Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Blind Spot 2017: 'Kramer vs. Kramer'

This movie comes to my Blind Spot by way of my goal to finish all of the Best Picture winners from the 1970s. With this one, the winner for the year 1979, I can check that decade off the list, all these years later, a journey that started with "The Godfather" on VHS tape now 18 years ago. 

Dustin Hoffman carries director Robert Benton's "Kramer vs. Kramer," raising the picture to emotional highs moment to moment from start to finish. It is no wonder he took the Oscar for Best Actor. Consider the moment that comes just hours after his Ted Kramer finds his wife, Joanna (played by Meryl Streep), has decided to leave him and their 7-year-old son. It's "what should be one of the top five days of my life!!" he loses it at their neighbor, Margaret (Jane Alexander). And it's just not. And that is disappointing, perhaps the most hurtful thing. Hurtful because it's true. Who hasn't felt something the one he loves slipping away and then thought only of himself? 

As it happens, this is a brilliant way to start us into this character. We don't know the wife character well enough to understand why she leaves. We have to get it from Dustin Hoffman's performance and the way he with director Benton find the nuances of a man who has to learn how to be a different kind of man without taking the time to actually think about it. Of course, he doesn't have the time because he's a hotshot ad man on the upper management track, and now he has to prepare for his presentations with glasses of juice and toy cars in the way. He has to deal with school and school work and bullies at school and French toast for breakfast and falls on the playground. He manages. Because that's what good parents do. 

When Joanna returns, Meryl Streep brings her game and wins her Oscar, and now we understand her, which is the second thing this script, written for the screen by director Benton from a novel by Avery Corman. In disappearing her so early and bringing her back with time to know her, there is equal weight to their sides of the story, which is paramount in a story of divorce and custody of a child. 

The divorce and custody battle thing is well-worn by now. The stakes don't seem as high now as they most likely did at this film's release in 1979. And the middle of the picture drags as the legal battle warms up. But by the end of the courtroom scenes, it got it back, bringing the exact sort of feels one expects from this sort of story and doing it well, because, well, Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman and that kid, the youngest Oscar nominee ever, Justin Henry, just elevate it. 

The last 5 minutes of this film are absolutely beautiful...and heart-wrenching. And the last exchange between Hoffman and Streep. That elevator going up this time. Perfection. I cried.

★★★★ out of ★★★

A Monthly Challenge to Watch the Greatest Films You've Never Seen
originated by Ryan McNeil at The Matinee 


  1. I've never seen this, although I feel like I should. Some day.

    Great review!

  2. I remember seeing this back in the day...at the theatre. I liked the interaction of Hoffman with the young Henry and thought they worked well together. I thought Jane Alexander played his sister well but this was my introduction to Streep. All I wanted to do was slap her. I thought she was whiny and cried and I thought "there's an actress that will not go far." OK so i was slightly wrong...hahahaaa. I could not understand all the accolades she received and still don't. I thought the husband and kid were better off without her.

  3. I've never seen this movie, but I plan to eventually as I work my way back through the Best Picture winners.

  4. This is a good film with a very real feeling to the interactions. Having read the novel Joanna's actions are more understandable but her initial decision is still an extreme one and her last the right one.

    It would have been interesting to see Kate Jackson as Joanna. She was Hoffman's original choice but had to turn the role down because the producers of Charlie's Angels wouldn't release her for the length of the shoot. I can envision her in the role since she possessed that mix of strength and vulnerability but it's difficult to imagine anyone nailing the courtroom scene as well as Meryl.

    The whole thing is beautifully acted not just by the three leads but all the secondary characters as well. One small note, Jane Alexander played Margaret, not Jane Adams.

  5. What a wonderful review, Kevin! I saw this when it was first released in theaters. (Yes, I'm THAT old.) I was about 13, and it made an indelible impression on me. At a time when gender roles were changing rapidly and it seemed like EVERYONE'S parents were getting divorced, this film really nailed it in terms of capturing the zeitgeist of the era. It also solidified my love of Streep and Hoffman.