Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, Robert Benton)


In 1979, this was a trailblazing movie, even if in fewer ways than writer-director Robert Benton might have intended. He meant to Say Something, maybe the definitive statement about divorce and therefore a redefinition of the traditional movie-star portrayal of marriage, successful and otherwise. We have two major celebrities here, Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman, playing a couple whose relationship is fraying past the point of no return — no fantasy of reconciliation; from the first moments, it’s clear we’re witnessing the permanent end of a romance. There’s a child involved, which means the other trend this tries to buck is Hollywood’s ignorance of unconventional families, to be conquered by the mutually affectionate single-father household in this film. But there’s something too perfect about Kramer vs. Kramer and all its straightforward sentimentality, the fights and makeups and totally artificial exchanges of “I love you.” It doesn’t have enough of a feeling of depth and reality to come across as a human story. That’s the problem with setting out to change things. You only do that by engineering, and bare engineering makes a story feel phony.

In turn, this rubs harshly up against Benton’s debt — or aspiration, anyway — to neorealism, the stylistic tendencies of which are tempered by his straightforward, gentle good nature. But gosh, the sights and sounds of New York in 1979 just couldn’t come across more vividly; the prettiness of it all, sticking exclusively to the more affluent corners of Brooklyn, would end up making some impact on the 1980s and early ’90s trend of comedy-dramas like those of Alan Alda and James L. Brooks. It’s a considerable virtue of the film today that it feels so much a product of its time; you really feel steeped in the streets, the buildings, the seasons.

And being charitable, while the film’s humor is rather subdued, Benton knows something about character relationships, and about his subject matter. Any child of divorce is bound to recognize the pain and the realness of the young boy Billy (Justin Henry)’s reaction when he receives the first letter from his mother, in which she talks about things he has no reason to relate to or understand; gathering that it’s a gesture for her own benefit rather than his, he just shuts down. His dad Ted (Hoffman) continues trying to hold the remnants of the family together enough to be able to keep the kid informed about what’s going on and how he feels about it (one of Hoffman’s finest-ever scenes), opening up a line of communication only to find that the boy won’t commit to a specific feeling about his mom’s absence. That to me is very realistic.

The breakup itself, really protracted for the length of the film thanks to the dramatic family court battle, is more problematic. It’s quite salient when we see Ted and Joanna (Streep) talking and his easy familiarity contrasts so deeply with a woman who’s completely gone, at the point where she plainly must do something, an element that initially comes across as a result of Ted’s obliviousness. Later, when the two of them meet for a drink, it feels palpably like the lived-in encounter of two people who once were intimate and still have some investment in their relationship. But in a very ’70s copout, Benton can’t resist going for the big performance moment: a calm and rational dialogue must inevitably end in a silly Streetcar Named Desire moment of Hoffman throwing a glass at a wall and storming out of a restaurant — suggestive, indeed, of the kind of sociopathic behavior that a guy entering a custody battle should likely avoid. In turn, this points to deeper problems, basically a simple-minded and Hollywood view of the way relationships operate and break down (Joanna leaves to “find herself,” of course, in many scenes approaching the level of an M. Scott Peck mouthpiece); this condescending trend toward framing regular life as a hidden chaotic tragedy would become increasingly prominent in American films over the next few decades. The outrageous histrionics Benton places in a couple working through their dissolution serve to indicate he just has a tin ear about the communication aspect of these things.

Still, Benton’s thesis is useful. In contrast to Hollywood’s well-known remarriage fantasy, this is a film less about divorce than about the acceptance of divorce. We know before the curtain goes up that Ted and Joanna have had their day and won’t be reconciled, but later tenderness and especially the brief exchange that closes the film in its last sequence of shots suggest a mature takeaway from a failed marriage in which children are involved. The relationship, of course, cannot end; it may initially place two people in opposition, but they must continue to collaborate. Of course, it’s a bedtime story for adults in this sense — it’s the perfect divorce in which everyone always has the child’s best interests at heart, the kind of response to unplanned changes you’d love to convince your own children would be possible in your household. But there’s some universal truth here about the urgency of child-rearing, that these two responsible adults know above all that their boy needs to know he is cared about, and that they both want the best for him.

For all these social-problem theatrics, Kramer vs. Kramer enjoyed popular success in large part because it’s an actors’ showcase. Dustin Hoffman sells his cycle marvelously — trying to hold it all together, getting pissed off, falling in love with his kid. That’s both his micro and macro arc; it’s really all in that breakfast scene at the beginning, but it’s everywhere. His broader transition of career-oriented absent father to a man who misses important meetings to catch an elementary school pageant suggests a compassionate angle on how he as a man matures because of divorce. Loss creates need, and that’s a human-nature parable that goes beyond the American peculiarities of this story. On the other hand, Benton struggles with the character of Billy, unable to get past a few traditional child actor problems. (Where does the character end and the kid mugging for the camera begin?) At certain points (the hilarious conversation with a naked date of his father’s about fried chicken in the hallway, for instance) he’s a deadpan comic figure; elsewhere, he’s a sullen miniature adult who breaks out of his shell as the film goes on, but none too convincingly or organically.

Then after all this, the emotionally explosive climax of the film rings false, bringing further problems to fruition. Joanna suddenly changes her mind about who should keep hold of Billy, and it comes from seemingly nowhere, indicating just how badly Joanna herself is half-heartedly written and designed as a character. Benton never does get a handle on her, nor does Streep, who’s competent but wildly overpraised in the part. People don’t really talk about Kramer vs. Kramer much these days, with the slicker, emptier Mrs. Doubtfire presumably taking its place in public consciousness and movies like Dodsworth proving to predict its innovations by several decades, but its surviving legacy is its supposed even-handedness. I don’t know where this compliment came from. Not all movies need to be even-handed, anyway (Dodsworth isn’t), but the idea that Kramer provides its two leads with equal airtime is patently false. Indeed, the entire script is centered on and biased toward Hoffman’s character, almost from the beginning. Sure, pains are taken to point out that he’s operating his life on a career-intensive basis that makes him distant. And he will justify this again and again with talk of “bringing home the bacon” and his sense of duty to his family.

But even in and of itself, this stands in contrast to the reading of Kramer as a feminist film; it corresponds to outdated gender roles, for all its talk about divorce and mental health, coming down to a responsible businessman and his stay-at-home wife, persuaded by her husband not to look for work and thus feeling trapped. This might work except that the film gives us no opportunity to comprehend or feel empathy for Streep’s character; she’s flying off the handle as soon as we meet her, and we’re never provided with any serious context for this. We don’t know why she wants to throw herself out the window or why she has to leave and essentially abandon her son. You could frame all this in such a way that her actions would be sensible, even something we could identify with, but with the fragments of her narrative that we still have, all presented in a negative light, she seems like someone who’s unknowable and cold and who is the enemy of the picture. Worse, she’s never shown to have the kind of bond with her son that Ted does. They both fight for him, but there’s little sense of any gravity and weight to the relationship of mother and son, and even when there’s a chance to show us something about them it refuses to, instead concentrating on Hoffman’s reaction to seeing them walk off — underlining that it’s his movie, the movie for the Man of the House. So we have him fighting this demonized caricature of a lonely wife and it’s very unfairly makes it hard to sympathize with her. That’s why a large part of the film fails. It’s not a misogynistic film (Hoffman’s boss is also a comic book villain of a character), even if very conservative, but Joanna remains an enigma and this takes a lot of the potential and bite out of the idea that we’re seeing a warm and hopeful tragedy from multiple perspectives in the modern age. The moviegoing public just wasn’t ready for that, and now that we can pop something like A Separation into the DVD player, what’s the bloody point of going back to this? It does come from a real place, though, and that’s far less insignificant a factor than I supposed on my first pass.

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