Friday, October 10, 2014

Kramer vs. Kramer (Best Picture 1979)

Kramer vs Kramer is a Best Picture film in the intimate, small-scale way that Marty or The Apartment is, instead of in the EPIC way of, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Patton. There are only six real roles in this film, and three of them are named "Kramer."  
Ted trying to block Joanna rather than listen to her

The film tells the story of Joanna Kramer, her husband, Ted, and their son, Billy. The first few minutes of the film tell two parallel stories: Ted at the office, and Joanna at home. When these stories mesh, there is disaster. Ted isn't listening to Joanna, who simply vanishes (in the elevator) rather than try to communicate any more. Ted is devastated to realize that he really did not know his wife. The first morning after Joanna is gone is the classic "making breakfast" scene with his son Billy, who is five. Ted tries to bluff his way through making french toast, but we all know, including Billy, that he is not up to the challenge.

At the office, Ted tries to talk about his feelings, but his boss/friend suggests putting Billy with relatives. He believes that work is the most important. When Joanna writes, Billy enthusiastically listens until she admits that she doesn't know when she will come back, and then he shuts down. Ted puts all of her things, including photos of her and them, away.
The next few minutes of the movie are vignettes of the father and son trying to get along together. Ted cooks TV dinners, rushes to the office with groceries, reading the paper or comics at the breakfast table, and basically going through the motions. Ted finds a photo of Joanna that Billy had gotten out of the boxes, and he realizes that Billy needs his mother. Ted puts the photo out on Billy's night-stand.
The "ice cream scene" is one of the most famous father-son scenes of all time. Billy doesn't want to eat his dinner, and when he learns that Ted did buy ice cream, Billy goes to eat it without eating his dinner. What follows is a typical child-adult "power struggle" where Ted snaps, tossing Billy into his bed without any dinner at all. When Billy screams, "I hate you!" Ted snaps back, "I hate you back you little shit! But we're all we've got!" A little while later Ted comes in to tuck his son in and Billy wakes up, crying and begging his father not to leave him. Billy believes that Joanna left because of something he had done, and Billy is desperately afraid that his father will leave, too. Ted tears up while he tries to explain to Billy that Joanna left because of Ted, and stayed as long as she did because she loved Billy.

After this the two seem to get along a lot better. Ted seems to be less "self-centered" and more attuned to what his son needs. Suddenly, Billy falls off the jungle gym at the park and Ted rushes him to the emergency room. While Billy gets stitches on his face, Ted is there holding him, crying with him.

Then Joanna comes back, and she files for custody. Ted gets defensive and angry, vowing to fight by yelling to her, "You can't have him!" Suddenly, Ted is let go from his office because he has started to put Billy before work. All Ted can say to his erstwhile friend is, "Shame on you." He  rushes around NYC all day until he finds a job, making much less than he had just so that he can say he is still employed.
The court-room scenes are painful to watch, but illuminating. Joanna tells her side of the story, and by watching Ted we get the impression that he is listening for the first time in his life. He realizes that he made mistakes in their marriage, and sees Joanna in a different light. Her point, of course, is that she should have Billy *because* she is Billy's mother. When Ted speaks, he talks about how he has regrets. He then ends his testimony by talking about how "parenting" is not gender-specific work. He makes an impassioned plea to keep his son, because he loves Billy as his father just as much as Joanna loves him as his mother. Unfortunately, Joanna's lawyer brings up the park injury and Ted losing his job, which makes him look incompetent. 
The trial goes the way you expect, and Joanna is awarded custody. When Ted meets with his lawyer, he is told that they can continue to fight, but would have to put Billy on the stand. Ted refuses to do that, knowing it would cause Billy to "choose" between the two people he loves. Ted reluctantly admits defeat. 

The second heart-breaking scene is when Ted has to tell Billy the verdict. By now the two have such a great relationship that Billy doesn't want to go. Billy can't control his emotions, and is blubbering all over the place talking about bed-time stories and breakfasts together and going to school. All the while Ted is trying to maintain his control, but you can tell that he is just as upset.

On the day Joanna has set to come and get Billy, he and Ted have one last breakfast together. In  wonderful symmetry, they make french toast, the same meal Ted butchered so badly the day after Joanna left. They are a team, now, and the french toast is made with style. Billy breaks down again, and Ted does, too.

I remember watching this film when I was in high school. I remember distinctly thinking that what Ted said was correct: that mothers are not innately better parents than fathers. Don't we all know this? I remember how some of my friends' fathers were more involved in their kids' lives than the mothers, and how in my specific case my father was just as caring as my mother was.

Kramer vs Kramer swept the Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman, Best Supporting Actress for Meryl Streep, and Best Screenplay (Adapted Material). Justin Henry as Billy was the youngest performer ever nominated at that time. He lost Best Supporting Actor to Melvyn Douglas in Being There. I haven't ever seen that, but every time I see Kramer I think Henry should have won.

Kramer vs Kramer
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1979*
Produced by Stanley R. Jaffe
Written & Directed  by Robert Benton
Based on the book by Avery Corman 

This trailer actually has some of Ted's testimony about parenting. Very well edited trailer.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
All That Jazz
Apocalypse Now
Breaking Away
Norma Rae
What an odd assortment of nominees! I saw Apocalypse Now when it first came out because my father and brother wanted to see it. I think I enjoyed it more than they did, having read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I saw it again in college and liked it better. I never saw any of the other nominees until recently. I watched Norma Rae, which won Sally Field Best Actress. It's a great role for her, but not such a "great" film. I tried to watch All That Jazz, but having experienced some live theatre, I wasn't too keen to experience Bob Fosse's semi-autobiographical film. And Breaking Away is a charming story about a group of young bicycle racers who want to "break away" from their small-town Indiana lives.

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