By John H. Foote

26. KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979)

Robert Benton’s powerfully honest divorce drama which is more about a father and son learning to love one another, won five Academy Awards in its year of release. Best Picture, Best Actor (Duston Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Director (Benton) and for the screenplay adaptation of the best-selling novel. When one considers the film it bested is among the greatest films in the history of the cinema, Apocalypse Now, we gain some understanding of the admiration for this film at the time. Yet time, as it has a way of doing, has chipped away at the power of Kramer vs. Kramer and though still a fine film, I doubt anyone would consider it to be a greater film than Apocalypse Now.

Ted Kramer (Hoffman) arrives home giddy on a new deal at work as his wife has something she is trying to tell him. Joanna looks as though she has been weeping for days, her eyes red from the tears, and she keeps trying to get his attention to tell him she is leaving. He barely hears her, until she is in the elevator and snaps at him, “and I don’t love you anymore.”

He wakes up the next morning expecting her to come home, to be there for their son, five-year-old Billy (Justin Henry), but she does not come. Not for a very long time. Ted realizes he really knows nothing about his boy and understands at once he must come to terms with his son. To begin Billy believes he is responsible for his mother leaving and Ted makes it clear that is not true. They forge a cautious bond, and begin the process of getting to know each other, coming to love each other very much. Having been a competitive workaholic Ted begins to understand why his why left him, and to his surprise, he finds himself loving being with his son every waking moment. But it is not easy. He loses his job, gets another for less money, goes into a panic when Billy falls off a jungle gym and gashes his head, and then worst of all, after 18 months Joanna comes back, wanting her son.

Now very together, with a high paying job and very tough lawyer, they go to court to fight for Billy but find each has come to admire the other. The more Joanna hears the more admiration she has for Ted, realizing he has become the father she had hoped he would. They forgive one another, they recognize their flaws and failures in the marriage, even find peace with each other. But the court goes for motherhood right down the line and Joanna wins custody of Billy. Devastated, Ted and Billy walk together in the park the night before Billy is to leave and Ted comes to realize how empty his life will be without his son in it every day. More he recognizes the staggering impact the upheaval will have on his boy, and that is what really matters is it not?

In a stunning show of true love, Joanna cannot take him. She realizes they have made a life without her, and to take that away from Billy would be an act of vile cruelty. Ted gets to keep his son, and to him, that is everything he ever wanted.

The greatest strengths in this film are the performances which are exquisite from top to bottom. Hoffman was brilliant as Ted a decent hard-working man who learns to be a loving father, finds he is good at it and wants to be nothing else. Though easy to point Streep out as the villain, having left her son, her recognition of the bond between father and son, her giving up Billy after winning him, are acts of true goodness, thinking first of her child. The incomparable Meryl Streep wrote her big courtroom scene, stunning Hoffman and Benton with it, and it is that scene that likely won her that first Oscar. Young Justin Henry gives one of those once in a generation performances that cannot quite be believed. Natural, raw, he is perfect as the young Billy, who learns to love his father, forging an unbreakable bond.

The film proved to be a huge critical success, and was among the year’s top grossing films, extraordinary for a drama about divorce. Buoyed by the performances it waltzed away with five Academy Awards, but no one will ever convince me two of those did not belong to Apocalypse Now, with all due respect to Mr. Benton. Emerging from Bonnie and Clyde (1967) which he co-wrote, Benton very quickly climbed the ladder to become a first-rate director. In 1984 he danced close to Oscar again with Places in the Heart (1984) but instead he was ousted by Mozart and Milos Forman in Amadeus.

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