours.
The problem that it presents is hardly a new one — except, astonishingly enough, to the screen. As the film opens, Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) is tenderly putting her 6-year-old son to bed, kissing him and saying how much she loves him. Then she turns to complete her packing. She is walking out on both her child and her husband. Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman), an advertising executive on the rise, has just landed a new account and the promise of a promotion. When he arrives home, he expects Joanna to share his elation. After all, he’s been working this hard for her and the kid. When she declares her intention to leave, he can’t believe what’s happening to him.
But Joanna has to find herself, her own place in society, her own identity. Before the marriage, she had held a good job. Now she is simply Ted’s wife, her boy’s mother, a homemaker, a housewife, and her life in their shadow has become intolerable. She isn’t even sure that she can function well as a mother any longer. She tries, without success, to convince Ted she is leaving because of concern for their child as well as for her own sake.
Left on his own (only minutes into the picture), Ted tries to reach through to the boy he had never had time for — cooking his breakfast, taking him to school, tucking him in at night, caring for him when he’s ill, worrying over him after a playground accident. Prickly at first, yearning for his mom, the boy gradually learns to trust, then love his father. Perhaps the film’s most touching moment is when Ted has to assure his son that his mother hadn’t left home because of him, that it was he, the father, she had stopped loving.
Meanwhile, of course, things aren’t going too well at the office. Instead of devoting 150% of his time to his career, Ted is now forced to be late on occasion for meetings, or to skip out for a birthday party, or to remain away from the office altogether when his boy is running a temperature. Then he does the unforgivable. He loses an account, and gets fired. And just at that moment, when his career seems shattered but he’s gained the love and confidence of his son, Joanna comes back into his life. She has found herself, she claims. She holds a responsible job. Now she wants custody of the child.
This is the crux of Kramer vs. Kramer. It’s not a divorce case (the divorce had already been granted); it’s a child custody case. And both parents, we perceive, love the child and want what they think is best for him. I’m not going to reveal how Benton cuts this Gordian knot beyond saying that I found his resolution both emotionally and dramatically deeply satisfying. We leave the film with a sympathy and an admiration for both these people, and a sense of having plumbed new depths of what the love for one’s child is really all about.
What Benton achieved with his screenplay he intensified with his direction. Each performance is a minor miracle of perfection — not only Hoffman’s and Streep’s, which dominate the picture, but each of the supporting roles as well. Jane Alexander is all tenderness and concern as the neighbor lady, herself a divorcee, who tries to comfort and help Ted through his difficult period of adjustment, without any mawkish suggestion that she might be looking for a new mate. (In fact, one of the film’s few mawkish moments comes in the final resolution, when she decides to welcome back her own errant spouse.) Howard Duff performs with unaccustomed understatement the role of Ted’s lawyer, a man who earnestly warns him how tough a custody trial can be, who collects (and presumably earns) his stiff $15,000 fee, but who seems genuinely saddened when the decision goes against his client.
There are also nicely observed performances from George Coe as Ted’s agency mentor, a man who would rather party than face up to the exigencies of any relationship at home; and by Jobeth Williams as a sophisticated agency career girl who thinks that Ted’s bed might be a useful stepping stone — until she finds that Ted’s son occupies the adjoining bedroom. But, admirable as all these performances may be — and are — it’s little Justin Henry, as the son, who makes them all work. He’s adorable; but more than that, he makes you feel the relationships between father and son, mother and son, father and neighbor lady, father and one-night stand. It’s more than a matter of casting, for which Shirley Rich receives full credit. It’s the way Benton has used his 6-year-old to make credible these relationships.
Add to these strengths the meticulous production design of Paul Sylbert, and a score of classic restraint drawn from works by Purcell and Vivaldi, and the sum total is a picture that, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Carnal Knowledge and An Unmarried Woman, may have a major impact upon our whole social structure. In other words, Kramer vs. Kramer is not an “event” — it’s an event. — Arthur Knight, originally published on Nov. 29, 1979
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