Benton’s soft Oscar winner from 1979 was the definitive film on divorce at the time consciously turning the familiar story of marital dysfunction around toward the male, Dustin Hoffman who finds himself sacrificing his career as a single dad. The soft focus cinematography and even softer fluffy haircuts notwithstanding, it's still a robust family drama, though shamefully inferior to the year's more memorable nominees Apocalypse Now, All That Jazz, Manhattan, Alien and others.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) dir. Robert Benton
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Justin Henry, Meryl Streep
By Alan Bacchus
The opening of the film features the haunting and beautiful face of Meryl Streep as Joanna Kramer saying goodbye to her son, Billy (Justin Henry). For reasons not completely revealed to us Joanna is preparing to leave her husband and son. Dustin Hoffman plays Ted Kramer, a career driven ad exec whose working life moves too fast for him to notice his wife’s disillusionment. And so when Joanna suddenly announces to Ted that she’s leaving the family it’s a complete shock.
Instantly, Ted finds himself as a single dad having to raise his child and be a real parent for the first time. Hoffman and Henry form the heart of the film. It’s a tenuous relationship, as they both have to learn quickly how to support each other. A year-and-a-half later, just as Ted gets comfortable with his new life, Joanna returns wanting full custody of Billy. Ted takes Joanna to full divorce court to battle her.
Joanna Kramer has much in common with Kate Winslet’s character, April Wheeler, in Revolutionary Road. Both women have a sense of despair in their lives – an early midlife crisis and the realization that they don’t love their husbands. The emotion of their realization clouds their ability to make rational decisions. As a result, however extreme and heinous, we can believe how Joanna can do the unthinkable and leave her own son.
In the history of Hollywood Kramer vs. Kramer appears to fall in that category of middle-of-the-road conservative films that win over the riskier and arguably more memorable films of the year. Other great films from 1979 include Apocalypse Now, Manhattan, Alien and All that Jazz. Unlike any of those films, Kramer vs. Kramer is an intimate film, a small-scale drama anchored on two career defining and Oscar winning performances from Hoffman and Streep. No one can take anything away from Hoffman’s Oscar. His own real experiences helped shape his character, and according to the making-of documentary, Justin Henry’s performance as well. Hoffman’s hands-on involvement in the development and production of the film could have given him a co-director credit.
If anything, Benton lets the reigns on Hoffman go too far. However internal or method his process is, in some of the key scenes there is a falseness to his behaviour – specifically his reunification with Joanna over coffee. In this scene Hoffman explodes with a fury too hot and violent for a man who's supposed to have changed.
And so Kramer vs. Kramer suffers from some of the same “Hollywoodisms” as Revolutionary Road. However, unlike Road, Kramer vs. Kramer is the definitive film on this subject. Enjoy.