Writers: Avery Corman (Novel), Robert Benton (screenplay)
Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Justin Henry, Jane Alexander, Howard Duff, George Coe, JoBeth Williams
Kramer vs. Kramer is one of those movies that makes your brain spin, trying to decide who is right, who is wrong, and what's the best possible outcome. It gives us the complicated story of a broken family, never picking one side over the other. It's not a funny, entertaining film at all. This movie is the very definition of a drama. The feelings of the characters and their circumstances are presented beautifully, and performed masterfully by Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Justin Henry. This is a movie that is sure to cause conflict among viewers. Heated debates and discussions are sure to follow after watching this movie, because in the end, everyone has their own opinion on who deserved custody of the child. That's what makes this such a great movie.
Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is a workaholic that pays more attention to his job and boss than his own family. When his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) leaves him, Ted is left to look after their 5 year old son Billy (Justin Henry) on his own. He struggles to juggle his job and his son, which makes life very difficult and complicated for him (because Joanna clearly had to do all of the housework and parenting for the last 5 and a half years). After 18 months of therapy and 'finding herself,' Joanna returns to gain custody of Billy. They both love Billy to bits, and neither of them are great parents. They end up in a vicious custody battle, where nobody will truly win in the end, least of all Billy.
At first, I was completely on the side of Joanna. Ted was clearly a self-centred jerk that didn't appreciate the things she did for the family. When she left, he couldn't even make his own coffee! Because he knew nothing about raising a kid, the first 8 months or so was a nightmare for poor Billy. At that point, I was ready to say that Ted should stay at least 10 feet away from raising Billy at all times. Things get complicated later on, because Ted actually becomes a damn good parent. He gets into the swing of things and treats Billy the way a parent should their child, with love and patience. They have a very good time together in the end, showing us that he can definitely be a great Dad. That's when Joanna came back.
"I want my son," would have to be the most memorable line of the film for me. It's clear to me that Joanna NEEDED to get away from Ted, because he broke her down into a shell of a person. She had no self-esteem, and was clearly in a bad place. After an extensive 18 month period of therapy and self discovery, she wants her son back. I think we can all assume that she never stopped loving Billy, and it would have been the hardest thing in the world for her to leave him. But after such a long time, Billy is happy being raised by his father, and Ted is happy to raise Billy as a single parent. The two work well together, and love each other very much. Joanna hasn't been around to see this, and now she wants to take Billy away.
Here's what I think. I feel that Joanna did the right thing in leaving Ted so that she could seek help and become a better person. However, I think it was terrible of her to abandon her son for 18 months. She was his mother for 5 and a half years, whilst Ted spent most of his time at the office (I assume). When she left, Ted took over her role and did a terrible job, but slowly grew into becoming a great parent. I don't believe it's right for her to come back after such a long time and get custody of Billy, because she LEFT him to be raised by his father. If Ted left them for 18 months for the exact same reason, he wouldn't have a hope in hell of gaining custody of Billy. I feel that there's a double standard because she's the mother. As Ted said in the courtroom, "What law is it that says that a woman is a better parent simply by virtue of sex?"
I just spent three paragraphs talking about the story alone, that's how good this movie is! As for the performances, each of them were perfect. Dustin Hoffman deserved his Academy Award for Best Actor for Kramer vs. Kramer. It's literally the most annoying character I've ever seen him play, and it's not one of my favourite performances by Hoffman, but it's still a damn good performance. I do think that this is one of Meryl Streep's most underrated performances. She won Best Supporting Actress for this role, and my goodness did she deserve it! I really felt for her. The most natural performance came from a young Justin Henry, who at the time was the youngest person to ever be nominated for an Academy Award. These three blended together so well and made the story extremely effective.
Like I said, everyone has their own opinions on what the outcome SHOULD have been. I myself got into a heated debate with my mother on the subject. She was on Joanna's side, I on Ted's. It really is a brilliant film, but I wouldn't go as far as to give it Best Picture for 1979.