Even in 1979, when Kramer vs. Kramer was released, divorce was not uncommon, so making a serious, compelling film about the topic of divorce and single parenthood and custody battles in the age of Alien and Apocalypse Now had to have been a significant challenge for screenwriter and director Robert Benton.
Benton, along with a sterling cast, was more than up to the challenge.
Workaholic Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) arrives home high with the excitement of landing a major client at the advertising agency where he works, only to discover that his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) is all packed and unshakeably ready to leave him and their young son Billy. When it becomes clear that Joanna is not coming back, Ted finds himself in an increasingly complex dilemma. The new client is high maintenance and, according to Ted’s boss, requires one hundred percent of their time and focus; at the same time, Ted, now a single parent, realizes that the care of a six-year-old child is also a full-time job. These two demands soon begin to compete, and in the heat of this competition Kramer undergoes a profound transformation.
Simply by being who he is, Billy causes Ted to discover fatherhood – parenthood – in all of its dimensions. Billy’s needs are greater than a ride to school, clean hair, and three square meals; he needs love – tough love, tender love, patient love, understanding love; he needs to be paid attention to, to be listened to, and to be “beed with,” as the old song goes. In this process of discovery, Ted opens up slowly, like a flower in early spring, revealing to himself and to the world a tenderness, a capacity to love that had been buried for a long time. He also realizes that the balance of work and home must always be tipped in favour of home, not only because home is the greater responsibility but also because it is the source of the greatest happiness.
By the time Joanna re-enters the picture, demanding custody of Billy, father and son are intimately and inextricably connected, sharing a bond that makes the custody battle – which we know in our hearts Ted is going to lose – all the more painful, both for Ted and Billy and for us, the audience.
I have never seen Dustin Hoffman display more range and subtlety in a role than he offers here as Ted Kramer; Ted is a complex character who is experiencing a profound awakening, and Hoffman draws us into that experience and never lets us go. The film was terribly personal for Hoffman as he was going through his own divorce at the time Kramer vs. Kramer was made.
A significant contributing factor to the success of this film is the chemistry that is constantly working between Hoffman and his precocious co-star, seven-year-old Justin Henry; the two actors are in such a high level of emotional sync that every scene they play – and there are many father-son scenes in this film – is unaffected and utterly believable. And while she only appears for a total of fifteen minutes in the film, the young Meryl Streep is already showing signs of the acting greatness she is very soon to achieve.
Kramer vs. Kramer is yet another example of the “small story” that, if handled well, does not just succeed in holding our attention and entertaining us for two hours, but reveals profound truths about humanity and about life. Ted and Joanna Kramer are two ordinary New Yorkers, married and raising a small child, living in an ordinary apartment, experiencing a less-than-extraordinary relationship crisis. Yet Ted Kramer’s transformation arising from the crisis is a revelation to every one of us who is stuck in an emotional rut, a revelation that points the way – and it is not necessarily an easy way – to what truly matters in life and to what will ultimately make us happy: being who we really are.
“Kramer vs. Kramer Poster.” Wikipedia
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