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Yeah, she loused up one of the five best days of your life.

Kramer vs. Kramer
(1979)

(SPOILERS) The zeitgeist Best Picture Oscar winner is prone to falling from grace like no other. Often, they’re films with notable acting performances but themes that tend to appear antiquated or even slightly offensive in hindsight. Few extol the virtues of American Beauty the way they did twenty years ago, and Kramer vs. Kramer isn’t quite seen as exemplifying a sensitive and balanced examination of the fallout of divorce on children and their parents the way it was forty years previously. It remains a compelling film for the performances, but it’s difficult not to view it, despite the ameliorating effect of Meryl Streep (an effect she had to struggle to exert), as a vanity project of its star, and one that doesn’t do him any favours with hindsight and behind-the-scenes knowledge.

That vain star being Dustin Hoffman. His behaviour on the feature, with regard to Streep in particular, has been a longstanding of bone contention (some might suggest his approach was effective, given it garnered both actors Oscars, although such voices would be in an ever-increasing minority). There was the glass-breaking incident (you can see Streep’s shock on screen), and method Hoffman indulging in verbal abuse to elicit what he believed would be a better performance from his co-star (it’s evidence of how detached from reality a self-involved method actor can be – the sort who needs to be told “Why don’t you just try acting?” – that he’d think it okay to goad his co-star with the name of her dead fiancé). And also that he slapped her without warning during a scene (as recounted by Meryl last year). Oh, and how he groped her breast (which she related to Time magazine at the time of the film’s release).

Of course, Hoffman being difficult has been fodder for articles forever, but the recent #MeToo allegations added an extra spin on this; it’s impossible to watch Kramer vs. Kramer now and fail to note potential connotations when Ted Kramer touches the breast of platonic friend Margaret (Jane Alexander) or pats her bum. Was that improvised and agreed upon, or was it spontaneous Hoffman? And then there’s Ted’s impromptu kissing a Playboy Playmate (Ingeborg Sorenson).

None of this necessarily speaks to whether Kramer vs. Kramer is a good – or great, even – movie. Any more than the fact that it won five Oscars, two of them going to Robert Benton for his direction and screenplay – Francois Truffaut was originally attached in the former department – and was the biggest movie of 1979 by some distance (well, in the US; we don’t have global figures), out-grossing more obviously audience-pleasing fare like Rocky II, Apocalypse Now, Moonraker and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Benton’s screenplay was based on the book of the same name by Avery Corman, on which he collaborated heavily with Hoffman (to the extent that Benton suggested a co-credit, which the actor reportedly magnanimously nixed), and it brings with it a loaded dice – some might even suggest reactionary – premise that Streep, fighting for her character’s corner, could only do so much to counter. After all, Joanna Kramer’s role is a relatively small one and is characterised by unsympathetic or antagonistic decisions. The film is recognised for starting a conversation, and one people cared a lot about, hence the box office, but it didn’t necessarily establish its goalposts in a fair place; it isn’t enough just to stir the pot.

A New York Times piece at the time questioned the picture’s claim regarding the assumption that rulings would side with the mother in divorce cases, and in particular the unflinching and partial processes of the court (“the trend in the courts, they said, is not to presume in the favour of mothers in custody disputes over young children”) to the extent that “It’s too bad that the legal profession was portrayed as 50 years behind the times”. The panel said the custody court simply wouldn’t work the way it does in Kramer vs. Kramer, but it undeniably works to bestow sainthood on Ted for being treated so unfairly. 

It’s for this reason – areas outside her control structurally – that Streep’s efforts are ultimately to little avail. Even Joanna is disgusted with the line taken by her lawyer, and she’s so in awe of Ted’s relationship with Billy (Justin Henry) that she chooses to concede custody to him, despite the judge’s verdict. Apparently, Joanna was less relatable in the original script, but we still have a character who walks out on her child and husband in the opening scene and is painted as unstable. Then, when she shows up again, after an hour of father-son bonding, she wants to take him away from them. You couldn’t have the material more structurally positioned against her in terms of sympathy.

Hoffman and Benton even go to some rather strained lengths to suggest the maligning/ martyring of their hero, most notably the line of attack taken by Joanna’s lawyer, which includes, rather self-defeatingly (although, evidently not to the judge), all those times Ted’s work suffered because he put the welfare of his son first. Ted’s position culminates with an impassioned plea that a mother shouldn’t necessarily be deemed the better parent just by virtue of her sex, and a nation of hard-done-by dads lifted their brewskis as one in toast to him.

That said, many of the reasons this was the success it was then are still in ready evidence. Hoffman in his heyday (less so from the 90s on, when he seemed to chill out a bit too much) demanded attention as a performer, and the relationship he forms with Henry is both affecting and believable. While significant time is spent on it, fortunately this is not Mr. Mom, and their mutual adoration isn’t everything to the movie. And the centrepiece scene, in which Billy tests his father’s patience by refusing to eat his dinner, instead taking ice cream out of the fridge, is as effective as ever (“And I hate you back, you little shit!”)

I was curious what uber-critic Pauline Kael made of the picture, but if she reviewed it outright, it isn’t in any of her collected volumes. She wasn’t a fan of Streep (quite understandably; I don’t much like her 80s, colourful accent period, Silkwood aside). Apparently, she hated it, though, and accused it, in Taking it All In, of having been “made for an audience of over-age flower children. These pictures express the belief that if a man cares for anything besides being at home with the kids, he’s corrupt. Parenting ennobles Dustin Hoffman and makes him a better person in every way…” Of course, Kael didn’t like Ordinary People either; anything of that touchy-feely Hollywood ilk was anathema. To an extent, what she’s suggesting is fair comment, and it’s often the case that the shallowest of material is celebrated by Hollywood as holding the greatest import. But Kramer vs. Kramer works as a piece of drama despite its flaws and blatant manipulations; there’s too much craftsmanship involved for it to be otherwise.

The supporting roles are all carefully built around Hoffman/Ted to show his rise as a dad and emotionally accessible person. The relationship with Billy is key, of course, and the naturalism makes it easy to see why Henry received an Oscar nomination (still the youngest actor to do so), and also, given his ice cream antics, why he threw a hissy fit at the Golden Globes when he didn’t win. Alexander’s is the performance that most impresses on revisit, though; underplaying and vulnerable, she may be there to make Ted look good, but she extracts more from the part than there is on the page. George Coe is an unfiltered jerk as Ted’s boss, though (“I’m getting very nervous”), and it’s more of the picture overplaying its cards to elicit sympathy for Ted; although, it does lead to the equally overdone but irresistibly can-do sequence where Ted has to get a new job in twenty-four hours in order to say he’s gainfully employed at the custody hearing.

As mentioned, Kramer vs. Kramer was the big success story of the 52nd Academy Awards, winning five of its nine nominations (one of which wasn’t the score, since it strikingly relies on Vivaldi’s Concerto in C Major for Mandolin for its impact). I doubt anyone would seriously argue today that the winner shouldn’t have been Apocalypse Now, but simultaneously, going back to the zeitgeist comment heading in, it retains some credibility in terms of so recognisably being of a piece with its era (in that respect, the following year’s – superior – Ordinary People is less essential). And while the film is arguably awards bait, it manages to be so while not looking consciouslyas if it’s caught in the act of being awards bait (for the flipside, see another of that year’s nominees, Norma Rae. Or rather, avoid it). Kramer vs. Kramer isn’t a classic movie, but it’s classic Best Picture material.



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