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"In the olden days, in the 70s, behavior was interesting on the screen." ---- Meryl Streep
Robert Benton started with the desire to make a picture about the reality of divorce in America, a subject that in 1979 was the province of TV movies, preferably with a murder thrown in to enhance the ratings. Kramer vs.Kramer is instead a film of personal performances and intimate feelings. Careful writing and direction keep the focus on just a few relationships, yet the show never becomes claustrophobic. The filmic picture of the pain of divorce has yet to be bettered; the movie won an armload of Oscars that year, including the prize for Best Picture.
When the film starts, the Kramer family is already broken beyond repair. Workaholic ad man Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is shocked when his unhappy wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) simply leaves one night, giving little reason beyond the fact that she can't live with him any more. Faced with the problem of taking care of their five-year-old son Billy (Justin Henry) on his own, Ted must neglect his coveted new position at work, and soon is in danger of losing his job altogether. Slowly adjusting to his new role of both mother and father, Ted compromises in his work and discovers that he's happier living a more balanced life as a working father. That's when Joanna returns to get Billy back, a demand she's willing to take to court.
Author Avery Corman intended his source novel as a chronicle of the matrimonial difficulties encountered by the selfish youth of the 1960s. Producer Stanley Jaffe, Robert Benton and Dustin Hoffman made Kramer vs.Kramer more personal in approach by incorporating their own personal experiences. The Kramers fall apart for the usual reasons - an unfulfilled wife, a husband who ignores his home life to concentrate on work. Dustin Hoffman claims that he was initially not interested in the story because, when he was approached with the script, he was going through his own separation and divorce.
It's Hoffman's movie, as his co-star Meryl Streep is physically absent most of the time, and little Justin Henry's performance is controlled under Hoffman's direction. Hoffman is a marvel to behold, retaining our sympathy when he's playing pigheaded, and earning our approval as he learns how to be a father. We vividly remember the set piece moments. The "French toast" scene comes off as totally natural ... we seem to really be there witnessing it all. Robert Benton explains that Hoffman would routinely play take after take completely differently, improvising as he went along. Justin Henry simply followed his lead.
The script sketches Ted Kramer's work life in small strokes, leaving the supporting players to make brief but telling contributions. A young JoBeth Williams has a memorable moment when Justin catches her naked in the apartment hallway. Veteran actor Howard Duff's defense lawyer has been pared down to a minimum. Ted's best friend Jane Alexander has a much larger presence but drops out of the film just before the home stretch. Yet the movie never feels hemmed-in or minimalist. The Emergency Room scene required a tracking shot to pursue Hoffman as he dashes several blocks with little Henry in his arms. The production shut down traffic around Central Park to accomplish the shot.
Meryl Streep's Joanna Kramer is a particularly tough character to play. Audiences shift firmly to Ted Kramer's side as he masters the art of parenting, while Joanna is the mother who abandons her child. It's not easy to generate sympathy for Joanna, but Streep projects innate decency and restraint. We cannot help but forgive her even as she's walking out the door. Hoffman helps her during this episode by accentuating his boorish self-centeredness. Meryl Streep's career at this time was already going into orbit. She was a smash in her television debut in the Holocaust miniseries; she filmed her scenes for Kramer vs.Kramer while simultaneously working on Woody Allen's Manhattan.
Kramer vs.Kramer offered a lesson for a generation of selfish baby boomers: raising kids isn't a responsibility to be taken lightly. Little Billy has feelings, an ego and a desire to be special. When Ted puts his child's welfare first, he discovers the depth and satisfaction to be had from relating to a child who depends on him for practically everything. The show has even more revelations for the disco generation. Ted Kramer makes the humbling career choice to work below his earning potential for the good of his family, and finds a self-respect that he hadn't known before.
The expected courtroom scene that concludes Kramer vs.Kramer is organized not along legal lines but instead as a process of emotional discovery. In their battle for possession of the child, neither Ted nor Joanna wishes to do harm, yet they find themselves in an ugly and cruel legal situation. Their life stories are aired in public; an innocent accident can be interpreted as negligence. The film's conclusion is an intense, satisfying personal experience, an expression of the pain of Doing the Right Thing.
Sony's Blu-ray of Kramer vs.Kramer is a chance to enjoy the work of the respected cinematographer Nestor Almendros. The HD transfer brings out the subtleties in Almendros' muted and soft colors. Every shot is a model of carefully graded light and shade. The camera does few "tricks" and supports the drama with an almost-invisible non-presence.
The disc's only extra is Finding the Truth, a good hour-long documentary done for an earlier DVD release. It's a detailed and frank account of the shooting of the film, with excellent interviews from the producers and key actors. Both star interviews feel like intimate confidences being entrusted to the audience. Dustin Hoffman gives an open and generous interview and is obviously very proud of the film. Meryl Streep conveys charm and honesty. Streep compares Robert Benton's collaborative directing approach to Woody Allen's dictatorial style, proving that the docu is no public-image snow job. Hoffman tells a great story about a court reporter that admitted that divorce trials are terribly painful to witness, much worse than even murder cases.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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