Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Synopsis: Ted Kramer’s wife leaves her husband, allowing for a lost bond to be rediscovered between Ted and his son, Billy. But a heated custody battle ensues over the divorced couple’s son, deepening the wounds left by the separation.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Leah

Why I chose it: Like any red-blooded American, I love Meryl Streep. And Dustin Hoffman’s not too bad either. And something about it being a critically-acclaimed Best Picture winner.

Brent’s Review:

And now I present for your viewing pleasure: perhaps the most soul-crushing film I’ve seen that doesn’t deal with genocide.

Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is a self-absorbed, career-obsessed man who has made a habit of ignoring his wife Joanna’s (Meryl Streep) problems in favor of sharing his own successes. She snaps him back to attention one night when, after receiving a big promotion, he returns him to find that she is leaving him. In any divorce story, there are two elements happening simultaneously: the “why?” and the “what next?” Kramer vs. Kramer is interesting in the way that it so quickly shelves considerations of the former because the latter is so urgent.

Joanna leaves her son Billy (Justin Henry) in the care of Ted. Ted is completely out of his element and his care for Billy threatens his career, but he and his son form a bond that is later tested when the film turns into a courtroom drama in the form of a custody battle near the end.

The film doesn’t point fingers or take sides. Ted has hurt Joanna, but he isn’t evil. Joanna ran out on Billy, but she still loves him. Billy prefers each of them at different points in the film, but it’s clear that their differences are irreconcilable.

So why is this film so soul-crushing? Simply: Justin Henry. This is easily the best performance I’ve seen from a child actor — including a lengthy scene of improvisation — because of the way he is able to so quickly turn the emotional force of a scene on its head. We go from happiness to sadness, or in one scene from whimsy to shock, at a moment’s notice. Each time the film changes its emotional force recalls the first scene of the film: we see how Ted must feel as he falls from his highest high to his lowest low.

This is all, however, to speak little of Robert Benton’s direction. Benton isn’t flashy, but it’s clear he’s in control of the material in such a way that generates these sudden, jerky changes in momentum. His intention is not to be an auteur, but as I said of Denzel Washington’s work in “Fences” earlier this year, he knows where to be and when. The film’s strength is its acting and he, like Washington, wisely chooses not to impede.

“Kramer vs. Kramer” features two powerhouse actors (Hoffman & Streep), but relies so heavily on Henry’s performance that the success of the film hinges on him. The film won Best Picture at the Oscars in 1980, so in a way I think that validates my opinion on his acting.

Interestingly enough, Justin Henry was only in one other notable film (Sixteen Candles — four years later). I pose this question to you, reader: would you rather have a long, moderately successful film career or just one brilliant performance at a young age?

Leah’s Review:

If you want to watch a movie that will tear out your heart and soul and stomp on them multiple times, look no further than “Kramer vs. Kramer”. This 1979 drama features performances from two acting greats (Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep) that will draw you into the world of Ted and Joanna Kramer as they deal with the ramifications of their separation, specifically in respect to their six-year old son, Billy.

From the title alone, I expected “Kramer vs. Kramer” to be a full-blown court drama with equal screen time from both Hoffman and Streep. Instead, the film focuses on Hoffman’s home life and his adjustment to unexpectedly being a single father. We discover early on that Ted is something of a workaholic and doesn’t have a very close relationship with his son Billy. The first scene of the two together reveals this disconnect as Ted fails spectacularly at making breakfast for Billy, being completely unravelled by Joanna’s desertion.

We see the effects of Joanna’s sudden absence on both Ted and Billy as both go through various stages of grief- the first of which, of course, being denial. The revelation that Joanna won’t be returning comes in the form of a letter that Ted reads out loud to Billy- a heartbreaking scene in which we watch with anguish as both realize that Joanna is gone for good. The two share ups and downs as they attempt to adjust to their new circumstances. Billy without the constant care and attention from his mother and Ted realizing that he cannot be fully devoted to his work and fully devoted to his son simultaneously. Over time, the dysfunction between father and son dwindles as they develop a deep understanding and love in their relationship.

In a movie that won the Oscar for not only Best Picture, but also for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, it’s no surprise that “Kramer vs Kramer” showcases some truly spectacular acting. Hoffman and Streep go to great lengths to portray both the hardships and complexities of a failing marriage and their intense love for their son. This movie doesn’t shy away from the difficult realities of divorce and trying to raise a child alone. The courtroom scenes, although brief, are incredibly excruciating to watch on both sides. And of course, I can’t leave out the performance of Justin Henry who executed the role of Billy with maturity well beyond his years.

I’d heard a lot about this film prior to watching- from its acclaimed performances to its “controversial” content. It’s interesting to me how even though single fathers (or even stay-at-home dads) have become more socially acceptable in our society- the idea of a man being the one to raise children is still regarded as abnormal. But to quote Ted Kramer, what makes someone a good parent isn’t their sex but rather “constancy, patience, understanding… love.” Regardless, “Kramer vs. Kramer” is an excellent film and would certainly recommend it. Just make sure you grab the tissues.

Up next: We’ll be seeing Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Brent’s seen it before; Leah hasn’t. Expect some wildly differing responses to this one.

Peace out, kids.


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