KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979)

  • Director: Robert Benton
  • Writers: Robert Benton, based on the novel Kramer Versus Kramer by Avery Corman
  • Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander, Justin Henry, George Coe, JoBeth Williams, Howard Duff, and Howland Chamberlain
  • Accolades: 5 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Robert Benton,, Best Actor – Dustin Hoffman, Best Supporting Actress – Meryl Streep, Best Adapted Screenplay), 4 additional Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actor – Justin Henry, Best Supporting Actress – Jane Alexander, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

When I vaguely decided to feature a movie per decade in our Forgotten Best Pictures Virtual Film Festival, the hardest decade to pick a movie from was the 1970s, which in my opinion is probably the decade most picked over by modern cinema nerds. I went with Kramer vs. Kramer less because I think it’s forgotten but more because it feels as if time has passed it by, and also because, were it not for this site, I never would have sought it out in a million years. I mean, it was the answer to a trivia question the last time we participated in Zoom Trivia Night, the question being “What movie did Meryl Streep win her first Oscar for?” And I have to say, wow, is this movie not for me. The Oscars have a long history of questionable decisions, that’s part of the fun, but for me, the idea that this movie somehow won Best Picture over a field that included Apocalypse Now, Alien, Being There, Norma Rae, All That Jazz, and Breaking Away, not to mention somewhat less Oscar-y classics like The Amityville Horror, Moonraker, and The Muppet Movie, feels completely insane. I am open to differences of opinion, especially about, you know, art, but genuinely do not understand the person who, out of that list, would pick Kramer vs. Kramer.

So how did this movie get here? Well, it certainly seemed to catch something in the 1979 zeitgeist. You couldn’t have made a movie quite like this, probably, even five years earlier. It’s a story about a legal custody battle between a husband and wife following their divorce, over their young son. In 1979, the trend of women entering the workforce and being equal partners to men in society was becoming clear, as was a sharp upward trend in divorces. The reputation of the movie is that it’s fair to both partners. I’m pretty sure I don’t agree with that (I mean, the whole thing is from Dustin Hoffman’s dad point of view, we pretty much never see Meryl Streep’s mom from any perspective other than his), but I would agree that the movie wants to be that way. So on a reported $8 million budget, this movie made well over $100 million and was one of the biggest hits financially of that year.

But many of the reasons Kramer vs. Kramer hit a nerve at the time it came out are the same reasons it mostly, in my opinion, doesn’t work now. Meryl Streep’s character leaves Dustin Hoffman’s (and her five-year-old son, played by Justin Henry), at least partially, because he refuses to allow her to have any life outside of the home. He is a massive workaholic who clearly has no idea how to even make coffee for himself or breakfast for his kid. The first hour of the movie is him figuring out how to take care of his son, including him getting fired from his job because he just can’t both take care of a kid and be an advertising exec (he gets fired because he misses key deadlines in order to take care of the kid when he’s sick). Then Streep reappears, suddenly making more money than he is and demanding full custody, resulting in the climactic custody hearing in which both parties testify. Hoffman’s character testifies that he’s learned that women can have jobs, basically, but insists that dads love their kids just as much as moms.

It’s no so much that this movie is “problematic,” in the way that word is used sometimes, because I don’t really think it is, as much as that it’s telling this story on a very, very basic level that we seem to have basically moved past now. It also, I have to say, has a complete and total cop out of a happy ending that today I think most people have realized would never, ever happen, in a way that maybe they hadn’t in 1979? It also has a scene where (1) the kid tells Dustin Hoffman that dinner makes him want to throw up, (2) the kid goes to the refrigerator and gets ice cream, which Hoffman keeps telling him not to dare eat, (3) starts eating the ice cream, and (4)Hoffman drags the kid to bed, while the kid screams, “You’re hurting me!,” and (5) after the kid yells “I hate you,” Hoffman yells back “I hate you too, you whiny brat!” My thoughts on this are that, while probably realistic, it’s not something I find enjoyable at all to be in the same room with, and also that no movie today would ever do this, and then ask us to continue rooting for the father who just yelled at his own kid that he hates him. I’m not saying that the dad here is automatically a terrible father for doing it, I’m saying that today this would be considered a much, much bigger “infraction” than this movie seems to consider it.

My main problem is I don’t get any enjoyment from this movie, not that it’s a bad version of the movie it’s trying to be, because it isn’t, really. Both of the Oscar-winning lead performances are really great, especially Streep’s, of course. She has to do a lot just on her face without dialogue in some of the more key scenes. Director Robert Benton mostly just stays out of the way, but it works. He had been a successful screenwriter (whose work included Bonnie & Clyde and the first Christopher Reeve Superman), who took over direction of the movie after it went through a series of better-known names (including Francois Truffaut).

Honestly, the more I think about the ridiculous ending of this movie, the more it makes me mad. Full disclosure, I am a lawyer for my day job, and yeah, the courtroom scenes in this movie are not great from a lawyering perspective. If Dustin Hoffman is mad about how the hearing goes, maybe he should blame his own lawyer (Howard Duff), who does a pretty terrible job while charging him an arm and a leg. I mentioned to a couple of lawyer friends yesterday that I had just watched this movie, and they agreed it was not great on this issue. I am used to courtroom scenes not reflecting how real life actually works in movies and TV, I’ve come to terms with that, but honestly if your title is literally the caption of a court case I’m going to have a higher standard. Also, one of the lawyers noted that the plot of Kramer vs. Kramer 2 would be “this kid getting therapy for the rest of his life,” and that seems about right.

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