TBT – Kramer vs Kramer (1979)

films, reviews, TBT

oscar_posters_79 5_star_rating_system_4_stars1 Today really does mark the end of Christmas. I’m back at work this morning after an 8-day break. It’s just flown by. It obviously didn’t help that I spent so many of the days in bed. But I’ve had a lovely time off and it’s been so nice to actually have a Christmas holiday for a change. I’m not looking forward to getting up in the morning. I’ve become too used to being able to get up whenever I want. I confess that I’ve been somewhat leisurely when it comes to getting out of bed. I set the alarm for 8 o’clock and get dressed at about 10. It does mean that a 7am wake-up call seems hellishly early. Though, I am looking forward to going back. If nothing else, it will mean that I might finally be able to work out what bloody day it is. I hate that period between Christmas and New Year when you don’t know what’s going. When every day fees like Sunday. When you can’t even work it out by watching TV because the schedules are all fucked and they’re only playing films. I love Christmas but I can’t wait until life feels a bit more normal again.

Anyone who read my Top 10 Films of 2019 list will know that Marriage Story slipped in as a last-minute addition near the top of the list. It was such an amazing film and managed to give both parties equal balance in the narrative. Neither side is seen as the villain or the hero. They are just two people getting divorced. The same cannot be said about Kramer vs Kramer. This week’s TBT film was the last movie I watched in 2019, a year that also marked the 40th anniversary of its release. Whilst the performances and direction still stand up, I can’t say that the core of the film has necessarily aged well. It’s always been a little uncomfortable watching this film but, in an age where gender lines are slowly being blurred, it feels very out-of-date now.

The worst thing about this film is how biased it is towards Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman). The custody battle tells us that women are the favoured parental figure in these cases but the film is definitely not shy in showing which side it’s on. Joanna (Meryl Streep) appears at the opening of the film when she abandons her son to find out who she is. She then turns up towards the end demanding custody. The majority of the narrative shows father and son clumsily making their way towards domestic bliss. You barely see Joanna interacting with her son, Billy. This is a film that doesn’t even give her a chance to gain our sympathy.

Though Meryl Streep tries her damndest to make it happen. She brings something to Joanna that allows you to see the pain behind her actions. Yes, she leaves her child for her own benefit but you see how much she will miss him. You get an idea of the reasons why she left and why she felt she couldn’t take Billy with her. When she returns, you at least get a glimpse of why she thinks she deserves full custody. Though you are left within no doubt that it is Ted who deserves it. For, though it tries to be balanced, there is no power behind the argument that Joanna is anything but evil for leaving her son. Hell, there’s a scene where a friend of hers looks like she’s going to vomit when she hears about it. The film is written from Ted’s point of view. You never see their marriage and you never see what kind of mother she is. Ted grows as a father and, as he comes to realise how much he missed the marked in his marriage, he grows as a husband. Balance is a thing that doesn’t exist in Kramer vs Kramer.

Of course, the problem lies with the source material. Though I’ve never read the novel that the film was based on, I am aware of how much I’d have disliked its author, Avery Corman. He sounds the like kind of guy who would have thought Piers Morgan was a forward thinker and that modern women were getting a bit too big for their boots. Corman wrote his novel as an antidote to the toxic message that feminism was selling to the world. Women, as he saw it, were trying to paint all men as evil so he wrote his own toxic novel to prove them wrong. The Joanna of the novel is even less of a sympathetic character than the film. She selfishly leaves her son and doesn’t give a shit about anyone but herself. Even Meryl Streep hated the character when she auditioned to play her.

Kramer vs Kramer is an undeniably well-made film. Meryl Streep is amazing. Dustin Hoffman is amazing. The kid is really adorable. The script is good and Robert Benton’s direction is solid. This is still a classic film and it did highlight some big issues about the role of parents at the time. The problem is that times have changed. Had I watched this before I saw Marriage Story I would have been singing its praises. However, for 2020, we have to start admitting that this film was never as fair as we liked to believe it was. Just because Meryl Streep is an amazing actor who brought something more to the role, doesn’t mean that Joanna is treated right here. As much as it saddens me, Kramer vs Kramer is one of those films that doesn’t fully stand the test of time.

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