Kramer vs. Kramer

Dir: Robert Benton, 1979. Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander, Justin Henry. Drama.
Kramer vs. Kramer

The amazing early part of Dustin Hoffman's career was filled with so many showy roles - Midnight Cowboy, Lenny, Strawdogs, and Little Big Man - but he ended the 1970s with perhaps the best performance of his career in Kramer vs. Kramer. This little film actually beat Apocalypse Now for the Best Picture Oscar. Which film you prefer may be debatable, but what isn't is that Kramer vs. Kramer is more than a little film. Robert Benton (co-writer of Bonnie and Clyde) took a simple little story of a career man learning about domestic responsibility and gave it a wallop of emotion that has helped it last the test of time.

Hoffman plays Ted Kramer, a New York ad-man married to Joanna (Meryl Streep) with a little boy, Billy (Justin Henry). One night after securing an important new account he comes home to find Joanna all packed and heading out the door. She leaves him...and Billy. Father and son have to learn to coexist - the usually selfish Ted has to learn to become a caretaker to his son and Billy has to get used to living without a mum. At first Ted doesn’t even know what grade his son is in and is forced to do what were then considered feminine chores like picking his son up at birthday parties and grocery shopping. But he learns to be a father and he and Billy build a special bond. Hoffman’s Ted obviously has a strong character arc and with the help of his single mother neighbor, Margaret (Jane Alexander), he develops a nurturing side to his tightly wound personality. This, of course, leads to his losing his job and, worse, after finding herself out in California, the icy Joanna eventually returns and fights to regain custody of Billy (hence the "vs." in the title).

Hoffman would follow Kramer vs. Kramer with the near perfect comedy, Tootsie (what a one-two punch). Both films would shine a light on the world women endured and men rarely acknowledged. Both films were about kinda-insensitive near-louts who come to terms with their feminine side. Kramer vs. Kramer might sound trite now, but it was actually revolutionary in ’79. This wasn’t The Brady Bunch when Mike and Carol switched household chores and comedy ensued. This husband and wife are a pair of deeply complicated personalities. Streep’s Joanna may have seemed slightly villainous at the time, but she was a woman unhappy with her role as housewife and full of secret career ambition, something more women can relate to today. In retrospect, both sides of the fight are treated pretty evenly, though obviously the emotional scales are weighed in Hoffman’s favor because he is the one who gets to grow on screen, But perhaps back in ’79, as more woman were joining the work force, many women might have secretly admired Joanna for wanting more out of life than just being Mrs. Ted Kramer.

Meryl Streep would win an Oscar for her work, coming directly off her supporting roles in The Deer Hunter and Manhattan; it was a great start to her reign as the best actress of her generation. Hoffman would also win a well-deserved Oscar and then, almost ten years later, he would win again for his one-note performance in Rain Man. But unfortunately, with the exception of his clever performance in Wag The Dog, he would never have another lead role in a significant film (like many of the greats of his generation - De Niro, Pacino, etc. - he seems to have lost much of that old magic).

The Oscar sweep would spread all around the Kramer vs. Kramer team. Robert Benton would win two for writing and directing and, like Hoffman, it would prove to be the peak of his career. Other than the Sally Field tear fest, Places Of The Heart, the next dozen films Benton would direct would be mostly forgettable.

Compared to the more excessive work by 1970s "it" directors like Scorsese, Coppola, Ashby or Altman, Kramer vs. Kramer is rarely cited in articles and documentaries about the decade. But it is really, in its quiet way, one of the best films of its day. It feels so rare today that a nice little actor-driven domestic drama could have the cultural impact that Kramer vs. Kramer had. It’s also fascinating as a moment in time for two great actors - Hoffman finishing up his great ride, while Streep was just beginning hers.


Kramer vs. Kramer won five Oscars: Best Actor (Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Streep), Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was nominated for an additional four Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Henry), Best Supporting Actress (Alexander), Best Cinematography, and Best Editing.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Oct 13, 2010 5:09pm
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