Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) Directed by Robert Benton
Kramer vs. Kramer is full of questions about family, which became political in the atmosphere of the 1970s second wave feminism. The film takes sides, judges and argues for the father, while showing that the mother is not always the best and most natural parent just because she is the biological mother.
A lot of the content, or the way it is presented, looks pretty black&white from today's perspective, while at the same time I feel that at times of dispute we have not moved very far from the 1970s way of thinking.
The mother, played by Meryl Streep, leaves her son and husband after what she describes as years of not being heard or seen. She leaves her son behind because at that point she feels she is unfit to be a parent. She then remains away for 15 months, after which time she returns to claim sole custody of her son. What disturbs me, is that Meryl Streep tells on her making-of-interview that she considered her character to be mentally ill. Apparently that was the only explanation for her behavior she could think of, which would allow her to feel empathy for the absent mother...
Most of the film concentrates on the remaining father and son (Dustin Hoffman and the child actor Justin Henry). They go from a bad insensitive relationship to a very loving and trusting one. The father has to sacrifice his career, but he is glad to do it because of the bond he has established with his own child. The film is kind of saying to the 1970s and 1980s workaholic dads that they could find rewards if they took the time with their children. Still, Kramer vs. Kramer paints a very heroic and noble picture of the sacrificing father thus depicting him as an exception (created by an unfit mother).
These days we are closer to a time when a part-taking stay-at-home dad is becoming a true option and a necessity. You will not get special points from the society for much longer, but more and more men want to be there anyway. And the women? They still attract all the criticism of the world.
Kramer vs. Kramer deals with the practicalities of parenthood when one parent, the most present (mother) leaves the roost to find herself, whilst leaving the breadwinner parent (father) compromised. The offshoot, in a trite Hollywood movie that just scratches the real issues involved, is that father, who's never been home to watch his son grow up because of work commitments, realizes his 7-year- old son is the greatest thing ever. When mother, after an 18 month absence comes barging back into the father/son bliss claiming custody of the son, a tense court case ensues.
Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep play the parents, the very cute Justin Henry plays the son. Hoffman and Streep can walk through these roles, they are so good in front of camera. Reality, which the film strives for, is immediately dispelled of with such a perfect looking family. Benton, who directed the excellent Bad Company as well as writing Bonnie & Clyde and a host of other New Hollywood pictures could be a safe pair of hands as director and writer. Although sentimentality on the whole is avoided (despite the seriously cute kid), smugness is constant. This film was made with the Oscar academy in mind. The real issue the film tries to grapple with is a father's rites. Even though Streep abandons her child at the beginning of the movie to find herself in LA, and Hoffman was more than a neglectful father pre-split, you never feel any real venom or judgement aimed towards either parent. To preserve the moral code, the mother makes up for her abandonment at the films end, the father seemingly still in love with his former wife to forgive her anything. One wonders what the kid thinks of all this back and forth.
So, Kramer vs. Kramer ends in some kind of happy, why-did-we-bother flux. Having been divorced twice, I can tell you it's never this easy. The incessant gossip from strangers and half-acquaintances, the morality that people amazingly find and throw in your face, the heartbreak, the financial hardship, the compromise and so forth. Yes, happy endings occur, I know, I've experienced it. In a film trying to deal with realities in the portrayal of family breakdown, the self-satisfied yuppies in Kramer vs. Kramer don't know the half of it.