Kramer vs. Kramer
|Kramer vs. Kramer|
|Directed by||Robert Benton|
|Screenplay by||Robert Benton|
|Based on||Kramer Versus Kramer|
by Avery Corman
|Produced by||Richard Fischoff|
Stanley R. Jaffe
|Edited by||Gerald B. Greenberg|
|Music by||Paul Gemignani|
Erma E. Levin
Roy B. Yokelson
|Distributed by||Columbia Pictures|
|Box office||$173 million|
Kramer vs. Kramer is a 1979 American legal drama film written and directed by Robert Benton, based on Avery Corman's 1977 novel of the same name. The film stars Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander, and Justin Henry. It tells the story of a couple's divorce, its impact on their young son, and the subsequent evolution of their relationship and views on parenting.
The film explores the psychology and fallout of divorce and touches upon prevailing or emerging social issues such as gender roles, women's rights, feminism, fathers' rights, work-life balance, and single parents.
Kramer vs. Kramer was theatrically released on December 19, 1979, by Columbia Pictures. It was a major critical and commercial success, grossing over $173 million on an $8 million budget, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1979 in the United States and Canada and receiving a leading nine nominations at the 52nd Academy Awards, winning five (more than any other film nominated that year); Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (for Streep), and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is a workaholic advertising executive living in New York City who has just been assigned a new and very important account. Ted arrives home and shares the good news with his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) only to find that she is leaving him and their son Billy (Justin Henry). Ted and Billy initially resent one another as Ted no longer has time to carry his increased workload, and Billy misses his mother's love and attention. After months of unrest, Ted and Billy learn to cope, and gradually bond as father and son.
One day at work Ted's business associate Phyllis Bernard (JoBeth Williams) accepts an invitation of dinner from Ted and the two of them end up sleeping together in his apartment. A groggy Phyllis wakes up to see that she's very late for a meeting and goes to the bathroom while Billy happens to come into the passage at the same moment where he sees her stark naked from head to toe. She tries to cover herself with her bare hands and makes small talk with the innocent child who is completely oblivious that he has witnessed a completely naked woman.
Ted befriends his neighbor Margaret (Jane Alexander), who had initially counseled Joanna to leave Ted if she was that unhappy. Margaret is a fellow single parent, and she and Ted become kindred spirits. One day, as the two sit in the park watching their children play, Billy accidentally falls off the jungle gym, severely cutting his face. Ted sprints several blocks through oncoming traffic carrying Billy to the hospital, where he comforts his son during treatment.
Fifteen months after she walked out, Joanna returns to New York from California to claim Billy, and a custody battle ensues. During the custody hearing, both Ted and Joanna are unprepared for the brutal character assassinations that their lawyers unleash on the other. Margaret is forced to testify that she had advised an unhappy Joanna to leave Ted, though she also attempts to tell Joanna on the stand that her husband has profoundly changed. Eventually, the damaging facts that Ted was fired because of his conflicting parental responsibilities which forced him to take a lower-paying job come out in court, as do the details of Billy's accident.
The court awards custody to Joanna, a decision mostly based on the tender years doctrine. Devastated with the decision, Ted discusses appealing the case, but his lawyer warns that an appeal would be expensive and Billy himself would have to take the stand in the resulting trial. Ted cannot bear the thought of submitting his child to such an ordeal, and decides not to contest custody.
On the morning that Billy is to move in with Joanna, Ted and Billy make breakfast together, mirroring the meal that Ted tried to cook the first morning after Joanna left. They share a tender hug, knowing that this is their last daily breakfast together. Joanna calls on the intercom, asking Ted to come down to the lobby alone. When he arrives she tells Ted how much she loves and wants Billy, but she knows that his true home is with Ted, and therefore she will not take custody of him. She asks Ted if she can go up and see Billy, and Ted says that would be fine. As they are about to enter the elevator together, Ted tells Joanna that he will stay downstairs to allow Joanna to see Billy in private.
After she enters the elevator, Joanna wipes tears from her face and asks her former husband "How do I look?" As the elevator doors start to close on Joanna, Ted answers, "Terrific."
- Dustin Hoffman as Ted Kramer
- Meryl Streep as Joanna (Stern) Kramer
- Justin Henry as Billy Kramer
- Jane Alexander as Margaret Phelps
- Petra King as Petie Phelps
- Melissa Morell as Kim Phelps
- Howard Duff as John Shaunessy
- George Coe as Jim O'Connor
- JoBeth Williams as Phyllis Bernard
- Howland Chamberlain as Judge Atkins
- Dan Tyra as Court Clerk
Producer Stanley R. Jaffe and writer and director Robert Benton read Avery Corman's source novel and were so moved by the story that they decided to buy the rights and make it into a movie. And the only actor they envisioned in the lead role of Ted Kramer was Dustin Hoffman.
Hoffman, himself going through a divorce at that time, initially turned down the role. He has since stated that he wanted to quit film acting and return to the stage, due to his depression and distaste for Hollywood at that time. While Jaffe and Benton were courting Hoffman, James Caan was offered the role but turned it down as he was concerned that film was going to be a flop. Al Pacino was also offered the role but turned it down as he felt that the role was not for him. Jon Voight also turned down the role. Finally, Hoffman met with Jaffe and Benton at a London hotel during the making of Agatha and was convinced to change his mind and accept the role. Hoffman has since credited this film and Benton for rejuvenating his love for film acting and inspiring the emotional level supporting many scenes. Simultaneously, Hoffman was reminded of his own love for children and "got closer being a father by playing a father."
Benton and Jaffe selected Justin Henry to play Billy. Hoffman worked extensively with Henry, then 7 years old, during each scene to put him at ease and Henry was encouraged by Benton to improvise to make his performance more natural. The famous ice cream scene where Billy defies Ted by skipping dinner and eating ice cream was completely improvised by Hoffman and Henry. Hoffman contributed many personal moments and dialogue; Benton offered shared screenplay credit, but Hoffman turned it down.
Kate Jackson was originally offered the role of Joanna Kramer ultimately played by Meryl Streep but was forced to turn it down. At the time, Jackson was appearing in the TV series Charlie's Angels, and producer Aaron Spelling told her that they were unable to rearrange the shooting schedule to give her time off to do the film. The part was then offered to various other actresses including Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda and Ali MacGraw, all of whom turned it down.
Streep was initially cast as Phyllis (the role eventually given to JoBeth Williams), but she was able to force her way into auditioning for Joanna in front of Hoffman, Benton, and Jaffe. She found the character in the novel and script unsympathetic ("an ogre, a princess, an ass", as she called her) and insisted on approaching Joanna from a more sympathetic point of view. Hoffman believed that the recent loss of Streep's fiancé, John Cazale, only months earlier, gave her an emotional edge and "still-fresh pain" to draw on for the performance. Streep was only contracted to work 12 days on the film.
Gail Strickland was first cast as Ted's neighbor Margaret, but departed after a week of filming (according to Columbia Pictures due to "artistic differences") and was replaced by Jane Alexander. The truth was that Strickland was so intimidated by Hoffman while filming their scenes together that she developed a stammer which made her lines difficult to follow. Strickland herself disputes this account, saying that she couldn't quickly memorize the improvised lines that Hoffman gave her, which agitated him and led to her firing two days later.
Cinematographer Néstor Almendros, a collaborator on numerous François Truffaut films, had been hired with the expectation that Truffaut would direct. Truffaut himself was seriously considered, but he turned it down due to the fact that he was too busy with his own projects and suggested that screenwriter Robert Benton should direct the film himself instead.
Hoffman has been widely reported in different media to have harassed Streep during the making of the movie, and the two had a contentious working relationship as a result. In a 1979 Time magazine interview, Streep claimed that Hoffman groped her breast on their first meeting. When Streep advocated for herself, wanting to portray Joanna as more sympathetic and vulnerable than she was written, she received pushback from him. Attributing the behavior to his commitment to being a method actor, he would also hurl insults and obscenities at Streep, taunting her with the name of her recently deceased fiancé, John Cazale, claiming this was designed to draw a better performance out of her. He famously threw a wine glass against the wall without telling her (although he did inform the cameraman beforehand), which shattered and sent glass shards into her hair. Her response was: "Next time you do that, I'd appreciate you letting me know."
In 2018, Streep told The New York Times that Hoffman had slapped her hard without warning while filming a scene: "This was my first movie, and it was my first take in my first movie, and he just slapped me. And you see it in the movie. It was overstepping."
Kramer vs. Kramer received positive reviews from critics. It holds an 89% approval rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes based on 99 reviews, with an average score of 8.20/10. The consensus reads: "The divorce subject isn't as shocking, but the film is still a thoughtful, well-acted drama that resists the urge to take sides or give easy answers."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four stars, giving praise to Benton's screenplay: "His characters aren't just talking to each other, they're revealing things about themselves and can sometimes be seen in the act of learning about their own motives. That's what makes Kramer vs. Kramer such a touching film: We get the feeling at times that personalities are changing and decisions are being made even as we watch them." Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it a "fine, witty, moving, most intelligent adaptation of Avery Corman's best-selling novel," with Streep giving "one of the major performances of the year" and Hoffman "splendid in one of the two or three best roles of his career." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film four stars out of four and wrote, "'Kramer vs. Kramer' never loses its low-key, realistic touch. You will sit at the end of the film wondering why we don't see more pictures like this. After all, its story is not all that unusual." He thought that Hoffman gave "one of his most memorable performances" and "should win the Academy Award next April." Variety wrote, "Stories on screen about men leaving women, and women leaving men have been abundant as of late, but hardly any has grappled with the issue in such a forthright and honest fashion as 'Kramer' ... While a nasty court battle ensues, the human focus is never abandoned, and it's to the credit of not only Benton and Jaffe, but especially Hoffman and Streep, that both leading characters emerge as credible and sympathetic." Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times declared it "as nearly perfect a film as can be" and "a motion picture with an emotional wallop second to none this year." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called the film "a triumph of partisan pathos, a celebration of father-son bonding that astutely succeeds where tearjerkers like The Champ so mawkishly failed." Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic wrote "All the people go through expected difficulties the way that runners take the hurdles in a track event: no surprise in it, it's just a question of how they do it. But the actors make it more."
Shortly after the film's release, The New York Times and Time magazine published separate articles in which members of the bar and bench criticized the court battle scenes as "legally out of date." According to the legal experts interviewed for the articles, a modern judge would have made use of psychological reports and also considered the wishes of the child; another criticism was that the option of joint custody was never explored.
In 2003, The New York Times placed the film on its Best 1000 Movies Ever list.
The film grossed $5,559,722 in its opening week from 534 theatres. It went on to gross $106.3 million in the United States and Canada. In its first 13 weeks overseas, it had grossed over $67 million. It went on to become Columbia's highest-grossing film overseas with theatrical rentals of $57 million until surpassed in 1990 by Look Who's Talking (released by Columbia TriStar internationally).
Kramer vs. Kramer reflected a cultural shift which occurred during the 1970s, when ideas about motherhood and fatherhood were changing. The film was widely praised for the way in which it gave equal weight and importance to both Joanna and Ted's points of view.
The song, Mon fils, ma bataille, about a painful divorce and a father's struggle to keep custody of his child, was inspired by Daniel Balavoine's parents' divorce, his guitarist Colin Swinburne's divorce and also by the film Kramer vs. Kramer (1980).
Awards and nominations
- American Film Institute Lists
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies – Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – Nominated
- AFI's 10 Top 10 – #3 Courtroom Drama
In 1990, the film was remade in Turkish as Oğulcan, directed and acted by Cüneyt Arkın, in Hindi as Akele Hum Akele Tum in 1995, starring Aamir Khan and Manisha Koirala and in Urdu as Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hay in 2016 starring Sajal Ali and Feroze Khan.
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- "With $55-mil rentals, 'Look Who's Talking' becomes Col's No. 2 moneymaker o'seas". Variety. August 15, 1990. p. 42.
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