Directed By: Robert Benton
Written By: Robert Brenton (based on the novel Kramer vs. Kramer by Avery Corman)
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Justin Henry
Robert Benton’s 1979 Best Picture winner Kramer vs. Kramer could simply have been about who wins and who loses. It could so easily have been a black and white courtroom melodrama where the tension lays in the hope of seeing our preferred character come out on top. It could have been about an estranged married couple spouting vitriol at each other, each party hellbent on proving the other wrong. But Kramer vs. Kramer isn’t about rights and wrongs. Benton, who also wrote the film, devotes less energy to deciphering which of his characters should be vindicated, and more to the whys of his characters. A custody battle is central to Kramer’s plot, but the film has bigger things on its mind. Kramer vs. Kramer is about learning.
The story is slender but strong. A neglected housewife named Joanna (played by Meryl Streep) has grown sick of the monotony of her days and walks out on her work obsessed husband Ted, and, by extension, her six year old son Billy. Dustin Hoffman plays Ted, and when we first meet him we wonder if he isn’t a roommate who Joanna has brought in to help make ends meet, rather than a husband and a father. It’s difficult to imagine Ted’s conversations with his family consisting of anything but dreary small-talk. In the film’s opening sequence, Ted has so busied his mind with work and his pending promotion that he doesn’t even register Joanna’s leaving until she’s halfway out the door. How long has Joanna been warning Ted of this day we wonder. Was Joanna selfish in her abandonment? Was Ted so closed off that he left her no alternative? “It took a lot of courage to walk out this door” one of Joanna’s sympathisers tells Ted.
“How much courage does it take to walk out on your kid?” Ted responds. The answer doesn’t matter, Benton passes no judgment. What does matter is if Ted can rise to the occasion of fatherhood. He’s been a dad for six years the day Joanna leaves, but it’s only now that he must become a parent. In a small but telling moment, Ted drops his son off at school for presumably the first time in his life. “What grade are you in?” he must ask as they part ways.
The film is teeming with small but telling moments. Benton finds great humanist drama in the most innocuous of scenarios, where the botched cooking of French toast, the spilling of juice, and, most powerfully, the disobedient eating of ice-cream, are protracted to the point of viscerality. The last of those instances is as evocative and revealing as any amount of courtroom cross-examination, stressed by the pin-point yet frenzied editing of Gerald B. Greenberg, ringing chaos from the seemingly banal.
Ted does rise to the occasion. In another wonderful moment, the cooking of French toast doubles back on itself to poignant affect, the director taking no passage of his film for granted as Ted and Billy reveal themselves as a slick tandem. Ted comes to learn that work is secondary, and through Billy (who is well played by Justin Henry,) he acknowledges his own hand in his home’s disintegration. Joanna, whether she was courageous or not, was no doubt suffocating.
The film pivots into bitter courtroom drama when Joanna returns after “finding herself” via a 15 month hiatus, ready to reclaim the title of lone parent which Ted has made his own in the meantime. To say that the film’s drama lays in the learning process isn’t to diminish the drama of these court scenes; there’s an uncomfortable savagery to them, they twist your guts. It remains however, that it’s the introspection the court case inspires which carries the most weight, where once again it’s the little things that communicate the most; a shake of the head from Ted, a quiver of Joanna’s lip.
Joanna is a fuller character in Streep’s hands than she is on the page. Criticism has been levelled at the film for being misogynist in the discrepancy of emphasis placed on Ted as opposed to his wife. Benton’s resistance to vilify either character thwarts that idea, but it is true that it’s left to Streep’s soulfulness and vulnerability to excel a sharply drawn antagonist into a recognisable human being.
It’s the dichotomy of Henry and Hoffman which lays at the heart of the film. Kramer vs. Kramer is, after all, an actor’s film, and whilst Benton has the skill to find the significance in every moment, it is the rawness supplied by the performers that brings each moment to life. The whole thing would be meaningless if Justin Henry were unable to find his way into our hearts. Henry, who himself was nominated for an Oscar at the age of eight, plays Billy with a stirring honesty. For once, we have a child that isn’t precocious, who is weak and in need of a parent. Hoffman would win his first of two Oscars as Ted, and it’s he who must journey the greatest distance emotionally. Hoffman’s preference to champion improvisation for stretches of the film speaks to his understanding that what Kramer requires are emotions that are true. Consider the now famed meeting between Joanna and Ted where the two talk for the first time since Joanna’s hiatus, a scene in which Hoffman famously smashed a wine glass without warning in order to shock his co-star. But there is something more intangible there too. Ted’s aura shifts from distant to warming; where once you saw a man destined to make small-talk, later you see a parent.
The greatest testament to Benton’s filmmaking is his having the good sense to turn his story over to his actors. The performers are handed the keys to the drama, and together they find true emotional depth.