Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
December 7, 2015 2:44 PM - Subscribe

Ted Kramer's wife leaves her husband, allowing for a lost bond to be rediscovered between Ted and his son, Billy. But a heated custody battle ensues over the divorced couple's son, deepening the wounds left by the separation.

Vincent Canby's New York Times film review from 1979:
"This is the hermetic world of Robert Benton's fine, witty, moving, most intelligent adaptation of Avery Corman's best-selling novel, 'Kramer vs. Kramer', which opens today at Loews Tower East and other theaters.

"Kramer vs. Kramer is a Manhattan movie, yet it seems to speak for an entire generation of middle-class Americans who came to maturity in the late 60's and early 70's, sophisticated in superficial ways but still expecting the fulfillment of promises made in the more pious Eisenhower era.


"Kramer vs. Kramer is one of those rare American movies that never have to talk importantly and self-consciously to let you know that it has to do with many more things than are explicitly stated. It's about fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and most particularly, perhaps, about the failed expectations of a certain breed of woman in this day and age.

"Though much of Kramer vs. Kramer is occupied with the growing relationship between the abandoned father and son, through tantrums and reconciliations and playground accidents, the central figure is that of the movingly, almost dangerously muddled mother, played by Miss Streep in what is one of the major performances of the year. Joanna is not an easily appealing character, especially when she returns after eighteen months of therapy in California and seeks legal custody of the child she walked out on."
Child actor Justin Henry's performance was praised all around; here's Mike D'Angelo discussing it at The Dissolve:
"Justin Henry was only 8 years old when he was nominated for playing Billy Kramer in Kramer Vs. Kramer, and he’s still the youngest nominee in Oscar history, more than 30 years later. Henry comes across in the film like a real, unaffected little boy, especially in scenes that require him to act out to challenge his newly single dad, played by Dustin Hoffman, who won Best Actor. It’s one thing to tell a little kid on a movie set that he should get up and retrieve the chocolate-chip ice cream and take a big bite, even though his movie father is telling him he’d better not—plenty of boys could do that. Henry makes this hilarious stand-off come alive by constantly glancing at Hoffman to see how he’s responding, making it clear that he wants to test his boundaries even more than he wants the ice cream. Also, I’ve never been able to get through the scene where Billy gets stitches (after falling on the playground) without tears, in large part because Henry simulates pain and fear so expertly. Child actors rarely go on to adult careers, so it’s hardly surprising that Henry didn’t get many other jobs (his only other notable role is as Molly Ringwald’s smart-ass brother in Sixteen Candles), but I still feel like the industry may have failed him. Few 8-year-olds could have made Kramer Vs. Kramer work as well as it does."
Wikipedia places the film's themes and tensions in a cultural context:
"Kramer vs. Kramer reflected a cultural shift which occurred during the 1970s, when ideas about motherhood and fatherhood were changing. The film was widely praised for the way in which it gave equal weight and importance to both Joanna and Ted's points of view.[6]

"At the time of release, the court default standard was to lean heavily toward the mother in custody suits. The movie's social impact was to challenge this and start conversations on this. Court standards have since changed, and fathers are not automatically considered lesser options for being awarded custody."
  • The highest-grossing movie of 1979. (imdb)
  • Dustin Hoffman planned the moment when he throws his wine glass against the wall during the restaurant scene with Meryl Streep. The only person he warned in advance was the cameraman, to make sure that it got in the shot. Streep's shocked reaction is real, but she stayed in character long enough for the director to yell cut. In the documentary on the DVD, she recalls yelling at Hoffman as soon as the shot was over for scaring her so badly. (imdb)
  • The famous ice-cream scene, where Billy challenges his father by skipping dinner and going straight for dessert, was completely improvised by both Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry. Director Robert Benton liked the scene so much that he decided to keep it in the film. (imdb)
  • Dustin Hoffman, who was going through a marital separation and who divorced his first wife soon after filming ended, contributed many personal moments and dialogue. Director Robert Benton, offered shared screenplay credit, but Hoffman turned it down. (imdb)
  • Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep would often, jokingly, try to get Justin Henry to pick one of them over the other. One day on the set, Hoffman asked Henry who he'd rather be with. Henry said, "Her. She's nicer," to which Hoffman replied, "Oh yeah? Work with her five weeks then see what you say." (imdb)
  • There was initially tension between Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. Hoffman was hearing lots of advance publicity about newcomer Streep and how she was mastering the role and Hoffman felt he was being upstaged. When Streep wanted to change around the dialogue in the restaurant meeting scene, Hoffman became furious. As Hoffman recalled, "I hated her guts. Yes, I hated her guts. But I respected her." He accepted that Streep wasn't arguing for what was best for her character but what was best for the movie. (imdb)
See Wikipedia for full list of awards and nominations for this film.

YouTube Links

A memorable scene: Kramer vs. Kramer (3/8) - Billy Acts Out (1979)
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) - Official Movie Trailer
Dustin Hoffman winning Best Actor for "Kramer vs. Kramer"
Dustin Hoffman talks about Meryl Streep
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (3 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Thanks for the detailed writeup! I've never posted here before, so I hope you can stomach some memories that this film brought back to me.

My dad took me to see it when it came out in a theater. I was 5. I remember exactly two scenes: Dustin Hoffman scrambling eggs, defending his cooking while telling his son that some of the best chef's in the world were men, and Justin Henry falling off the monkey bars and bleeding all over the place. I remember feeling physically ill watching the latter scene.

The 70's were such a different time. I don't remember much of that decade, but I remember learning later that there was a lot of concern that Western culture had become entrenched in narcissism. A cultural historian wrote a famous book claiming that we had collectively degenerated into a condition of "pathological narcissism," which he tied into the decline of the family. I think it's interesting to think about the decades since--the 80's were called the "me generation" and Time magazine's Person of the Year in 2006 was "You"--in light of those ideas. Also, we had a President who called us out on our bullshit, giving a speech that was meant to reflect our collective "crisis of confidence," but which became known as the "malaise" speech. Hope you don't mind if I quote from it at length:
"In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns."
I don't even remember Meryl Streep being in this film. That means I'm in for a treat when I re-watch it. I'm very interested in how acting styles have changed over the decades, and I'm a big enough fan of her work that I should have some answers. Hoffman has also had a several decades-spanning career, so there should be some answers there, too. I remember hearing somewhere that contemporary acting styles were always thought of as more "natural" than the styles that preceeded them (even those of the silent film era, which look like pantomime to modern viewers).

There's a lot to chew on here. Again, thanks for putting all this together!
posted by Mr. Fig at 10:14 AM on December 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Love your comment, thanks for making it. One small niggle - I believe The Me Generation referred to the 70s decade, although certainly we saw massive bleed-through with the boomer generation's focus on materialism and excess in the 80s. Wikipedia write-up here.

Another concern in culture: divorce. Divorce was on everyone's mind and was a major 'think piece' subject for newspapers and magazines; combine this with growing awareness of sexism with parenting assumptions, the disappointment of 'making it' in corporate America, and the self-focus that you mention above and you get the perfect storm in Kramers vs. Kramer. Yes, this is very much driven by Boomer-generation concerns, and as a Gen Xer, it's hard to over-emphasize just how much that generation had a hold on what the media talked about and what pop culture was concerned with.

Apart from the above, Kramer vs. Kramer is pretty well-done for what it is, and the child actor, Justin Henry, is just outstanding - a poor child actor would've sunk this movie. We've got to care about him to see what's at stake for the two major characters - both parents.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 11:25 AM on December 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

The 70s were the "me" decade. The 80s were the Al Franken decade.
posted by whuppy at 2:35 PM on December 9, 2015

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