The Best Picture Project – Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Dir. by Robert Benton

Screenplay by Robert Benton, from the novel by Avery Corman

Starring Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander and Justin Henry

Of all the movies I’ve watched over the long, long duration of this project, Kramer vs. Kramer is probably the one I most anticipated getting into, because it’s a triple-threat of things that interest me:

1)     I’m a child of divorced parents – my parents were so into divorcing they each did it at least twice – so divorce movies immediately pique my interest.

2)   I’m a family law attorney – I bet you didn’t know I was one of those in my spare time – so I’m always curious to see how divorce and custody issues, especially with a presentation of a trial/hearing, play out on screen.

3)   I once had a haircut just like Justin Henry’s from the movie and can’t get enough of seeing that.

But just because Kramer vs. Kramer looks like it should hit my right in my wheelhouse, and I  should be drooling over seeing it’s take on many of the themes that speak to me – family v. work, male v. female gender roles – doesn’t mean I’m immediately going to fall all over myself loving it.  After all, for the same reason I forgive true stories that fudge the facts – see e.g., Argo – I think a movie has to work as a movie first and doesn’t get a break simply for being about a great man (Lincoln, Gandhi) or an important subject (Crash) or something I sometimes feel like I live in some way (Kramer vs. Kramer).  So, even though there are lots of things to like or love about Kramer vs. Kramer, the honest answer is while it’s good, it’s never really going to be the kind of movie that achieve any sort of greatness – i.e., that elusive quality I want in a Best Picture winner.

To be fair, neither the two movies I prefer to it from 1979 – All The Jazz and Apocalypse Now – are what you could call ‘unblemished’.  After all they’re both shaggy, can be somewhat obtuse and messy in spots, not to mention self-indulgent to the extreme.  But at the same time, they also soar to greater heights than Kramer vs. Kramer ever could – the Ride of the Valkyries sequence in Apocalypse, and the entire section of All That Jazz where the musical number is crafted from the ground up – and even if those movies show a real tendency to want to crash and burn, they are certainly far more thrilling and leave me far more excited.  If this were a race of subtlety, Kramer vs. Kramer wins.  Hell, in the subtlety department, Kramer wins in a landslide.  Otherwise, it’s the loser.

Still, what raises Kramer vs. Kramer above other films of this type, and saves it from being just another turgid domestic drama, is Meryl Streep.  Yes she’s good, and deservedly won an Oscar, but it’s the reason she’s good that’s the thing.  When I was watching the movie I kept thinking to myself that of all the roles she’s ever had to play, of all the villains she’s ever had to play, Joanna Kramer was the worst kind of villain.  She’s not worst in that she’s got the sharpest teeth or is the most dastardly or any of that.  No, she’s the worst because she’s a villain you meet every day.  The one who is completely reasonable and rational in the modern world, that everything they do comes from a genuine place and whether or not you agree with her, is altruistically motivated.  She’s the worst kind of villain not because she can kill you, but because she can tear your whole world down and use the law to make that happen.  Then, she can make you feel sympathy for her for doing it.  That Streep plays it so well is a testament to her abilities as an actress.

As a Best Picture, Kramer vs. Kramer is a little lacking.  As a collection of fantastic performances, it nails it.  I mean, watch Dustin Hoffman in this scene and tell me he doesn’t crush it.

As an aside:

Usually when the law, or lawyers, or court, or the judicial system is presented in the movies, the movie generally gets it wrong.  Or lionizes an attorney as great (Atticus Finch) who was actually lousy – yes, I know Tom probably gets it in the end anyway, because he’s black and the jury is white, but that didn’t mean Atticus couldn’t give him a spirited defense instead of mailing it in, which is what he did.

Anyway, Kramer vs. Kramer fits into that mold in more than one way.  First, during the trial sequence, after Ted was grilled by Joanna’s attorney and kept being forced to reduce his answers to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ instead of giving the explanation, his attorney didn’t bother to do any re-direct of those questions to get the explanation in.   What kind of attorney doesn’t do any re-direct?

Second – and this one I bring up in full recognition of the more than 30 years that have passed since this film was current, which obviously changes the cultural climate, and also that I practice in a different state than the one in the film, which means the laws I practice under might be different than the ones they practice under – as a family law attorney I’m mystified how on earth the judge, at the end of the trial, awarded the wife custody.  Granted, it was a different time – women were caretakers, men breadwinners, racism was everywhere – and the film takes place in a different state from the one I practice in, but even granting all that, it boggles my mind to think the wife won.  Here’s why:

  1. Ted and Joanna were divorced by the time she showed up again and decided she wanted custody.  It’s also assumed that by the time she returned she hadn’t seen the kind in maybe a year or more.
  2. Because they were divorced, the judgment of divorce would have apportioned custody of the child.  Because there doesn’t seem to be any indications they had a divorce trial before, they had to come by their judgment by consent – at least according to an inference I make from something Ted says about Joanna.
  3. Therefore, following the judgment of divorce, Ted had custody of the child.
  4. If this were my state, when Joanna returns and seeks to change custody, she would have to prove (a) there was a change of circumstances since the entry of the last order – the judgment – to warrant a review of the issue and, (b) that it was in the best interests of the child to actually change custody.  Where I’m from, the mother suddenly deciding she wanted involvement is never going to be considered a change of circumstances and her motion for custody would have been tossed before it ever got started.  Therefore, in my state, all the trial and finger-pointing, etc., never happens.
  5. Even should she have shown there was a change of circumstances and that her wanting to be in the child’s life mattered – which it wouldn’t, at least in terms of changing custody – my state places a greater presumption on continuity and potential disruption to the child than it does any other notions, at least generally speaking.  What this means is that, even if she could show a change of circumstances, I think she’d struggle to show it was in the child’s best interest to actually change custody.  Again, at the end, Ted still wins.

As an attorney I’m taught never to give guarantees, because it’s the judge that ultimately makes the decisions, not me.  The only guarantee I will ever give to potential clients is this: nobody wins in a divorce, everybody loses, and don’t bother thinking the divorce will give you any sense of satisfaction because it never can.

Nevertheless, guarantees or not, Ted losing is just unfathomable.  Any attorney with even half a brain should have been able to protect him and that they didn’t…well, I just don’t know what to say about that.

Though, as I say, this movie took place in a different time and state and my take probably means nothing.

As another aside:

The poster for the movie produced above, with the three leads looking like a happy family, is a complete lie.  At literally no point in the film are the three of them a happy family.


Did you catch JoBeth Williams – the mother from Poltergeist – popping up in the film as an the attorney Ted sleeps with?  How couldn’t you?  She was the naked one.

For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

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