I have never seen the 1979 Meryl Streep/Dustin Hoffmann classic film, Kramer vs. Kramer, even though I know that it skyrocketed Streep to stardom, nominated a little kid for the Oscar, and even won a few. It looked too sad.
But I caved the other night.
It’s really a brilliant movie. I can’t name a movie in which the turn-around from hating a character to feeling so deeply for a character can happen so quickly. It’s obvious why Streep has become such a household name for her moving performance; I wish their were still movies this complex for beautiful, young women.
In the movie, Dustin Hoffmann plays an advertising executive named Ted Kramer who would rather goof around with his boss than get home to his wife, Joanna, and son, Billy. (Billy, played by Justin Henry, who was the youngest person ever nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards. Now, as seems to be the norm for child stars, he works in business).
The movie begins with Joanna leaving her husband and young son behind. Because he is a man and a breadwinner, Ted cannot do anything as basic as finding bowls in his tiny apartment. Sometimes movie men are as idiotic as movie women are helpless. Anyways, as the year-and-a-half of Joanna’s absence stretches on, Ted learns how to care for his son.
Joanna returns after finding herself with the help of a California psychologist. She’s sort of an unseen, hated presence throughout the movie, who really isn’t given any sort of identity but absent mother and wife. That, perhaps, was indicative of how her husband saw her. However, Streep gives a command performance, complicating the custody battle with her tale of her thwarted quest for personhood, despite her husband’s wish that she was secure in only her womanhood.
The movie was groundbreaking in its demonstration of how a person could be a successful parent regardless of his or her gender. That what is so revolutionary about this movie: Hoffmann is fired from his fast-track career because he has to give too much time to his child, he worries that he has ruined his son’s life when he lets the boy fall from a jungle gym, he struggles in balancing a personal life with raising a young child. The movie illustrates that these are not inherently conditions for women, but instead, they are the circumstances incurred by women when their husbands and partners leave.