Skip to main content

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.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was