There’s a bit of wish-fulfillment inherent to Kramer vs. Kramer, which depicts a modern man rising to the occasion when an unexpected divorce suddenly transforms him into a single parent, since statistics don’t paint the prettiest picture of men caught in that situation. Yet even if the film tweaks reality by portraying star Dustin Hoffman’s character as a man of superlative integrity, Kramer vs. Kramer features many emotional truths. The movie succinctly expresses the ennui of an era when divorce rates spiked to unprecedented levels, in part because married women inspired by the feminist movement began exploring social roles beyond that of homemaker. No other ’70s picture did a better job of exploring the ambiguous moral issues faced by adults struggling to balance familial responsibilities with self-realization.
Hoffman stars as Ted Kramer, a fast-rising New York City ad man whose life is thrown off-kilter when his wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep), announces that she’s ending their marriage. Caught in the middle is the Kramers’ young son, Billy (Justin Henry). As the story progresses, Ted must leave his careerist/narcissist shell in order to handle caretaking tasks for which Joanna was previously responsible, and it’s to Hoffman’s great credit that he lets himself be completely unattractive during early scenes; rather than immediately realizing he took his wife for granted, Ted explodes with rage. In the signature moment, Ted burns his hand on a frying pan and throws the pan to the ground, but instead of yelling “Damn it!” he yells “Damn her!”
Hoffman delivers a compelling performance filled with contradictory emotional colors, effectively sketching the outline of a complete human being. And despite appearing in far fewer scenes, Streep matches him on every level. (Her character returns with a vengeance when Joanna sues Ted for custody of their son.) Streep’s mixture of fragility and strength as a woman trying to align her maternal and spiritual needs is formidable, demonstrating how the intricate emotional life of women is something that men like Ted cannot ever fully comprehend. Adding to the indelible impression Streep makes here, the actress is also at her most radiantly beautiful.
Writer-director Robert Benton, who adapted this movie from a novel by Avery Corman, was never this sharp elsewhere, even though he was involved with several fine pictures before and after Kramer vs. Kramer. Working with famed cinematographer Nestor Almendros, Benton built an intimate cushion around his actors and photographed the movie with gentle warmth; the sum effect of these directorial choices is that the characters never lose primacy and the story never loses focus. Even when minor characters played by skilled actors including Jane Alexander, George Coe, and a young JoBeth Williams drift through the story, Benton’s attention never departs the core theme of a man, a woman, and a child riding the currents of confusing social change.
While the picture has its detractors, some of whom rightly questioned the plot’s use of Joanna as a villain, Kramer vs. Kramer received countless accolades, including Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Hoffman), and Best Supporting Actress (Streep). It also holds up beautifully today, a heartfelt story made with immaculate craftsmanship in front of and behind the camera.
Kramer vs. Kramer: RIGHT ON