Kramer vs. Kramer [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #21]

Earlier this year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #21.  Spoilers ahead.  

Kramer vs. Kramer

Directed by Robert Benton (who also wrote the screenplay)

Release Date:  December 19, 1979
My age then:  9 years old

What it is about:  Advertising executive Ted Kramer’s life is thrown for a loop when his wife Joanna suddenly walks out on him and his young son Billy. Initially overwhelmed, Ted eventually adjusts and develops a strong bond with his son. Their lives are again plunged into chaos when Joanna returns, determined to regain custody of her son.

Starring Dustin Hoffman as Ted Kramer, Meryl Streep as Joanna, Justin Henry as Billy, Jane Alexander as Margaret (Ted’s neighbor and Joanne’s former confidant), Howard Duff as Ted’s lawyer, George Coe as Ted’s boss, and Jobeth Williams as Ted’s co-worker with whom he has a one-night stand.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  Certainly I had heard of Kramer vs. Kramer and knew the general gist. I thought Jane Alexander was playing Ted’s new girlfriend, but that was way off. I had read the Mad Magazine parody when I was a kid.

Reality:  Kramer vs. Kramer is, frankly, excellent–quite possibly the strongest film in this series that I’ve watched so far. Certainly it’s got the most impressive collection of performances of anything I’ve seen in a while. Dustin Hoffman is excellent as Ted, making him into real person with clear strengths and flaws. But he doesn’t dominate the screen–when Meryl Streep is around (in her first film!) she makes Joanna into such a compelling figure who is simultaneously unlikable and sympathetic. Famously, Dustin Hoffman smashed a wine glass into a wall in one take without telling Streep–both the rage of his unexpected action and her unprepared response are a testament to the strength of their abilities as actors (even if Hoffman was unethical in doing so).

Along with them, Justin Henry’s Billy is also completely believable–one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen. It’s no wonder that all three were nominated for Oscars (with both Hoffman and Streep having won). The rest of the cast are also solid in their supporting rolls, with Jobeth Williams getting the best line–“Kramer, I just met your son,” (after encountering him while naked in a hallway).

But acting doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and so what we’re looking at here is solid blend of all the key elements of filmmaker, including writing, directing, editing and the rest. The movie looks very natural and steady-paced, so it doesn’t necessarily draw attention to any of those things–but when the story is this immersive and engaging that you know they are all doing their job well. I’m particularly impressed with the way that the movie is able to make us empathize with everyone. Joanna could have easily been a purely reviled character–and reports indicate she may have been before Streep got her hands on her–but the storytelling boldly forces us to look at her selfishness and her suffering at the same time, making us care for her even as we hate what she is doing. And Ted is dealt with in a similar way–his weaknesses as a man are plain to see, but so is his growth.

The court case in the last act of the film is the perfect vehicle for this. Everyone is presented at their most ugly, so we see the worst of every part of the story. At the same time, we are aware of that depiction doesn’t paint the whole picture–that there’s a compelling story of layered human emotions that exists behind the bare facts. The movie captures this complexity without attempting to simplify it–it all adds up a powerful storytelling.

If there’s something I didn’t like about Kramer vs. Kramer, it’s the ending. After fighting for custody and winning, Joanna gives it up in a conclusion that is the movie’s only overly sentimental choice. The moment is well written, well directed and well acted, but it’s just not fully believable, even if it makes the movie less sad than it would have been otherwise.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? A solid piece of work which has the rawness that one associates with 1970’s American cinema, but still tells its story in a way that doesn’t really feel dated at all.

See here for the Master List.

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