Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Film #102: Kramer Vs. Kramer

After a low-key credits sequence radiantly scored with Vivaldi's "Concerto in C Major for Mandolin & Strings," Kramer Vs. Kramer begins with an exquisite, madonna-like image of Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) as she's wishing her nearly-sleeping son Billy (Justin Henry) a good night. Trying to prolong the moment, she says "Don't let the bedbugs bite," and as she strokes his blond hair, he exasperatedly whispers "I'll see you in the morning." But that is not to be. Joanna soon retreats to her bedroom, retrieves her luggage, and begins packing her things.

We then cut to a schmoozing Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) as he tells a banal story-of-success to his asshole boss (George Coe). This is right before Ted is offered the biggest account his New York advertising firm has ever handled. Ted comes home elated, only to be thrown wildly off-course by Joanna, who attempts to confess she's leaving him. But he's not listening. He's consumed by his Madison Avenue batting average. He thinks she's playing a joke on him. But it's not a joke. Joanna is departing, leaving Ted with the laundry, the grocery shopping, and the raising of their 8-year-old child. Ted hardly knows what's hit him before she's out the door and out of his life. And now he's got this stranger--his son--to take care of.

Robert Benton's Kramer Vs. Kramer arrived on the movie scene at a precise moment in the history of the American family. The 60s and 70s had passed, and in their wake came a rolling thunder of female empowerment. No longer were women expected to be Leave It To Beaver's Barbara Billingsley, waiting at home immaculately dressed, apron on and dinner on the table. Women--mothers, even--were now out in the working world. And those who weren't felt as if they might be missing out on something.

I can recall seeing Kramer Vs. Kramer, by myself, at age 13, at Atlanta's massive Toco Hills Theater. I was struck most immediately by the film's exquisite photography, provided by Nestor Almendros, who had earlier been a collaborator with such landmark directors as Eric Rohmer (Claire's Knee, My Night At Maud's, Chloe in the Afternoon), Francois Truffaut (The Wild Child, The Man Who Loved Women, Bed and Board), Barbet Schroeder (More, General Idi Amin Dada, Koko The Talking Gorilla), and who had won a well- deserved Oscar in 1978 for providing the unspeakably dazzling images that bedecked Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven. Kramer Vs. Kramer was Almendros' first urban-shot American film (after Monte Hellman's southern Cockfighter and Jack Nicholson's western Goin' South). Save for Gordon Willis (who did many of Woody Allen's movies), no 70s-era photographer made New York life seem more enchanting. The warm hues of Kramer Vs. Kramer made me want to be a New Yorker as much as any film I can recall (I still want clouds painted on my walls like Billy has in his bedroom).

I can also recall seeing Benton's 1979 film through a most particular prism: my mom and dad, too, were going through hard times (my father packed up and went on his way a couple of years later). It was thanks, I think, to Kramer Vs. Kramer that I shouldered no guilt regarding my parents' breakup: I remembered and took comfort in Dustin Hoffman's whispered assurances to his sleepy son after they'd had a drag-out fight ("Hold it right there! You put that ice cream in your mouth and you are in very, very, VERY big trouble."):

Billy: Daddy, I'm sorry.
Ted (kissing him): I'm sorry, too. Hey...
Billy (after turning on his bedside lamp): Daddy?
Ted: What?
Billy: Are you going away?
Ted: No, I'm staying right here with you. You're not gonna get rid of me that easy.
Billy: That's why Mommy left, isn't it? Because I was bad?
Ted: Is that what you think? (Billy nods) No. No, that's not it, Billy. Your mom loves you very much. The reason she left doesn't have anything to do with you. I don't know if this is gonna make any sense, but I'll try to explain it to you, okay? (Billy nods) I think the reason why Mommy left was because for a long time now I kept trying to make her be a certain kind of person, Billy. A certain kind of wife that I thought she was supposed to be. And she just wasn't like that...she was...she just wasn't like that. And now that I think about it, I think that she tried for so long to make me happy. And when she couldn't, she tried to talk to me about it, see? But I wasn't listening. I was too busy. I was too wrapped up, just thinkin' about myself. And I thought that any time I was happy, that that meant she was happy. But I think, underneath, she was very sad. Mommy stayed here longer than she wanted to, I think, because she loves you so much. And the reason why Mommy couldn't stay anymore was because she couldn't stand me, Billy. She didn't leave because of you. She left because of me. (Billy wipes away some tears and they embrace.) Go to sleep now, because it's really late, okay? (and Billy nods as Ted turns off the light, gets up, and heads out of the room.)
Billy: G'night.
Ted: Sleep tight.
Billy: Don't let the bedbugs bite.
Ted: See you in the morning, alright?
Billy: Daddy?
Ted: Yeah?
Billy: I love you.
Ted (warmly): I love you, too.

Even though it's a movie that's rarely talked about these days, I still believe that Kramer Vs. Kramer was culturally instrumental in affecting a monumental seachange in as far as fatherhood is concerned. Before 1979--and before the Reagan revolution, which also brought about a newfound national concern regarding the raising of children--the American father was seen as nothing more than the steadfast breadwinner (look to Douglas Sirk's incredibly dour 50s-era drama There's Always Tomorrow for reference). But, with Kramer Vs. Kramer (which made $100 million at the box office--equivalent to three times that much in today's money), the idea was introduced that fathers were just as responsible in the emotional as well as the physical rearing of their children.

In his indispensable book Guide for the Film Fanatic, writer Danny Peary praises Benton's movie, but also slams it for being "too intent on making Streep the villain, refusing to present her side of the story and ridiculously [glorifying] Hoffman for doing what so many mothers do as a matter of course." I beg to differ. I think Streep's side of the story is clear at the outset (even if the movie makes our sentiments lie with Ted). It's obvious that Ted has neglected Joanna, and has sublimated her dreams for his. And I think Ted realizes this pretty early on (as the scene detailed above shows). Kramer Vs. Kramer is the story of a family that's being shook up by a cultural correction, and I think it has valuable things to impart about both Ted and Joanna's understandings of how things in their relationship ideally should be. Both Hoffman and Streep are magnificent in their roles (both won Oscars in 1979), not only because they seem so real in these character's skins but because, in spite of Ted and Joann's obvious flaws, they make us get where each is coming from.

In fact, every performance--right down to the very smallest one--in Kramer Vs. Kramer is superb. Justin Henry, then only 8 years old, became (and still is) the youngest actor ever to be nominated for an Oscar (the eventual winner of 1979's Best Supporting Actor award, the elderly Melvyn Douglas--who won for playing the political kingmaker in Hal Ashby's Being There--refused to attend the Academy Awards that year because he nastily found it disagreeable to be competing with an 8-year-old kid). I can still remember watching both the Golden Globes and the Oscars in 1980 and noting how gentle Hoffman was in thanking Henry for being his cohort on screen (it seemed as if Hoffman was hurting very much for Henry when the boy failed to win either the Globe or the Academy Award). And Jane Alexander, as Joanna's best friend--the woman who quickly becomes Ted's best friend, too--is absolutely pitch perfect. Once the Kramers battle each other in a fierce custody hearing, she's essential in proving to us that Ted is worthy of being the parent who raises Billy, especially since she starts off wholly on Joanna's side.

It's to Benton's credit, as director and writer of this film (he adapted it from Avery Corman's book), that he's able to make us feel as much for Joanna as for Ted. Kramer Vs. Kramer is as compelling a family drama as it is because it positions itself on no one's side except the child's. We can also chalk this victory up to Hoffman and Streep who, despite their characters' belligerance towards each other, convince us that Ted and Joanna--even after all the contentious dust has settled--are actually quite good people, together and apart.

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