Sunday, June 3, 2012



KRAMER VS. KRAMER, the 1979 pick for best picture, was both a film that fell into a classic Hollywood style ( a domestic and courtroom drama) and something new and different; a serious, realistic film that looked at divorce and changing gender roles in the American family.  Moving without ever being maudlin, and wonderfully acted by both the adult stars and by child actor Justin Henry, it holds up beautifully and,  although some of the relationship discussions have now become cliches, (a wife leaving her husband tells him "It's not you, it's me", and later says she left to "find herself") it raises issues that remain relevant to this day.
It began as a novel by Avery Corman published in 1977 and purchased by producer Stanley Jaffe.  French director Francois Truffaut was originally considered as the director, with Robert Benton writing the script; eventually, Benton, who had directed only two films at that point, was picked to helm the film along with writing it.    For the lead role of Ted Kramer, Jafee knew right away that he wanted Dustin Hoffman.  Hoffman, who, along with Robert DeNiro, was quickly becoming famous for giving great performances in a wide variety of films, initially turned the role down, partly because he himself was going through a painful divorce at the time.  But Jaffe and Benton lobbied Hoffman hard for the role, and after several long, grueling script discussions between the three of them, he agreed to it.  He wound up bringing so much of his own feelings and experiences about divorce into the script that  Benton offered him a co screenwriting credit, which he refused.  Kate Jackson, star of TV's CHARLIE'S ANGELS, was cast as Joanna Kramer, with Meryl Streep cast to play Ted's one night stand Phyllis, but when Jackson's TV schedule kept her too busy to be in the film, Streep was bumped up to the role of Joanna and Jo Beth Williams played Phyllis.  And for the pivotal role of the six year old Billy Kramer, seven year old Justin Henry, who had no acting experience at all, was chosen after being discovered by his next door neighbor, who happened to be a casting director.  The filming of the movie ( done entirely in New York city) went smoothly, with a budget of around eight million dollars.  It got great reviews, and  really struck a cord with moviegoers, as divorce rates were skyrocketing around the country; eventually it made over a hundred million dollars making it the biggest money making film  of the year, besting such big releases as ALIEN and ROCKY II.  It really shows just how much the moviegoing audience has changed over the years that there was once a time when a family drama could be the year's most popular film! 
It tells the story of the Ted Kramer (Hoffman), a successful ad executive who is forced to care for his son Billy alone after his wife Joanna (Streep) abruptly leaves them.  Despite not knowing much about his son, Ted eventually bonds with him, but then Joanna returns, demanding custody of Billy.

Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry

Throughout the film, Benton had cinematographer Nestor Almendros use naturalistic lighting, which, combined with location shooting, gives the film a realistic look, the perfect set up for scenes about people discussing their feelings and emotions.  (He also uses long takes and avoids too many close ups, letting the feelings expressed by the actors reach the audience indirectly.)  All of this adds to the sense of believability that pervades the film; really, this truly is a rare and wonderful thing, a Hollywood film that has a story that seems taken from the real world, without a hint of melodrama.  Even in the film's most harrowing scene, when Ted has to rush Billy to the emergency room, it comes from Billy falling off a jungle gym, an ordinary, everyday kind of accident.  The film is filled with nice, true to life moments than any parent can identify with, like Billy riding a bicycle for the first time, or mumbling his way through a school play.  
  The film opens with a close up of Joanna's face showing mixed feelings of warmth and sadness.  With a quick cut we pull back to see her caressing the face of her sleeping son; normally this display of maternal emotion in a film indicates a simple, tender moment, but her expression tells us otherwise.  This short, silent scene is crucial to her character, in that it shows how much she realizes how momentous the actions is about to take are, and that she is not acting lightly, but with deep thought and sadness.   Although the audience can criticize her decision to leave, we can also feel sympathy for the obvious pain that decision is bringing her.  Before this film, to portray a woman who abruptly leaves her child for fifteen months as anything other than a monster would be unheard of, and even today it's rare, but Benton wisely avoids making a villain out of Joanna, and the film is all the richer for it.  

When film actors are asked what kind of role is the most difficult to play, they usually say the same thing: it's not playing someone famous,  severely handicapped or insane that's the hardest.  No, the most tricky portrayals are ones of normal people who have normal things happen to them, because they have to keep the audience's interest without the inherent drama that unusual people come with.  By that standard, Hoffman's performance as Ted Kramer may be the best of his impressive career (he won a best actor award for it, his first). In charting the emotional change of a distant father (who has no idea what grade his child is in!) to a loving one, Hoffman never takes a false step or displays the wrong emotion; although he has some big moments of anger and bitterness, they always feel natural to the character, and he is just as good in the quieter scenes.  I love the way he deals with having to make French toast for Billy right after Joanna has left, attempting to put on a brave front of strained, almost manic joviality for his son, only to wind up breaking down in anger as he accidentally burns himself and curses his absent wife in front of his son.  (In a nice, understated moment, we later see Ted and Billy calmly make French toast together to show how much they've grown together.)
Hoffman reportedly talked over each scene carefully with his young costar before shooting, and the result is not only a believable father son relationship, but one that evolves from distant to close as the movie continues.  The fact that little Justin Henry had no acting experience before this film actually works to his advantage; he is cute, but not in the cloying,  Hollywood way that so many child actors are,  and when he is acting bratty, his anger is authentic and never played for laughs. In the famous scene in which he eats ice cream even as his father forbids him, (an idea Hoffman came up with based on a real argument he once had with his own daughter) he truly seems like a young child testing his boundaries.  Henry was nominated for best supporting actor for the role, the youngest actor to ever be nominated, and while just how much of his performance comes from him instead of the subtle manipulations of Benson and Hoffman is debatable,  he is excellent.  Without being too perfect, Billy is an  immensely like able kid that we can believe the two parents would fight over.

Meryl Streep

Although Streep's Joanna is gone for a large part of the movie, her absence is always felt, and her return is inevitable.  Like Hoffman, Streep won an Oscar for her role (as best supporting actress), mainly on the strength of her excellent court room speech in which she explains her reasons for leaving, and her desire to have Billy back in her life. Streep was not happy with the way the speech was originally written, and Benton allowed her to write it herself, a wise decision that makes it all the more moving.  The courtroom scenes in general are so intense, with both Ted and Joanna being forced to expose raw feelings, that they are almost unwatchable, and we feel sympathy for both of them as their opposing lawyers tear into them.  Although some divorce lawyers have criticized these scenes for being inaccurate (having had no personal experience in these kind of proceedings, I can't really comment on that), they get to a deeper truth: in divorces and custody battles, there often are no real winners.  This is the rare courtroom drama where both sides of the case have a point, and the judge could easily go either way.    
Other strengths in the film are Howard Duff's fine performance as Ted's tough but likable lawyer and George Coe as his boss.  Another stand out is Jane Alexander as Joanna's friend Margaret, who starts out the film not liking Ted, but who eventually befriends him (it's a rare delight to see a man and a woman become friends in a movie without any romantic entanglements).  Yes, by trusting  his actors, and striving for realism, Benson made a powerful yet understated classic that anyone going through a divorce, or just dealing with being a parent can relate to.


This really is a tough call, that shows how difficult comparing vastly films can be: 1979 was really an outstanding year for films, with many films that have withstood the test of time being released, such as Bob Fosse's ALL THAT JAZZ, Francis Ford Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW, Hal Ashby's BEING THERE, Woody Allen's MANHATTEN, and Martin Ritt's NORMA RAE, all of which have their strengths.  Still, for its straightforward, emotional story, and great performances, I think KRAMER VS. KRAMER was a fine choice.

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