Based upon the original novel by Avery Corman
Written for the Screen and Directed by Robert Benton
To say that I hated this movie when I first saw it would be an understatement.
I was 10 years old and well on my way through my life long cinematic journeys, utilizing the words and wisdom of the late, great Gene Siskel and the still great Roger Ebert as guiding sages in regards to discovering new film experiences top try and discover. There had to be more than Spielberg and Lucas and I was more than eager to learn. One evening, my parents and I took in a showing of Director Robert Benton’s family/divorce/legal drama “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” due to Siskel and Ebert’s glowing recommendations plus my strong desire to witness a film that was decidedly more provocative than my usual science fiction, action-adventure driven fare. And as I stated at the outset of this revisiting, I hated, hated, hated this movie more than I thought that I could possibly hate a movie.
Yes, it was an adult feature. Yes, I guess you could say that it was provocative, that is if “provocative” meant “boring.” But, what irritated me endlessly was the amount of crying on display, seemingly from one end of the film to another. The mother was crying. The father was crying. The neighbor lady was crying and for God’s sakes, that damn kid was constantly crying. Yes it was a sad movie with sad things occurring to sad people but for some reason, I could not wrestle one ounce of sympathy for these characters with all of their carrying on. It just made me sick and once it was all over, I was beside myself with disbelief that Siskel and Ebert could ever love such a thing.
Since I had become fairly astute with Awards seasons along with critical praise and rejection by this point in my life, I was more than aware that “Kramer Vs. Kramer” was receiving not only more than its fair share of endorsements but there almost seemed to be some sort of cultural significance attached to the experience that I could not understand (definitely due to my age, of course). When the film swept the Academy Awards that year by winning statuettes for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and yes, Best Picture, I wanted to throw everything I owned at the television. I just didn’t get it and I didn’t want to get it. In fact, all I wanted to do was to forget it and move onwards into a new movie year with the cleanest of slates.
I began with that anecdote because over the past week, I found myself reacquainted with “Kramer Vs. Kramer” one very late night on a cable movie channel. As I sat there, I was surprised to find myself becoming deeply involved with what I was watching, especially as my initial feelings concerning the film in 1979 were as present as anything that I had experienced that day in 2010. I tried to resist it but I couldn’t. Due to the lateness of the hour, I found myself unable to say awake long enough to see the entire film, So, feeling curious, I rented it from my video store the following day and began to watch it from start to finish for the first time since my childhood.
For the uninitiated, as well as for those who may need a reminder, “Kramer Vs. Kramer” begins with the disintegrating marriage between Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep), a housewife and Mother and Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman), an advertising executive. As the film opens, Joanna, shortly after tucking her six year old son Billy (Justin Henry) to bed for the evening, abruptly informs Ted of her departure and quickly exits from his life, also leaving behind their son, who is essentially a stranger to the workaholic Ted, thus forcing him to raise Billy alone.
Over the course of an 18 month period, Ted is confronted exactly with what it means to be a single Father as he and Billy slowly, painfully and eventually forge a strong relationship that is then threatened by the return of Joanna, now gainfully employed and armed with the full intent of reclaiming her son.
The cultural significance that was lost on me as a child was blindingly clear this time around, as "Kramer Vs. Kramer" takes place during the continued sexual revolution, where women's and men's roles where being drastically redefined. In the case of Joanna and Ted Kramer, we are given a woman unable to survive within certain sexual boundaries and Ted, being forced to re-examine his own boundaries and expectations he has set for himself and his family. Ted Kramer is a man who feels the most at home while at work and "Kramer Vs. Kramer" charts the course of his growth in discovering the exact same, and eventually, an even greater passion for his life as a nurturing caregiver for his son.
Beyond the cultural critique, as I viewed this film, what amazed me was the sense of compassion I felt for all of the characters, especially when I had none to begin with when I was 10. It was the level of compassion that comes simply from living life, and the building of personal experiences and connections with others. Life at 41 is obviously quite different than life at 10 and that very life experience informed my reaction and newfound appreciation of this film tremendously.
What could essentially be a melodramatic, inauthentic “movie-of-the-week” weepie, is actually an acutely perceptive and empathetic drama about people attempting to restructure their lives after a seismic emotional upheaval. In fact, “Kramer Vs. Kramer” is not really a smoothly driven narrative at all. It is actually more of a collection of vignettes, all demonstrating each step in the evolution of Ted Kramer from being a distant, impatient and unengaged Father to one who is nurturing, attentive, supportive and wholly loving. What made this enterprise work so successfully for me on this viewing was to notice exactly how Benton and his cast worked every aspect of the beautiful screenplay (which allowed for many moments of key improvisation) to discover every nugget of truth to each situation.
Concerning the relationship between Ted and Joanna, we are witnessing a love story, despite the nature of the film’s title and many of the film’s sequences, most notably the climactic courtroom sequence where layers exist to simply talk to each other and character assassination is par for the course. Underneath all of the anguish, rage, and sorrow, the love that initially brought them together remains and underlies every single moment in the film, even after the two have become divorced and moved on with their respective lives. What Ted and Joanna realize over and again is that their shared history doesn’t evaporate once the actual marriage is dissolved and the deepness of the reality continues to surprise and even upend them.
The short sequence when Joanna returns to share a glass of wine with Ted in a restaurant and alert him of her intentions to reclaim Billy oscillates effortlessly between longing, anxiousness, attraction and even violence. Yet, moments of contrition between the two exist as well. When Joanna is being cross examined on the witness stand and questioned whether she was a failure at the longest and most significant relationship in her life, she tearfully and somewhat absently glances at Ted, who silently mouths the word, “No.” And the film’s final words of dialogue between Ted and Joanna possess a fragility that suggest healing and resolution for this particular act of their intertwined lives.
But, if there is a love story in the film that carries greater weight and is even more powerful than the one between Ted and Joanna, it is the one between Ted and Billy. Forming the urgently beating heart of this film, the journey of Ted and Billy is a tumultuous road from tentative to committed is presented without a stitch of artifice or contrivance and I believe would be recognizable to any parent or person who has ever created a bond with a child.
Again, this relationship is presented as a series of snapshots moments which function as the building blocks of a growing union. There is the initial “French Toast sequence,” set the morning after Joanna’s departure, where a disheveled Ted attempts to cook breakfast for himself and his son. Benton pivots the sequences on a knife’s edge as it teeters from comedy to rage in a heartbeat, and all filtered through Hoffman’s completely assured performance which never lets up in intensity. A silent sequence in which Ted and Billy wordlessly sit and mirror each other’s confusion and anger while reading the morning newspaper is a graceful study of resentment.. The classic “ice cream sequence,” where Billy purposefully tests the resolve and patience of Ted is an explosive moment familiar to any adult who has been at their wit’s end with a child. And of course, there is the sequence where Billy falls from a playground jungle gym wile holding onto a model airplane. The safety of his eye is threatened and we are given a stunning unbroken shot of Ted, carrying Billy in his arms, racing on foot through traffic over an area of several blocks from the playground to the Emergency Room. It is an elegant and urgent depiction of a parent’s devotion to their child and mostly without copious amounts of dialogue.
Dustin Hoffman delivers a sensationally soulful performance that feels undeniably authentic, heartfelt and real. Watch his body language throughout the film, whether he is being dressed down by his superior at work, valiantly attempting to find new employment after a devastating lay off, how he smoothes the child’s hair or ties his shoe and try to not see the truth in all of those seemingly innocuous moments. Especially in several playground scenes with his friend and neighbor Margaret (Jane Alexander), watch how his body (and manner of clothing) gradually relaxes over the course of the film, reflecting a new state of mind and comfort with is new role as the primary emotional provider for Billy.
In the space of a mere 15 minutes of screen time Meryl Steep, in one of her earlier performances, presents the level of completeness that would become her trademark. It was fascinating to view exactly how no stone had been left unturned by Streep when it came to bringing this character to vibrant life and always elevating Joanna from simply being a monster for abandoning her child at the film’s start. In a way that seems obvious to me as an adult, and no way would I have eve picked up on this trait as a child, Joanna is mentally unstable and quite possibly, near suicidal at the beginning of the film. This aspect to the character makes the decision to leave Ted and Billy a heroic act, which places the needs of the child front and center. Her final decision at the film’s conclusion could also be seen as heroic as well and for the same reasons. Like Hoffman, Streep finds the truth in all of her brief scenes, making a character who resonates as we are all trying to piece together her motives.
Without maligning Mothers, “Kramer Vs. Kramer” is a cinematic rarity as it is a celebratory film about Fathers, a group that typically receives short shrift and ridicule in the movies. And furthermore, it is a film celebrating parents who try to do the right thing by their children.
As I watched, I could not help but to be reminded of a family I once worked with years ago. My student was a happily flamboyant four year old girl. So flamboyant that she was the type who would always arrive to school in some sort of costume, typically something with multi-colored wings. She also possessed a hysterical subversive side that captured my spirit as well, most notably on Halloween, when she arrived to school in regular clothes! This girl’s parents were divorced, and by the beginning of that school year, emotions between the two were still so brutally raw that they were barely able to speak with each other. But, the two somehow, someway devised a plan to keep the interests, security and happiness of their daughter placed ahead of their wounds and that plan involved a large black bag.
The black bag was to be placed in the girl’s cubby every day and it was to contain all of the pertinent school and life information the other parent needed to know upon pick up, therefore keeping both parents in the loop and fully informed. As this child’s teacher, I saw first hand that this girl wanted for nothing and both parents, regardless of who I happened to see on a given day, was completely up to date with the events and needs of the classroom.
The girl’s Father was a lawyer. Sadly, he happened to work for a legal firm that was highly unsympathetic to his parental responsibilities. Since the Mother had primary custody of the girl, the Father would often arrive to school to spend lunch time with his daughter—albeit lying to his firm in order to do so. He not only doted upon his child but made time for every child in the classroom that wanted to talk or play with him. My gut feelings informed me that this was no prefabricated presentation for my benefit. It was a real display of a Father needing to be present for is child, no matter what the cost to his livelihood.
By school year’s end, and in time for our second round of Parent/Teacher conferences, both Mother and Father, surprisingly—even to themselves—arrived together to discuss their daughter’s progress. The black bag still existed but at this stage, they were able to speak, and not through lawyers at that. The baby steps of healing had begun as well as the realization that they will remain in each other lives for the remainder of their lives just because they created a child and that they did once love each other. (Granted, I have not seen hide nor hair of this family since that school year but I am hoping that they have all advanced together as well as humanely possible.)
“Kramer Vs. Kramer” was defiantly in tune with all of those realities and it is the definition of a film that is emotionally honest. It understands the hard, necessary choices needed in order to effectively raise one’s child and even to raise oneself and how in the world could I have even grasped anything like that at the age of 10?!
Revisiting “Kramer Vs. Kramer” was a deeply enlightening, eye-opening, and entertaining experience for me that was actually as provocative, adult and artful as I wished for in 1979.
I just wasn’t ready for it.