Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Written & Directed by Robert Benton
Much like 2019’s Marriage Story, Kramer vs. Kramer is very concerned about not giving the audience a biased story about divorce. While Dustin Hoffman is definitely the lead actor, Meryl Streep’s role as his wife who flees their home is not the villain. They are antagonistic for part of the story, but by the end, the film gives us a realistic finale. In real life, healthy people can’t stay enemies, mainly when there is a child in the middle. That’s not always the case, and maybe these characters are too aspirational, but the emotion and humanity of the situation feel very real.
Ted Kramer (Hoffman) is an advertising executive who has ignored his marriage for far too long. He’s blindsided when, after coming home to celebrate a potential promotion, his wife Joanna (Streep) tells Ted she’s leaving. Joanna never says where she is going but expresses regret that she doesn’t believe she is a good mother and wants more in her life. Ted is forced to step up and become the sole parent to their son Billy which proves difficult at first. Over the months, Ted finds he loves being a dad and taking care of his child much to the detriment of his work. Joanna comes back into their life suddenly and wants custody of Billy, which puts the former couple at odds in court.
Writer-director Robert Benton cleverly sets up what seems like an apparent good/bad dichotomy in the first act. Joanna is bad because she left, and Ted is good because he is being a dad. When Joanna shows up again, and we get a chance to see the marriage from her perspective that Ted was hugely neglectful of both her and Billy. The ending of the film could be considered happy, but it doesn’t flinch from hitting us with genuine pathos. Ted’s transformation throughout the picture is beautifully delivered by Hoffman. We feel the inconsiderate arrogance and the depth of love for his son, which endears Ted to us.
Meryl Streep is absent for much of the first half of the film and is definitely playing a supporting role. However, this role is written with significantly more depth than her part in The Deer Hunter. We naturally sympathize with Ted more because we’ve spent time with him. When Streep takes the stand and talks about her life, the audience naturally moves to the center. Joanna is a woman who came of age in an era where her dreams were deemed unimportant. We’re right in the heart of women’s liberation, and so she needed to figure out what she wanted. Could you argue that walking out on your child was not the right move? Definitely. But there’s an argument to be made about Ted’s lack of presence in their home as just as awful.
The film does some beautiful gender reversals, with its core theme being to challenge the expected roles of men and women. The second crisis in the movie, outside of the custody battle, is Ted’s decline at his advertising firm. As he allows his life to become centered around his son, Ted’s boss expresses his disapproval. This is happening only a few years out from the ending of Mad Men, so the same male-centric mentality is present. Men are expected to stay late, drinking and joking with the guys, maybe having a mistress. For Ted to take time off of work to attend his son’s play or attend to his child when he’s ill is seen as feminine by his boss and, therefore, weak in the eyes of toxic masculinity.
The draw for Kramer vs. Kramer is the spectacular grounded performances. Every actor, even the child performer, give everything and will move even the most stoic audience member. What helps is the immaculate dialogue penned by Benton, who understands the nuances of personalities and their voices. Revelations about Ted and Joanna’s relationship is never played for melodrama but part of natural conversation and people finally speaking truth to each other. Streep wasn’t the star of a picture yet, but she made her mark in this film.