K is for Kramer vs. Kramer, a film from 1979 that swept the Academy Awards. It won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Robert Benton (novel by Avery Corman), Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman, and Best Supporting Actress for Meryl Streep. It is the story of a custody battle between divorced parents for their son. The film is rated PG.
Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is a driven New York advertising executive who we find is neglecting his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) and even his young son Billy (Justin Henry). Joanna abruptly leaves both Ted and Billy late one night for points unknown. Ted now finds he is faced with the uncomfortable task of being a father in a motherly way to Billy.
His sounding board is neighbor Margaret Phelps (Jane Alexander) who is recently divorced with children of her own, and knew the couple prior to Joanna’s departure. Ted struggles to be a good father to Billy despite his anger at Joanna for deserting both of them. His work takes a downturn as he copes with being there for Billy’s school and activities.
Joanna resurfaces over a year later and has decided she wants to parent Billy, having discovered herself and gotten a job in New York. Ted mounts a defense to keep Billy with himself as primary custodian, and the court battle is none too pretty. I found myself thinking about how in some respects, the courts have changed in their treatment of custody battles, especially in terms of visitation. The attorneys still use every opportunity to make the other parent look bad.
I found that Justin Henry who played Billy was really, really a good little performer. He in fact was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, the youngest to ever be nominated in that category at the age of seven years, and in the same decade as he was born. He didn’t win, but what the director got out of him was truly amazing, particularly in a scene where he defies his father at the dinner table. His traumatized feelings at being abandoned by his mother are truly heartbreaking.
I enjoyed seeing Ted go from an inept sort of guy at home to a loving, caring and competent father to Billy. There is so much to admire about this film. Since it is 1979, there are also some interesting comparisons to make to present day, such as Ted’s and Joanna’s announced salaries to the courts during their trial. Salaries in the thirty thousand range must have been quite substantial back then for New York City; they aren’t anywhere near what is considered well off today.
I recommend Kramer vs. Kramer for a character driven story that will pull at your heartstrings. I saw it when it first came out in 1979, and I chose to watch it again. The musical score is enchanting, mostly classically based, and fitting the scenes well. And it’s fun seeing Hoffman and Streep at very early stages of their careers.