1979 / Best Actor / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actor / Best Supporting Actress

Film #322: Kramer Vs Kramer (1979)

In the 1970s we saw Dustin Hoffman star in a diverse range of films and garner a couple of Best Actor nomination. But it was only during the ceremonies of the 1980s did he finally get rewarded for his fine body of work. In fact in two of the three films below he won Best Actor Oscars and, coincidentally, both films went on to win Best Picture awards.

Hoffman’s success started early in the decade when appeared in Kramer Vs Kramer, the winner of Best Picture at the 1980 ceremony. The film saw him play harassed advertising executive Ted Kramer a man who spends a lot more time at work than he does at home. Ted’s life changes dramatically one day when his wife Joanna walks out on him without giving him any notice at all. Ted is then forced to bring up the couple’s son Billy single-handedly, a task that he finds more than a little difficult. Ted struggles to find the balance between handling a major account at his advertising firm and dealing with the kind of minute details that raising a seven year old brings. These problems are highlighted by the tantrums that Billy has as well as the accident that occurs when he falls off a climbing frame. But gradually the father/son bond grows and Billy becomes the most important thing in Ted’s life. So events become even more complicated when, eighteen months later, Joanna returns claiming that she wants Billy to come and live with her. With the bond between Ted and Billy stronger than ever, Ted decides to fight her claim and the two enter a bitter court battle together. The case itself sees major dirt thrown on both sides and ultimately only one side comes out victorious. Just like the rest of the film, I found the ending to be sweet without being saccharine and more than anything it made a lot of sense.

In his script for Kramer Vs Kramer, Robert Benton creates characters who are supremely flawed but are ultimately capable of caring for one another. Ted Kramer is somewhat of a workaholic who we basically see become a proper father to his son over the course of the film. Though Ted makes mistakes, he appears to learn from them and the scene in which he rushes through traffic to get Billy to hospital is extremely moving. Similarly, Benton turns Joanna from the villain of the piece to somebody who we sympathise with due to her final decision in the film. Her actions may not always be right but, just like her ex-husband, she always does what she thinks is best. I have to say, I struggled to like Billy initially and felt that Benton had written him as just a precocious child but he also developed over the course of the film. His realisation that Joanna didn’t leave because of him was well-handled and was another example of how true to life Benton had made his characters. In addition to providing some incredible characters, the film offers up some really thought-provoking situations about what it really means to be a parent as it dealt with the changing face of both fatherhood and motherhood. Benton also ended up directing the film after François Truffaut pulled out and it appears as if this was the right decision as he is able to see his words realised on screen. Truffaut’s long time cinematographer Néstor Almendros adds some beauty to the piece and is great at capturing some of the silent moments between father and son. One of my favourite recurring motifs is the way that the pair’s breakfasts together change over time and the routine they get into by the end of the film is somewhat magical.

I feel Hoffman’s Oscar win was more than justified as he appears in nearly every scene of the film and is magnetic throughout. Here he is tasked with playing just a run-of-the-mill father and yet is able to make his character feel every inch a movie hero. Hoffman really communicates Ted’s inner turmoil and the love he feels for Billy as the film goes on. Meryl Streep, here winning Best Supporting Actress, is great as Joanna and gives the film a real poignancy whenever she appears. Streep didn’t overplay her role and instead brought a quiet fragility to the custody battle in which she and Hoffman both excel. Young Justin Henry was absolutely terrific as young Billy and was much more than just a token child. He made us believe that Billy had been forced to grow up quickly and the chemistry between he and Hoffman was just brilliant. At just over an hour and half, Kramer Vs Kramer never outstayed its welcome and was well-paced throughout. The result of this was a snappy film, with three incredible performances and an incredibly realistic script. Though you’ll have to find out if I think it deserved to win Best Picture, I thought that Kramer Vs Kramer was a great film that explored the true meaning of the word family.




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