Saturday 11 July 2009

Kramer vs Kramer (1979)

Director: Robert Benton
Star: Dustin Hoffman

As I write this review Meryl Streep has 41 feature films to her credit and she's been nominated for 15 Academy Awards. It only needs basic maths skills to realise that means that she's nominated for one out of every three films, which is pretty astounding. Then again she's often regarded as the best actress working in cinema today, hardly a minor accolade. Kramer vs Kramer was her first win, and her second nomination, after The Deer Hunter a year earlier. Both were as a supporting actress, her first leading nomination being for The French Lieutenant's Woman in 1982.

But while the world didn't really know who Meryl Streep was when this film opened, the film seems to have had a pretty good idea. The first image we see is her face and we stay there for a little while, watching her as she emotes. She's wishing her young son good night and telling him that she loves him, but really she's telling herself, because she knows she's not going to see him in the morning. She's leaving. She's Joanna Kramer, she's leaving her husband Ted and she's leaving her son Billy. Apparently she feels that she's not good for him. It's obviously a huge deal, though we aren't privy to her reasons.

This leaves husband Ted in something of a lurch. He's a businessman, an advertising executive who's just been put in charge of a large contract, and it's the day he brings this news home that his wife leaves him. And just to confuse us, as our sympathies are automatically against Joanna for leaving her young son, Ted does his best to turn us against him too. Everything is patently about him, not just the mug in the kitchen with his name on it, but most obviously in the fact that he doesn't ask why she's leaving, he asks what he did to make her do it.

To give him credit, he takes on the responsibility from moment one and seems to adjust scarily fast. He has to deal all the problems you might expect, so we get the cooking breakfast scene and the dropping off at school scene and the eating dinner scene and the school production scene and all the other scenes you can visualise in your head just from knowing the score. Time passes without any real markers but it seems that he adjusts amazingly well to life as a single parent in an amazingly short time. In fact it would be hard to imagine any self absorbed father who knows nothing about being a parent or even looking after himself adjusting any better to juggling a time intensive job with being a single parent.

And later on we're treated with the numbers. Billy is now seven years old and it's been fifteen months since Joanna walked out, but she's back with a new grip on who she really is and she wants her kid. She's willing to fight and she has a lawyer, but of course so does he. Most importantly of all, it's 22nd December, the Friday before Christmas, and Ted finds himself out of a job. His lawyer naturally tells him that he doesn't have a chance in hell of winning a custody case without a job, and here's where we really begin the story.

We start to find out just how much both these people want their son. Ted memorably finds himself a new job within 24 hours to keep his fight alive and we watch Meryl Streep, who has been absent for most of the film up to this point, come back into it and reassert herself as a character with all the powers that she can bring to bear. It can't hurt that the young Meryl Streep reminds of the young Warners-era Bette Davis, but as the cinematic world would begin to realise, she is very good indeed at what she does.

There's a lot of power here, beyond some very powerful acting performances that were very deservedly recognised at the highest level. Justin Henry became, at eight years of age, the youngest actor to be nominated for a competitive Oscar. Jane Alexander was also Oscar nominated, for a part that led her from being Joanna's best friend to Ted's best friend. Her courtroom scenes are very telling. Further down a superb cast, people like George Coe and Howard Duff stamp the word 'definitive' on their respective roles.

The courtroom is where this film really kicks into high gear and it's hardly surprising that it's such a highly renowned film for these scenes, even though technically they take up a surprisingly small amount of the film's running time. This is known as a film about a court battle, because it's so central to the story that it even comprises the title of the piece. It highlighted something that everyone probably knew already but just took for granted unless they were going through a custody battle themselves. Mama gets the kids. That's just how it goes, right? This was the film (and source novel) that asked why.

Hoffman and Streep are both amazing to watch in these scenes because they're not just fighting for what they want, they're cringing internally at the ame time because of the degree that their lawyers are going to town on their opponents. They have to run through a whole slew of emotions all at once and they're both more than up to the task, perhaps partially because they had a lot of real life trauma to help them: Meryl Streep was mourning the death of her lover John Cazale the year before and Dustin Hoffman was going through a messy divorce from his wife of eleven years. Apparently he contributed so much to Robert Benton's script that he was offered a co-writing credit that he declined.

So a whole slew of people got a whole slew of awards for putting this film together and that's fine. Robert Benton, who had signed on to write the screen adaptation, became the director too and so landed two Oscars for the same film (the fifth and last win was for Best Picture, in the year of Apocalypse Now and another Meryl Streep film, Manhattan). What I particularly enjoyed here that didn't win was the cinematography. Unfortunately NĂ©stor Almendros was up against Vittorio Storaro for Apocalypse Now and as impressive as his work is here I'm sure he didn't expect to win either.

His camerawork is great, often through the choice of how he told stories because it isn't always what we see, it's often what we don't see. We see the Kramer house come to life from a camera shot down the hallway, the people We see Ted's boss getting nervous by watching his legs walk up and down past a static shot of Ted on his leather couch. We watch Ted waiting for the results of a job interview by seeing him sit, still and nervous, in the middle of a Christmas party in which not a single other person is remotely serious. We see a repetition of the early breakfast scene much later in the film that tells a powerful story on its own purely by what we see is different.

And at the end of the day, the way this cinematography works is really a parallel to what the film does best. It took an argument so one-sided that nobody really even thought of it as an argument and it showed us the other sides. Why should the mother automatically get the kids in a custody battle? It isn't about her, it's about the father too and most importantly of all, it's about the kids themselves. This film gives us all three sides of the argument, perhaps for the first time, and in doing so it added an important contribution to a changing world.

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