“I think the reason why Mommy left… was because for a long time… I kept trying to make her be a certain kind of person. A certain kind of wife that I thought she was supposed to be. And she just wasn’t like that,” explains Ted Kramer to his six-year old son in “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979). At the end of “The Graduate” (1967), Benjamin and Elaine hop on a bus after she nearly marries the wrong man. The camera lingers on their euphoric expressions as they slowly turn into ambiguous looks – facing the uncertainty ahead. The producers and director of “Kramer vs. Kramer” saw their film as “spiritual sequel” to it. It depicts the sudden collapse of a marriage and how it forces both parents to become better people – in particular the workaholic absent father. After 40 years, it endures as a moving portrait of parenthood and a re-evaluation of gender roles.
The movie opens with the face of Joanna in profile and the sound of her sighing. “I love you, Billy,” she says – pain in her voice – to her son asleep in bed. “I’ll see you in the morning light,” he responds. I love those details given that we will learn how disillusioned Joanna is in her marriage and with her role as a mother. She is ultimately looking for self-realization. She will wait for her husband to walk in the door from work – and tell him “I’m leaving you.” Ted is an advertising executive and he’s focused on the new account he’s been assigned. It obviously hasn’t been easy decision for her, but Ted’s response is to ask her if this is a form of a joke – and that this is not the right time. He doesn’t hear her. The following morning Ted is encumbered with the task of getting his son ready for school. He doesn’t even know how to make coffee for himself. As he rushes his kid to school, he asks him “What grade are you in?” The main thrust of the film will be about Ted learning to communicate with his son – and reprioritizing his life to take care of not only his financial needs but his emotional well-being. Then, as the title suggests, Joanna will reappear and ask for custody — and a bitter battle will ensue. It will pull the rug from underneath us and make us question and reassess. “I don’t know how anybody can possibly believe that I have less of a stake in mothering that little boy than Mr. Kramer does. I’m his mother. I’m his mother,” Joanna will state.
Robert Benton – who wrote the adaptation of the novel by the same name – and directed the film – hired Nestor Almendros to be his director of cinematography. Almendros – who won the Academy Award for “Days of Heaven” uses available light, natural light, and creates austere and disciplined compositions – which mainly take place in apartment buildings. There’s an emphasis on brownish earthy tones. What all of this does is create a humanistic approach to what we’re seeing – and a timelessness. The focus is on the characters and the words being spoken. Notice the opening shot of Joanna – it’s as if we were seeing a renaissance painting of a Madonna in profile against a black background. For the pivotal scene where Ted hands Billy to Joanna for a visit, it takes place in the Central Park Mall – a walkway leading to the Bethesda Terrace. It becomes a naturalistic conduit that bridges the two maturing adults.
Her performance in “Kramer vs. Kramer” capped an amazing year for Meryl Streep. The phenom had been in “The Deer Hunter,” “Manhattan” and on TV’s “Holocaust.” She brought a fragility and intelligence to Joanna that makes you pause. It is documented that her major speech in court was written by her. Dustin Hoffman is a revelation for the fact that he seems so exposed. We see the character learning to listen – stumbling – and moving forward. One of the most extraordinary moments both from the acting and directing perspectives comes when Ted – after having been fired, and willing to take a salary cut for the sake of his son – is waiting at an office Christmas party to hear if his big gamble will pay off. He sits and watches the merriment take place around him. It’s by far one of the best moments in cinema history.
One of the extraordinary things about great movies is that you’re able to go back and see them over and over again – and find nuances about them you’d never seen before. “Kramer vs. Kramer” was a pivotal film – and it continues to be so.
Ted (reading Billy a letter from his mom): “I have gone away because I must find some interesting things to do for myself in the world. Everybody has to, and so do I. Being your mommy was one thing, but there are other things and this is what I have to do. I did not get a chance to tell you this, and that is why I am writing you now.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime and The Criterion Channel. Available to rent on Google Play, YouTube, Microsoft, Apple TV, Redbox, FandangoNOW, iTunes, DIRECTV and Amazon.
Screenplay by Robert Benton. Based on the novel by Avery Corman
Directed by Robert Benton
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Jane Alexander
Bringing “Kramer vs. Kramer” to the Screen
“Before ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ even hit the bookstores, the manuscript fell into the hands of Richard Fischoff, a young film executive who had just accepted a job with the producer Stanley Jaffe. Ted and Joanna Kramer, Fischoff thought, were like Benjamin and Elaine in ‘The Graduate’ 10 years later, after their impulsive union has collapsed from the inside. The movie would be a kind of generational marker, tracking the baby-boomers from the heedlessness of young adulthood to the angst of middle adulthood. No one was yet calling people like the Kramers “yuppies,” but their defining neuroses were already in place. Jaffe took the novel to the director Robert Benton, best known for co-writing Bonnie and Clyde. Everyone liked the idea of a spiritual sequel to ‘The Graduate,’ which meant that the one and only choice for Ted Kramer was Dustin Hoffman. ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and ‘All the President’s Men’ had made the 40-year-old actor the era’s antsy Everyman, but he was now at one of the lowest points of his life. Amid contentious experiences filming ‘Straight Time and Agatha,’ he was mired in lawsuits and countersuits, and was in the middle of an emotional separation from his first wife, Anne Byrne.” (vanityfair.com)
Casting the Role of Joanna
“The filmmakers offered the part of Joanna to Kate Jackson, of ‘Charlie’s Angels.’ Jackson had the name recognition and the crystalline beauty that Columbia Pictures required. But Aaron Spelling wouldn’t bend the Angels production schedule, and Jackson was forced to pull out of the film kicking and screaming. According to Fischoff, the studio sent over a list of possible replacements, essentially a catalogue of the bankable female stars of the day: Ali MacGraw, Faye Dunaway, even Jane Fonda. Katharine Ross, who had played Elaine in ‘The Graduate,’ was a natural contender. With ‘The Deer Hunter’ still in post-production, the name Meryl Streep meant nothing to the West Coast, apart from sounding like a Dutch pastry. But she and Benton shared an agent, and if anyone knew how to get someone into an audition room, it was Sam Cohn. Meryl marched into the hotel suite where Hoffman, Benton, and Jaffe sat side by side. She had read Corman’s novel and found Joanna to be “an ogre, a princess, an ass,” as she put it soon after toAmerican Film. When Dustin asked her what she thought of the story, she told him in no uncertain terms. They had the character all wrong, she insisted. Her reasons for leaving Ted are too hazy. We should understand why she comes back for custody. When she gives up Billy in the final scene, it should be for the boy’s sake, not hers. Joanna isn’t a villain; she’s a reflection of a real struggle that women are going through across the country, and the audience should feel some sympathy for her. If they wanted Meryl, they’d need to do re-writes, she later told Ms. magazine.
The trio was taken aback, mostly because they hadn’t called her in for Joanna in the first place. They were thinking of her for the minor role of Phyllis, the one-night stand. Somehow she’d gotten the wrong message. Still, she seemed to understand the character instinctively. Maybe this was their Joanna after all? That, at least, was Meryl’s version. The story the men told was completely different. “It was, for all intents and purposes, the worst meeting anybody ever had with anybody,” Benton recalled. “She said a few things, not much. And she just listened. She was polite and nice, but it was—she was just barely there.” When Meryl left the room, Stanley Jaffe was dumbfounded. “What is her name—Merle?” he said, thinking box office. Benton turned to Dustin. Dustin turned to Benton. “That’s Joanna,” Dustin said. The reason was John Cazale. Dustin knew that Meryl had lost him only months earlier, and from what he saw, she was still shaken to the core. That’s what would fix the Joanna problem: an actress who could draw on a still-fresh pain, who was herself in the thick of emotional turmoil. It was Meryl’s weakness, not her strength, that convinced him.” (vanityfair.com)
About Writer and Director Robert Benton
Born near Dallas in 1932, Benton as a child suffered from severe dyslexia that prevented him from reading or writing very well. Only movies seemed to hold his attention, and, fortunately, his father took him to see them about three times a week. After graduating from college — the first in his family to do so — Benton relocated to New York City, where he landed a job as the art director at Esquire magazine. While living in New York, he began attending screenings at various art houses, including many films of the French New Wave. Eventually, Benton and his friend and fellow Esquire staffer David Newman (who died in 2003) decided to write an “American New Wave” film. Their script, as well as additional contributions by Robert Towne and star-producer Warren Beatty, resulted in “Bonnie and Clyde,” an alternately humorous and violent film that put the nail in the coffin of the Hays Code that had censored movie content for decades, made mega-stars out of Beatty and Faye Dunaway, won a best supporting actress Oscar for “Estelle Parsons,” helped to launch the careers of Gene Hackman and Gene Wilder and made Hollywood players out of Benton and Newman, who were nominated for the best original screenplay Oscar. Five years later, Benton and Newman wrote the script for Peter Bogdanovich’s “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972) and Benton directed his first film, the Western “Bad Company” (1972), which he also independently wrote. He also penned and directed his next film, “The Late Show” (1977), which brought him a second Oscar nom, for best original screenplay.
Benton’s career reached its apex, however, with the release of “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), a heartbreaking drama about divorce and single-parenthood that came out when America was confronting a massive rise in those areas. The film was a critical and commercial smash hit and won the Oscars for best picture, actor (Dustin Hoffman) and supporting actress (Meryl Streep), plus best director and best original screenplay for Benton. Three years passed before Benton, a notoriously slow worker, churned out another film, “Still of the Night” (1982), which generated mixed reactions. But his next film after that one, “Places in the Heart” (1984), showed him to be in tip-top form and garnered best director and best original screenplay Oscar noms for him (he won the latter) and a best actress Oscar win for star Sally Field. In the 1990s, Benton collaborated on two occasions with the writer Richard Russo and the actor Paul Newman (who died in 2009), “Nobody’s Fool” (1994), for which Benton received a fifth best original screenplay Oscar nom and for which Newman received his last of his eight best (lead) actor Oscar noms, and “Twilight” (1998), a less successful picture. More recently, Benton and Russo co-wrote “The Ice Harvest” (2005), and Benton directed two films that he had no part in writing, “The Human Stain” (2003) and “Feast of Love” (2007). Benton emphasizes that he has not retired and continues to write. (hollywoodreporter.com)