Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Release Date: December 19th, 1979 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Robert Benton Actors: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander, Justin Henry, Howard Duff, George Coe, JoBeth Williams
love you, Billy,” says Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) to her young son, before she packs her things and anxiously waits for her workaholic husband Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) to come home. As soon as he steps into the apartment, she states that she’s leaving him, while taking only $2,000 from their savings account. She’s fed up with their 8-year relationship, she no longer loves Ted, and she’s no good for their child. Without much of a plan, she disappears, forcing Ted to firstly concern himself with a big presentation the next morning as a creative director of the art department at a successful advertising firm – and secondly with looking after the tiny first-grader (Justin Henry) unexpectedly left entirely in his care.
All of Ted’s worries are confirmed the next day when he oversleeps, can’t manage to prepare breakfast for Billy, and isn’t even certain which grade the boy is in. At work, his boss (George Coe) grows unsure about Ted’s ability to handle a newly acquired, valuable account, which puts further pressures on Kramer’s mental (and potentially financial) wellbeing. Even though Ted manages for a time (aided by a friendly neighbor, played by Jane Alexander), his troubles escalate further when, after 15 months have passed, Joanna reenters his life with the intention of regaining custody of the child.
An interesting examination of stereotypical role reversals is at work here, with the father contending with both childrearing and making money. The plight of single fathers is a rarity on the big screen. Nevertheless, there’s a hint of a double-standard, in that women are oftentimes expected to tackle both having a job and raising a family, but without the emphasis given to the cinematic heroism of Kramer’s coping. But this doesn’t decrease the thought-provoking, universally understandable (or perhaps imaginable) concept of being single, of raising a kid, or of sticky legal battles in situations of divorce, child custody, and visitation rights.
With this premise, it’s alternately humorous and heartbreaking to witness Ted’s successes and failures with Billy, which also allow Ted to acknowledge his personal situation and the various reasons that his wife left (such as the pros and cons of his attitude and behavior). Little triumphs compensate for major letdowns, but every hiccup in Kramer’s life contributes to a fuller, more resounding finale. It’s essentially a two-man show, with utterly outstanding character development for them both (based on the novel by Avery Corman and adapted and directed by Robert Benton).
And because of the limited cast, a significant portion of the film’s resonance is attributable to the acting. Hoffman gives a knockout turn as the relatable, likable, veritable father, filled with all the positive and negative emotions connected to parenting. And Streep is equivalently stellar, serving as a real-world antagonist – a sensible, reasoning, sympathetic nemesis – without transforming into one of those overblown movie monsters that can oftentimes plague stories about common, human predicaments. Justin Henry is also quite good, never appearing like a child actor as much as a genuinely innocent boy. The music is also worth mentioning (there’s no soundtrack other than classical sonatas and concertos by Henry Purcell and Antonio Vivaldi), as it creates a memorable theme, with recurring melodies (provided during one scene by street musicians in the background), which would be coincidentally employed in comparable ways the following year by “Ordinary People.” With the addition of tense courtroom hostilities, potent reactions and interactions between the warring parties, numbing revelations about the legal system, and an ending that magnificently prepares the viewer for both possible outcomes (one tragic, one uplifting), “Kramer vs. Kramer” becomes one of the most mature, emotionally crushing, unforgettable dramas of the year – and of the decade.
– Mike Massie