“How much courage does it take to walk out on your kid?”
When his troubled wife (Meryl Streep) walks out on him, a workaholic father (Dustin Hoffman) must learn to care for their 6-year-old son Billy (Justin Henry) on his own. Soon Hoffman discovers the joys of parenthood, but things are complicated when Streep reappears and demands custody of Billy.
Response to Peary’s Review:
While acknowledging that Kramer vs. Kramer (based on Avery Corman’s real-life-inspired novel) is an “excellent, thoughtful, humorous, sensitive film with terrific acting and real characters”, Peary nonetheless expresses some serious reservations in his review, arguing that the film “ridiculously glorifies Hoffman for doing what so many mothers do as a matter of course”. I disagree: because KVK is essentially a character study (we see things almost exclusively from Hoffman’s point of view), it makes sense that his transformation from self-absorbed workaholic to loving father is shown as a tremendous accomplishment — for him, it is. With that said, it would certainly be interesting to see the entire story told from Streep’s perspective; but this would be a different film altogether.
To her credit, Streep (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) manages to convince us that her heinous abandonment of Billy was an act of desperation rather than rationality. Even more impressive, however, is Hoffman, who deservedly won an Oscar as best actor of the year — he apparently invested an enormous amount of time and energy into his role, essentially co-writing the script with director Robert Benton, and using improvisation whenever possible. The rapport he develops with Henry (an excellent child actor) is wonderfully natural; I love how there’s never a musical montage depicting their life together as “single males”. Instead — in one of the film’s best sequences — Benton shows us Billy silently setting out plates and doughnuts for breakfast while he and his dad read their respective “papers”. This type of carefully rendered authenticity permeates the entire narrative, which is often heartbreaking — and occasionally melodramatic — but always, fortunately, real.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Dustin Hoffman as Ted Kramer
- Justin Henry as Billy
- Meryl Streep as Joanna
- Jane Alexander as Ted’s sympathetic neighbor
- Nestor Almendros’ cinematography — particularly the outdoor New York scenes
- Many authentic and/or amusing scenes — such as Ted and Billy comfortably eating doughnuts together for breakfast while reading their respective morning “papers”
- The infamous “ice cream scene”
- The hilarious “hallway scene”, when Billy happens upon his dad’s naked lover (JoBeth Williams) heading to the bathroom
- The hectic “French toast scene” near the beginning of the film — and its subdued counterpoint near the end
Yes. This moving, well-acted drama remains the best film ever made about a custody battle.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)