“Kramer vs. Kramer” - Robert Benton (1979)

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) is considered by many to be an outstanding courtroom drama, and indeed the American Film Institute has ranked the film as the 3rd greatest courtroom drama of all time [1].  But in my view the courtroom does not really lie at the heart of this film, and in fact the legal court procedures do not so much serve as an instrument of justice here, but are instead more an instrument in support of self-discovery.  And it is the subtlety and depth of this discovery, about what it means to love your own child, that makes this a memorable film. 

Certainly, for whatever reasons, the film, which was based on Avery Corman’s novel Kramer vs. Kramer (1977) and adapted for the screen by writer-director Robert Benton, was very well-received in all quarters.  It was a hit at the box office and received five Oscars – for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), and Best Adapted Screenplay.  And it was nominated for four other Oscars – for Best Supporting Actor (Justin Henry), Best Supporting Actress (Jane Alexander), Best Cinematography (Néstor Almendros), and Best Film Editing (Gerald B. Greenberg).  Cinematographer Néstor Almendros, by the way, was already well-known in Europe for his excellent camera work for Francois Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, and Terence Malick, and it was he who recommended to the producers that Robert Benton, famous for having co-scripted Bonnie and Clyde (1967), be hired to direct Kramer vs. Kramer.

The story of Kramer vs. Kramer concerns and focalizes on a nuclear family in conflict, and one of the things that makes this story special is that all the sides of this conflict are shown with relatively equal sympathy [2].  These are real, complex people, and there are no obvious villains here.   The three family members are:
  • Ted Kramer (played by Dustin Hoffman), an ambitious and hardworking art director for a New York advertising firm. 
  • Joanna Kramer (played by Meryl Streep, in perhaps her first major film role) is Ted’s soft-spoken but frustrated housewife.
  • Billy Kramer (Justin Henry) is the Kramers’ six-year-old son.
As we watch the story about Ted, Joanna, and Billy unfold, we can sympathize with them all and recognize a bit of ourselves in each of them.

The film begins with Joanna sadly kissing Billy goodnight and whispering to her sleepy son that she will always love him.  Then Ted comes home late from the office and excited that he has just been promoted by his firm to take over their biggest advertising account.  He is so preoccupied with this promotion that he barely hears her when she tells him she is leaving him and Billy.  We are given no backstory about what precipitated this shocking announcement, but we can guess.  Joanna, a Smith College alumna, feels neglected by her work-obsessed husband and seeks something more fulfilling in life than just being a stay-at-home housewife.

So right away Ted’s life is thrown into turmoil.  He will immediately have to take over all the parenting responsibilities for Billy while still attending to his overloaded work schedule.  With Joanna now out of the picture, the next hour of the film is devoted to covering the ill-prepared Ted’s assumption of his heretofore neglected fatherly duties.

We can see how much he had left parenting up to Joanna when we watch him hurriedly taking Billy to school and asking him along the way what grade he is in.  Ted also doesn’t know how to maintain an even disciplinary keel in the domestic household.  Sometimes he tries to be Billy’s buddy, as if the two of them are equals; while at other times he loses his temper when the young boy makes relatively innocent mistakes, like accidentally spilling a drink over Ted’s office papers.  Ted is clearly a well-meaning but novice parent, and he is shown making the kinds of mistakes that almost all novice parents tend to make.

But time passes, and over the succeeding months Ted begins little by little to show more patience and loving attention to Billy.  And these segments are the most heartwarming parts of the film, with outstandingly nuanced portrayals showing this coming together by Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry, as Ted and Billy.  One of the best sequences is the one showing Ted carefully and earnestly showing Billy how to ride a bicycle for the first time.  When Billy finally succeeds in cycling on his own without support, Ted is overjoyed. 

Along the way, Ted befriends his wife’s friend Margaret (Jane Alexander), who is also a single parent.  But there is no suggestion of a budding romantic attachment between these two.  They are merely sharing the joys parenthood with each other. One afternoon, though, while they are both watching their kids play in the park, Ted is horrified to see Billy fall from the park’s junglegym and sustain a serious head injury.  He immediately picks him up and runs frantically through the streets in order to get him to a hospital emergency room, where he lovingly caresses him while the doctor gives him emergency treatment.

Meanwhile all this increased devotion to parenting his son, including attending school functions and PTA meetings, is taking a toll on Ted’s demanding workload at the ad agency.  He finds himself arriving late to crucial meetings and generally disappointing his superiors.

Then another complication arises.  After fifteen months of absence, Joanna returns to New York and seeks custody of Billy.  She says she is now cured of her depression, has secured a high-paying job (one that even has a higher annual salary than Ted's), and wants to return to being Billy’s mother.  But Ted has changed during this time, too.  He has become a loving and devoted father, and he is unwilling to give up custody of Billy.  So the eponymous court proceedings are set in motion.

Ted’s fortunes receive another serious setback when he is suddenly fired from his job at the ad agency.  Knowing full well that he has no hope at all of holding onto custody of Billy if he is unemployed, Ted immediately launches an intense and desperate search for a new job, any job, even though it is now in the midst of the Christmas holiday season. 

The viewer’s sympathies may be pulled in different directions at this point.  We have been watching Ted transform into a truly loving father.  But Joanna seems sincerely devoted, too.  And Billy is overjoyed to see his mom again.  We presumably would like to see an outcome that is best for Billy, but what would that be?  We might think that Billy, still only seven years old, needs his mother.  But, after all, she already walked out on him once, and how do we know something like that won’t happen again?

The ensuing court case is arduous and full of acrimony, with intense cross-examinations, but it seems realistic to me.  During the proceedings both Ted and Joanna come to learn things about each other that they never knew during their eight years of marriage.  They come to see each other in a deeper and more appreciative light, and the way these revelations are brought about in court are another strong aspect of the film.

In the end the court magistrate goes along with conventional social attitudes that a young boy needs to be with his mother, and Ted loses the custody case.  Billy is to be handed over to Joanna.  But the film doesn’t end with that verdict, and when the handover is to take place, a more heartfelt arrangement is finally achieved.  No, the film doesn’t succumb to the sentimental notion of Ted and Joanna getting back together again, but it does wind up on a positive note that is likely to satisfy the viewer.
Kramer vs. Kramer is a story about love, but not one about romantic love.  The beauty that is shown here has nothing to do with the glamorous or the erotic.  What is explored here in this film is deep parental and filial love, and it is eloquently portrayed by all the principal performers in this film.  They were all nominated for Oscars (this may have been Dustin Hoffman’s most subtle performance), but, to me, one of the most astonishing performances was that of the young Justin Henry as Billy Kramer.  His emotive performance seemed utterly genuine.  How could such a young boy “know” (or be coached to show) how to act so well?

  1. “AFI's 10 Top 10", Wikipedia, (9 December 2018).  
  2. Roger Ebert, “Kramer vs. Kramer”, RogerEbert.com, (1 December 1979).   

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