Back in the late '70s, a wave of divorce swept across America, perhaps the first big mainstream reflection of the women's lib movement that had blossomed a few years earlier. All my friends' parents seemed to break up, and so did Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer, a zeitgeisty melodrama that fits right in with all the Upper East Side Woody Allen flicks of that era, only with lawyers instead of laughs. Showered with awards, including nine Oscar nominations and five wins, including Best Picture, it remains one of the most compelling films of the decade, even if time has tarnished a bit of its sheen.
Hard-driving and oblivious ad exec Ted Kramer (Hoffman, more jittery than usual) is blindsided when his alarmingly fragile wife Joanna suddenly abandons him and their six-year old son Billy (Justin Henry), claiming that she needs to go to California to, you know, "find herself." Clearly a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she hands over the keys, the credit cards, and the dry-cleaning tickets and disappears, leaving Ted to answer Billy's question: "Where's Mommy?"
Totally unprepared to be a single dad, Ted makes a fine mess of things, terrifying his traumatized son even when he attempts something as simple as making French toast. He eventually loses his job when he can't get his act together. As time passes, however, Ted and Billy start to bond, and Ted can start to visualize a happy future. Along the way, sensible neighbor Margaret (Jane Alexander) observes and sympathizes.
But there's still the matter of the legal proceedings to attend to, and Ted hires a tough, red-faced attorney named Shaunessy (Howard Duff) to represent him. It isn't pretty because once the battle for custody begins, both sides bend the truth and cast false aspersions upon each other in order to improve their chances of winning. It's ugly stuff, some of the most cringe-worthy courtroom emoting of all time (and I mean that in a good way).
An actor's film, Kramer vs. Kramer delivered Oscars to both Hoffman and Streep, not to mention nominations for both young Justin Henry, just eight at the time, and Jane Alexander. In fact, this is the movie that made Streep a star. Her Joanna is both sympathetic and terrible, a monster who wins you over when she weeps. Hoffman has his detractors (including me, usually), but here he's better than ever, and having recently gone through his own divorce, he brings his own improvised dialogue to make his scenes really come alive. In one scene, he hurls a glass at a restaurant wall while arguing with Streep, and according to legend, he did so without warning her in advance. The resulting shock on her face is very real. But ask anyone what they really remember about the movie, and they'll say "that poor little boy." Henry is amazing, a master of improv who was so young that perhaps the secret to his success was that he didn't know he was in a movie. See this movie for the performances, and bring Kleenex.
Next time it's Cheerios.