Kramer vs. Kramer: A Wrecked Marriage

I’m not, nor have I ever been married. But, from what I can gather, marriage is a journey that, after embarked upon, takes a lot of work to maintain. Two people committed to each other for better or for worse seems like it can be very challenging at times. Then throw in some kids and marriage seems to “step it up a notch.”

Marriage can be a very happy and fulfilling time. I have several friends that are happily married. Chances are, if you are reading this, you might be happily married, too. I think of my own parents. Sure, it’s not sunshine and rainbows, but they seem like better people because of their marriage and love for each other.

But what about when it goes wrong? When you can reconcile those differences? What do you do then? Hopefully, your story is not Kramer vs. Kramer. Unfortunately, it’s that way for a lot of couples and I couldn’t stop thinking about them when watching this movie.

We all know that humans are very relational beings; we form bonds with ourselves, other humans, our gods and even our environments. Even when we’re alone, relationships form, even with inanimate things. In Ridley Scott’s The Martian, which is one of my favorite movies, Mark Watney forms a relationship with his mission logs (they’re written logs in the book and video logs in the movie) and they are how the story is told.

Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi is another example. Gandhi forms relationships with the people he’s inspired over the years of his life.

Kramer vs. Kramer is a guttural story about Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) finding his bond with his son, Billy (Justin Henry), after Ted’s wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) leaves them both one night. You’ve got a father, who’s at his most tense and vulnerable, who has to care for and raise the most innocent among us.

Robert Benton’s Oscar-winner doesn’t need a large, grandiose setting or cast, like Gandhi, to get the job done. No, all it takes is three brilliant acting performances, excellent writing, and a thumb on what’s really important in life. And I was riveted the whole way through the movie. I loved every second I was watching it.

Now, for the review:

Plot

The story of Kramer vs. Kramer is very simple: Joanna Kramer leaves her husband and 5 ½ year old son one night. While she sends a letter saying that she needed to find herself, the reason for her disappearance that night is largely a mystery throughout the first part of the film.

After Joanna leaves, Ted (who is a workaholic creative at an advertising agency) is left to fend for their son Bobby while balancing an increased workload. Things don’t go well at first but soon, Ted and Billy capture a special father-son relationship. When Joanna returns, the parents get involved in a bitter custody battle for their son.

I can pinpoint the exact number of movies centered around divorce that kept me interested throughout: zero. Yet, for its simplicity, Kramer vs. Kramer has a ton of depth and it’s brought to the surface through not only its script and terrific acting (more on those below) but also the issues that must be tackled to get to the end. This movie is an affront to traditional views of gender roles, marriage and raising children. And yet, the characters, while trying to break through those norms and ideals, are held in check by them, creating an incredibly frustrating and tense climax to the movie. 1.

Writing

The inspiration for Kramer vs. Kramer is based on the novel of the same name by Avery Corman. Robert Benton, the film’s director, adapted the book into his Oscar-winning screenplay.

The best thing about Kramer vs. Kramer’s writing is its authenticity. Each of these characters speak like how normal Americans would speak. There’s nothing special about any of them (as in none of them are famous or have superpowers) they’re just seemingly normal Americans with seemingly normal lives. Their relational struggles kept me engaged because I felt for them and connected with them.

This movie throws you right into conflict and it ends as suddenly as it begins. But the journey to that ending is done so well that I was on the edge of my seat during the first watch. And this is a drama. Divorce, custody battles and love can be very complex ideas with a wide range of emotions. The script is perfectly paced to bring out all those feelings. I felt like 7-year old Billy at time with this script too. The writing explained each of the conflicting feelings felt by the characters in an understandable manner. It’s also perfectly cast, but more on that in a bit. 1.

Sound

Like many other elements in this movie, the sound is very simple. There’s really no soundtrack to speak of, other than some light instrumentals every now and then.

For the sound effects, they met my expectations. One clever use of sound was when Ted was looking for another job. While he’s interviewing, there’s a Christmas party going on outside the office. You can hear soft disco tunes playing in the background. This was a nice detail that could be overlooked very easily by lesser movies. 1.

Set Design

Alright, the best thing about Kramer vs. Kramer was Dustin Hoffman wearing bell-bottom jeans.

The second-best thing, at least as it relates to set design, was how much crap there was in each scene. A considerable chunk of the movie takes place in Ted and Joanna’s apartment (sans Joanna, of course). It felt like I was in my grandparents’ house. Closets full of clothes, match holders on the counters and full medicine cabinets that had everything from Aspirin to Band-Aids.

The offices at Ted’s job are well-done, too. The desks look like my desks, piled high full of crap with little organization. The walls are covered with posters and photos. This may not seem like a big deal, but when you construct an entire world, the details are huge in relation to the feel of the movie.

My favorite use of detail was at the very beginning when a stressed Joanna is sitting on the couch waiting for Ted to get home. She’s going to tell him that she’s leaving him. There’s an ashtray next to her with what looks like a dozen used cigarettes in it. That, coupled with the fearful look on her face, sold me that she’s thought long and hard about the decision to leave him. 1.

Cinematography

Nestor Almendros was the cinematographer for Kramer vs. Kramer. Again, simple and effective. This seems to be a theme for the last several movies that I’ve reviewed. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with this.

But, Kramer vs. Kramer is different from the others of late. This movie is about people and how they relate to each other. So, Benton and Almendros made sure that we see people and their reactions. There are many, many medium shots (basically from the middle of the chest and up) to gauge the character’s reactions and see their emotions. This took incredibly talented actors to pull off.

The camera can also help convey emotion. In this scene, Ted is fired. After he’s delivered the news, the camera moves in on Ted, bringing the audience closer to the conversation. The movement brings the emotions and concerns that Ted feels to the forefront of this conversation. It changes this entire exchange. When Ted mentions that he can’t win custody of Billy if he can’t hold a job, that’s just a reaffirmation of what the camera has already shown us. 1.

Acting

Kramer vs. Kramer received four acting nominations at the 52nd Academy Awards. To say that the acting in this film was brilliant is a severe understatement. I’m going to focus on Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep here.

Dustin Hoffman (Ted Kramer): This was a movie that fundamentally changed my view of Dustin Hoffman. I’d always believed that his wide smile and sometimes nasal voice were just quirks that you had to deal with when you cast him. But, in watching this movie, those two traits became very endearing to him. Ted Kramer, because of Hoffman, was a character that I could sink my teeth into and one that I fell in love with by the end. I was invested in him fully.

From the outset, Ted is tested, both at home and at work. He doesn’t handle it well at times and he’s not perfect. He pretty much comes unglued as soon as Joanna leaves. Ted’s depth is something that I’ve been yearning for since Gandhi. Hoffman won a Best Actor for this role and it’s well-deserved.

Meryl Streep (Joanna Kramer): Perhaps the most stunning part of Meryl Streep’s performance was what happened when she wasn’t there. Her presence in the first few tumultuous minutes of the movie (when Joanna tells Ted that she’s leaving him) resonated for the rest of the film. In fact, for the first 45 minutes, she was almost totally unseen. Yeah, Ted’s having this struggle because Joanna isn’t there, but her presence can still be felt.

But a funny thing happens when she reappears. Through all the trials that Ted is going through, you understand little bits and pieces of why Joanna left: Ted’s a workaholic and doesn’t take any time to bond with his wife and his son. By the time you see her again, she picks up Joanna’s motivations and, in the typical Meryl Streep way, her emotional delivery is pure perfection.

This is one of the roles that truly made Meryl Streep into what she is today. But what’s amazing is the abuse she had to take during the filming. According to Variety, Dustin Hoffman, one of Hollywood’s most intense method actors, slapped her across the face before one scene to get her into her Joanna’s state of mind. When Ted and Joanna meet again, Ted gets angry and forcefully accelerates a wine glass on a wall right by Joanna’s head. Hoffman didn’t tell Streep that he was doing this. He wanted her legitimate reaction on camera. And it is her startled look that you see. But she never breaks character. Not for a second. 1.

Directing

In this edition, I decided to move the order of these things around. All the things I’ve listed above really do fall under the direction of the director. I’ve known that judging directing would be the hardest part of this blog and I was right. So, in an effort to change things around, I’ve moved directing to the end so I don’t give anything away earlier in the blog.

Robert Benton won Best Director for Kramer vs. Kramer. This was the crowning achievement for his filmography in my mind. His ability to draw out the best performances from his actors is really the highlight of his directorial effort.

At the end of the day, what is Kramer vs. Kramer, really about? Sure, it’s got divorce in it, but it’s mostly about home. When it comes to what homes actually are, they’re a lot of things. They don’t have to be pretty, they don’t have to be well-oiled and the people in it don’t have to get along all the time. But what makes home truly home is subjective. Benton nails this idea in this movie. While Ted and Billy’s home is much different from any that I’ve experienced in my life, it made me feel at home. I could connect to it in a way that was not only personal for me, but very emotional. And you can really thank Benton for that. He gave guidance and drama to a movie about divorce, and, to me, that’s a hard thing to do. 1.

Bonus Points

Yeah, the acting was THAT good in Kramer vs. Kramer. I’d like to give a couple of extra points to that category here. The first point goes to Justin Henry, who played little Billy. He was a little kid at the time and that youthful innocence and exuberance translated to the screen so well. He was an unbelievably authentic part of this movie. The second point goes to Jane Alexander for her role at Margaret, a friend of both Joanna and Ted. Margaret was Joanna’s rock when she was struggling and was Ted’s when he needed a lift. She was terrific, wholesome and everything you’d want in a great friend. Both Henry and Alexander were nominated for acting awards.

I have to give another point to the set design. This set was obsessively detailed. I was impressed.

Final Score: 10/10

Oscar Facts

Kramer vs. Kramer won the 52nd Academy Award for Best Picture on April 14, 1980 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. The ceremony was hosted by Johnny Carson. Charlton Heston presented the award. In all, Kramer vs. Kramer won five of its nine nominations. In addition to Best Picture, Robert Benton won Best Director, Dustin Hoffman won Best Actor and Meryl Streep won Best Supporting Actress. The movie also won Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. Justin Henry was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and, at eight years old, he’s the youngest to ever garner a nomination.

Kramer vs. Kramer beat All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now, Breaking Away and Norma Rae for Best Picture. Sally Field won Best Actress for her role in Norma Rae. Melvyn Douglas won Best Supporting Actor for Being There.

Next Week

For our next post, I’ll be taking a look at Driving Miss Daisy from Bruce Beresford. After that, it’s The Last Emperor, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, Terms of Endearment and Titanic.

9 Comments

  1. I’m so glad you liked this movie so much, I know I did! Thank you for a great review, I felt the same way about the acting, it was great. Now I need to watch it again and notice the details of the set that you pointed out, I definitely missed that!

    Like

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