It’s not Oscar season if someone isn’t upset. It’s absurd that such-and-such movie didn’t get nominated. That piece of crap got in? Man, insert pandering / boring / uninventive movie here is going to win, isn’t it? For something many cinephiles purport to brush off, we sure care a lot about the Oscars. That’s because they’re a barometer by which more casual moviegoers in our lives measure what’s best. Instead of carping about controversial selections for Best Picture — which could fill a year’s worth of columns no one would read — we figured it would be more interesting to arguments from advocates for these choices. Welcome to Midwest Film Journal’s Oscar Gold.
If you want your film to be lionized by history, maybe make a war epic instead of a divorce drama. The divergent paths of these movies is put in stark contrast when comparing the top films of 1979, with Apocalypse Now currently regarded as a masterpiece while the year’s top awards winner and domestic grosser, Kramer vs. Kramer, has been relegated to a footnote. Let’s face it: The politics of war are much more stable than gender politics, so while the descent into madness of Apocalypse is still potent today, there are some glaringly outdated aspects to the separation of Dustin Hoffman’s Ted and Meryl Streep’s Joanna in Kramer that have unfairly tarnished its reputation.
None of that is helped by the rampant accusations that Hoffman was a monster on set — allegedly slapping Streep and using the recent death of her boyfriend, John Cazale, to rile her up for emotional scenes. This horrendous behavior should not be downplayed, and whatever greatness the film achieved is in spite of these actions. The rest of the movie’s problems, though, are a product of time, which will put black marks on any film broaching topics in a state of flux.
If you actually take a chance on this movie, you’ll find it’s not nearly the relic its reputation lets on. Even the much-maligned disparity in screen time between Joanna and Ted (and, hence, the disparity in sympathy) isn’t so cut and dry.
Having Streep play Joanna turned out to be the film’s biggest weapon, as she only needs a moment to bring the depth of a character crashing down on an audience. Her Joanna abruptly leaves Ted and, more alarmingly, their son in the opening minutes of the film. Even today, a character better have a damn good reason for walking out on a kid if you don’t want the audience to turn on them, a sentiment that was only amplified 40 years ago. Streep somehow does it, taking a single tucking-in (and veiled goodbye) scene with the son and a brusque flee from Ted to get across the complete desperation of her character. The words she’s reciting aren’t great; she would famously write her own monologue for a later courtroom scene when writer-director Robert Benton simply couldn’t get the character’s perspective into words). But words aren’t necessary when Streep is in form. The way she plays Joanna as both resolute and jittery in the opening perfectly sells the idea that to stay would be the death of her, and the lingering memory of her near-breakdown makes it impossible to blame her no matter how much time we spend with Ted.
And the lion’s share of this movie is about Ted, and you know what? That’s OK. It’s more than OK, in fact, because Kramer vs. Kramer isn’t the knee-jerk reaction to rising divorce rates and second-wave feminism that it might look like from the outside. It’s the story of a man correcting his selfish ways and limited emotional life through a burgeoning relationship with his son, and that relationship is captured in all its devastating glory.
Ted had been an old-school father even for the time, thinking that bringing home the bacon was his role in the family. When Joanne leaves, it quickly becomes apparent that Ted knows almost nothing about their kid, Billy (a shockingly good Justin Henry), as evidenced by a disastrous attempt at making breakfast and getting the kid off to school. These morning chores are visited again later in the film, when the easy domesticity of their routine shines through their wordless choreography. The contrast is so sharp that this everyday occurrence seems monumental. See, it says, how comfortable life becomes when you’re attentive and caring?
Parenting can’t all be good times, of course, and Kramer doesn’t shy away from that. There’s the usual kid angst, particularly understandable since Billy is missing his mother. Ted doesn’t have the experience to handle these outbursts and several blowups occur, including an oft-referenced one involving ice cream. The big moment, though, is an accident in the park. A slip and a stream of blood sends Ted racing for the emergency room, with the wails of his son and the suddenly jerking camera capturing how quickly the world can fall apart when watching a kid.
This isn’t grand melodrama, which the film can slip in to when dealing with the actual divorce. No, the relationship between Ted and Billy grows through small moments, through trust and mistakes, and it’s wrenchingly, timelessly real. With such a backbone, it’s easy to see why Kramer vs. Kramer dominated the 1980 Academy Awards, taking home Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor, and Supporting Actress, and why other films (including last year’s Marriage Story) are still replicating its beats today. Capturing a father and son with this complexity is no small feat, and that’s why it remains an affecting film despite the blemishes of time.