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Kramer Vs Kramer  

Kramer Vs. Kramer is one of those quiet, real-life dramas which seem to be a rarity today, yet in 1979, was enough to win five Oscars, including Best Picture and Director, as well as Actor for Dustin Hoffman, and Supporting Actress for Meryl Streep. The film stars Hoffman in another of a long string of interesting roles from the 60`s, 70`s and 80`s, and the subject matter is something which occurs probably more often than ever: divorce and the inevitable child custody battle.

Hoffman is Ted, married to Joanna (Streep), is a success at his ad agency after receiving the coveted Mid-Atlantic Airline account, and has a growing son named Billy. In short, it's everything he could ever want. But one day, Joanna decides to leave him, saying that she needs to find herself, which is something she never could have done in this suffocating environment. Her departure creates an extraordinary problem for Ted, as he now has to take on the "mother" role, so to speak, as well as his role as breadwinner. This is not as easy as it looks, not just for the obvious reasons of having to juggle the responsibilities of caring for a child and having an intense job, but also because he discovers that he has been virtually absent from his son's life, and that he has to basically start being a parent all over again.

What occurs is an overhaul of his character, as Ted turns from the slick businessman to the caring and sensitive dad, and it is proof of Dustin Hoffman`s talent that there is nothing sappy or false in these personality changes. At first, he is so oblivious to the child as a real person that he forgets what grade he is in, and basically shuffles him to and from school without care, but later on, he is the guilt-ridden dad after a playground accident in which the kid narrowly misses being blinded. The guy has learned how to be a better parent, and to play the role without concern for whatever hindrances come in the way. And yet there are problems, as when his job performance suffers. And the biggie is when Joanna returns, expecting to have the child returned to her. The usual fighting and blaming begin, of course, and results in a huge custody battle.

Marriage appears to be less of an option for me after the experience of this film (although I've never been exactly shooting for that option in the first place!). What this movie shows, broadly, is the near-impossibility of marriages to work. The reason that the couple split is because Joanna can no longer live in an environment where she feels second best, incomplete, a follower, not a leader .... or an equal. Joanna does not know who "Joanna" is. And the unfortunate part is that she really does not know for sure even at the end. And it is not right to blame Joanna for everything, since she is only one half of the equation. Ted was the selfish business type at the beginning, and Joanna could only put up with it for so long. And even as Ted does become the wonderful dad, he uses the child as a pawn - by claiming that only he is the good parent, the irony being that she was the good parent before hand, which Ted seems to deny. Yet, one could take the other side and say that Joanna should put her own pains aside for long enough to raise the child, instead of leaving him just as he is about to enter his pre-teen and teenage years.

So people can only get hurt because their individual needs are in conflict. Joanna needs to find herself, Ted needs to be successful and bring home the bacon, while Billy needs the support and love of both his parents - and all of these things are in conflict. The movie does not really offer any concrete solutions, only the reality of a less-than-perfect arrangement, made by people who find it hard to compromise. Even the last shots, which are meant to supply a happy ending, seem to tell us that there will be more pain, at least for one of these three people. There is no way that these people will miraculously find serenity after what has occurred in that final shot.

Hoffman, as always, is very interesting, acting as if he is improvising rather than citing words memorized from a page. He is convincing both as an unknowingly selfish businessman and a man learning to care for his son, and to become truly emotionally attached to him. Streep only has two or three big scenes, but they're goodies, especially her big courtroom appearance where she realistically crumbles beneath her attempt to appear calm and strong, to reveal the pressure of having unsuccessfully emulated the cultural expectations of women. Her emotional changes during this film are quite amazing to view, and show that Streep is really an actress of the first rank, even in this somewhat thankless role. The courtroom scene itself is an example of the legal system's utter amorality when it comes to actually questioning witnesses, as the lawyers behave in a manner in which neither of the clients fully expected.

There are some funny scenes to go with the drama, and the funniest and most gently shocking is when Billy accidentally meets up with Ted`s one-night-stand from the office, as she wanders out to the hallway, naked. The laugh comes in Billy`s seeming obliviousness to the fact this woman is nude, as he asks for her name and what food she likes. But even scenes which should turn out funny become painful, because we are seeing parenting at its most difficult level. We laugh a bit at Billy`s defiance after being told repeatedly not to eat the ice cream until he finishes his dinner, but when Hoffman explodes and calls Billy a little shit, it turns into an example of the frustration created by a divorce and the changes within the father.

Kramer vs. Kramer, then, is a superior example of a Hollywood film which deals with a well-publicised and common subject with realism, knowledge and good presentation. It is unfortunate that such films like this are not as common, or as complex, today.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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