Music: Herb Harris Cinematography: Néstor Almendros
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander and Justin Henry
Tootsie when Dustin Hoffman, as Dorothy, is over at Jessica Lange’s apartment and is offered a glass of wine. He declines, saying he wants to stay sharp. But when the conversation turns to Lange’s daughter Hoffman asks if she is divorced and Lange replies that she’s never been married. Suddenly Hoffman reaches for the wine. It’s a small moment, but a significant one. I can remember feeling a shiver of scandal when I first saw that scene myself, just as Hoffman did. But times have changed and today it has very little impact on audiences. The same can be said for the whole of Kramer vs. Kramer, a film in which a woman leaves her husband and young son just as a man would do. It was something fairly shocking to consider in its day, but has since lost a lot of its moral impact. Nevertheless, it is a powerful film, but the impact has shifted to the courtroom where, despite the fact that the husband and son were abandoned, family courts makes their decisions on blanket recommendations meant to apply to all cases and seem to take none of the circumstances of specific cases into account before rendering their decisions. And that still is a scandal.
The film opens on the classic--though by now clichéd--image of Meryl Streep, red-rimmed eyes and haunted countenance, telling her sleeping boy, Justin Henry, that she loves him. Then she begins packing. At the same time her husband, Dustin Hoffman, is talking with his boss in the advertising office where he works. He knows he needs to get home but gets sidetracked walking home discussing business. Distracted, Hoffman practically ignores Streep when he gets home, that is until she walks out the door. He calls her best friend in the building, Jane Alexander, and then gets mad at her for not letting him know. But she isn’t having any of it. Still, Hoffman can’t believe Streep would leave her own son. The next morning is the iconic French toast scene. And when Hoffman burns his hand and drops the pan he doesn’t curse at the pan, or the situation, he curses Streep. Meanwhile Henry is obviously confused, and Hoffman’s boss is urging him to send his son to stay with relatives so that he can concentrate on work. Jane Alexander, ironically, becomes his best friend during this time, as she is divorced with kids as well. It’s not until over a year later that Streep returns to New York and shocks Hoffman by asking for Henry back, and the legal battle of the title occupies the last third of the film.
The story is really about Dustin Hoffman’s character. He goes from being a clueless career man, to an abandoned husband, and eventually a father. It’s a gradual transformation but one that is freighted with meaning. All along the way he has choices to make, but the one constant is his son. Despite suggestions by others that his life would be simpler without him, he quite simply cannot abandon his son. At first it’s out of spite, out of hatred toward Streep for what she has done. Then it’s out of simple stubbornness. In the office of George Coe he tells his boss that he’s a fighter, a survivor, and keeping Henry is one way to prove it. Eventually, however, the joys of simply being a father provide all of the motivation necessary and the choice he has made becomes about keeping his family together, even if it’s just the two of them. But the films greatness in general comes from the tremendous acting talent. In addition to Hoffman and Streep, Jane Alexander is arresting. She had been doing television work for a decade before this and went from here right into Brubaker with Robert Redford. The other incredible bit of casting was Justin Henry as the son. In the film he is simply one of the most believable child actors on the screen, and while his role is certainly manipulative of the audience it still rings true. George Coe and the venerable Howard Duff are also solid in supporting roles.
There are some very sophisticated touches in the film from writer-director Robert Benton. One is about midway through the film when Hoffman is in the office of Coe and being chewed out for not doing his job. The scene is shot with Hoffman full frame on the couch. Coe is pacing back and forth in front of him but his head is not visible on the screen. The association then, of Hoffman with his own son, is a powerful one and a subliminal foreshadow of what’s to come. The film also has a heavy parallelism, with certain scenes and shots repeated at the beginning and end of the film, including the French toast scene, or the shot of Streep in the elevator as the door closes. Benton has done relatively few films, but many of them have been important ones, including a couple late in Paul Newman’s career. He is also the winner of three Academy Awards, for both writing and direction in this film and for his screenplay for Places in the Heart. Hoffman and Streep both won Oscars and the film was the winner for best picture. In addition, the film earned four more nominations, including ones for Justin Henry and Jane Alexander. Kramer vs. Kramer is a memorable seventies film, a snapshot of the times and the kind of intimate story that you don’t see on the screen anymore.