Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)


(director/writer: Robert Benton; screenwriter: based on the novel by Avery Corman; cinematographer: Nestor Almendros; editor: Gerald B. Greenberg; music: Herb Harris/John Kander; cast: Dustin Hoffman (Ted Kramer), Meryl Streep (Joanna Kramer), Justin Henry (Billy Kramer), Jane Alexander (Margaret Phelps), Howard Duff (John Shaunessy), George Coe (Jim O’Connor), JoBeth Williams (Phyllis Bernard), Bill Moor (Gressen), Justin Henry (Billy, six-year-old son); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Stanley R. Jaffe; Sony Pictures; 1979)

“Another in a long list of those overrated Oscar winners for Best Picture.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Another in a long list of those overrated Oscar winners for Best Picture is directed and written by Robert Benton (“Bad Company”/”Billy Bathgate”/”The Late Show”). It’s an adaptation of Avery Corman’s bestseller about contemporary problems of divorce for a young Manhattan Upper-East Side couple. The slick tearjerker domestic melodrama played to the middle-class crowd touched by the changing times where the nuclear family is seemingly coming apart. It’s a strong Manhattan movie that ultimately leaves us with the message that no one walks away from a divorce without some pain.

It has thirtysomething career-obsessed advertising art director Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) coming home late from work one night after feeling high when assigned to head up the ad campaign for a big-time client and is promised by his boss a possible partnership if all goes well and then coming down from his high when being told by his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) that she wants a divorce. Joanna wants to be free to find her own identity, and is leaving him in custody of their six-year-old son Billy (Justin Henry). Ted puts his fast track career on hold and spends quality time with his son parenting by trial and error, which enables him to forge a strong bond with his son he never had before but stifles his career. It eventually causes Ted to look for a less time consuming job so he can spend more time with his son. Then after 18 months of therapy in California, Joanna returns to claim custody of the child and this sets off a bitter custody fight in court.

Hoffman’s single parent role is a nod to the rapidly shifting 1970s social landscape. Streep rewrote much of her role to make her part more sympathetic, feeling otherwise the film wouldn’t have worked unless it also presented a fairer side to the woman’s argument. Some of the acting was spontaneous. Both won Oscars for their roles, Hoffman Best Actor and Streep Best Supporting Actress. Jane Alexander played the divorced neighbor friend of the Kramers who is caught in the middle but tries to be fair to both sides.

Cinematographer Nestor Almendros, a Cuban expatriate, had previously worked with Truffaut on “The Story of Adele H.” and won an Oscar the year before for Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” does a good job making Manhattan come alive as part of the narrative and using tight shots to highlight the anxiety of his subjects. Benton was at the top of his game and won Best Director.

The film was critically acclaimed and was a box office hit, grossing over $70 million upon its release.

Watching it today, I wonder what all the fuss was about as it looks like one of those made-for-TV dramas they used to make regularly for 1950s television. This high concept film never has more to say than pointing out that the divorced couple are selfish, looking out for themselves more than they are for their son. If this wasn’t so, no matter how you slice it, the court fight wouldn’t have been so bitter. Despite Benton’s lackluster directing he gets effective performances from Hoffman and Streep, but otherwise the story remains more a touching of yuppie wounds than enlightening.