Kramer Vs Kramer is a comparably small-scale drama that went on to sweep the Academy Awards in 1980 winning Best Picture, Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman, Best Supporting Actress for Meryl Streep and Best Direction for Robert Benton. The film is still a pleasure to watch due to sublimely nuanced performances.
It’s even more surprising ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ ran off with so many awards in a year that included Ford Coppola’s epic ‘Apocalypse Now’ as the two films couldn’t be farther apart, in both subtlety and the Academy’s usual preference for lack of subtlety but Benton’s intimate drama seemed to hit at just the right time.
Based on Avery Corman’s novel, the strength of the film lies in its unbiased screenplay and handling by Benton who both wrote and directed. The film tries not to take sides in a story of a mother who leaves her husband and young son to try and find her place in the world and then returns to fight for custody. Although sympathy clearly lies with husband/father, scenes are established early on that give some sort of justification to the mother.
Had either of the parents been cast as either outright villain or victim, I imagine the power of the film would have been significantly diminished as just another TV melodrama of the week, Instead we get thoughtful performances by the three key players with Hoffman being particularly intent on the freshness of improv.
There’s really not much plot to speak of that wasn’t already covered. Hoffman stars as Ted Kramer, an ad executive so consumed with himself and his work that when he gets home late for work and is in a flurry of telling his wife Joanna (Streep) about his day, he completely glosses over her statement: “I’m leaving you”. At first thinking it’s a joke, a small but powerful scene later has Joanna in an elevator saying she doesn’t love him anymore, and then Ted is alone with his young son Billy (Justin Henry).
Not quite giving up hope that she’s returning, a week goes by, and finally a letter arrives from her addressed to Billy confirming that she’s not coming back. The whole middle passage of the film looks at Ted and Billy’s relationship and how they slowly have to come to rely on each other. With Ted just scoring an important account at work, he’s forced to balance his work with sole parental responsibilities.
These scenes play out in a realistic, mostly improvised manner and will tug at the heartstrings of even the most cynical. A year and a half goes by with Ted and Billy having formed a life together when Joanna returns calm and apparently done with finding herself.
She still doesn’t love Ted but she thinks that Billy belongs with his mother (Admittedly, she seems completely callous but when first separated and Ted had to drop off his son at school, he had no idea what grade Billy was in).
This starts the third act where a custody battle plays out that thankfully doesn’t drag Billy sobbing and screaming into the court room. A lesser film would have used that child POV melodrama as a crutch but the court case just plays out between the two reastically-drawn parents.
Neither has resorted to outright hate and as the court battle essentially becomes a war of words between two lawyers, they sadly look at each other across the court room wondering how it could have gotten to that point.
Hoffman is the star of the show here and his sometimes difficult insistence on in-the-moment energy works to the films great advantage. The featurette shows how most scenes between Hoffman and Henry were improvised with Hoffman leading the young actor in an attempt to get fresh, realistic results and Hoffman even plays off of Streep in this way with Streep and Hoffman admitting that life was imitating art a bit with a slightly antagonistic relationship between the two actors.
There’s very little to fault in the pic other than it simply being a drama about a topic that most people would just rather ignore. With a divorce rate as high as it is, half of our country has lived this film either as a child or parent so why in God’s name would they consider watching it as entertainment?
The film is presented with a 1.85:1 1080p AVC encode and the results are reasonably sharp considering the thirty-year old source material. There’s some slight grain but the bleak color palette of a soft late 70s-era New York would never deliver a knock-out high-def image.
Detail is fine throughout but no one was expecting ‘Iron Man’ here. A Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is provided and again, is very functional considering an audio track that’s almost exclusively dialogue and sparse music.
Besides BD-Live, the only bonus feature is a 50-minute doc ‘Finding the Truth: The Making of Kramer vs. Kramer’. All notable cast and crew are interviewed and lot of interesting info is covered with Benton, Hoffman, Streep and a grown-up Justin Henry all chiming in on the experiences of making the film.
While ‘Apocalypse Now’ should have arguably taken home the prize, the ‘Best Picture’ of 1980 is still worth seeking out despite the obvious quaintness. With competent enough visuals and a decent doc, ultimately with every Blu-ray, we find ourselves coming back to the film so ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ comes recommended.