The 50 Greatest Dramas: #45: Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

A newly divorced man battles his ex-wife for custody of their only son

On the surface, Robert Benton’s Kramer Vs. Kramer doesn’t look like a classic tearjerker. The courtroom locations of the film’s final third couldn’t be more unsentimental. The picture’s colour palate - inspired by David Hockney’s ‘Mr And Mrs Clark And Percy’ - also renders the film sterile and standoffish rather than warm and accessible. Ironically though, this muted quality is what makes Kramer Vs. Kramer, in the end, so emotionally devastating. Adapted from the novel by Avery Corman, Kramer Vs. Kramer opens on the collapse of a marriage between Joanna (Meryl Streep) and her workaholic husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman). With Joanna fleeing the family home to ‘find herself’ Ted is left to juggle work with raising the couple’s only child, Billy (Justin Henry). Being a single parent proves difficult for Ted, but it’s a role he eventually comes to relish. That is until Joanna re-enters Ted’s life and demands custody of the boy.

Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer

While it’s very much a movie of its time (the fashions, fabrics and soundtrack reek of the late 1970s), Kramer Vs. Kramer hasn’t dated as badly as some of its contemporaries. This is due to the continuing relevance of its subject matter and its affecting performances. Besides fine supporting work from Howard Duff, Jane Alexander and Justin Henry, (who’s surprisingly sincere for a child actor), Kramer also features Academy Award winning turns from Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman.

Streep, who also starred in the mighty Manhattan in 1979, is slightly handicapped by a character whose desire to discover herself never feels convincing. On the other hand, Hoffman, who came to the film after going through a painful divorce, couldn’t feel more real. Apparently, Hoffman contributed so much to the script that Benton offered him a writer’s credit. Although the actor refused, it’s clear from his heartfelt performance that he was bringing a lot more to the role than simply his talent.

Oscar-dominating 1970s weepie that is just waiting to be rediscovered.

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