Saturday, January 8, 2011

1979: Kramer vs. Kramer

Workaholic Ted Kramer comes home late one night to find that his wife, Joanna, has packed and is ready to leave him.  She resists all of his efforts to stop her, and he suddenly finds himself the sole parent of their son, Billy - a role for which he is ill-prepared.  Eventually Ted and Billy adjust to life without Joanna, though Ted's work begins to suffer.  Then, after over a year, Joanna approaches Ted saying she wants Billy back, and an ugly custody battle begins.

Divorce is painful, especially for children, and this film does a tremendous job of communicating that without becoming incredibly depressing.  Yes, it's very sad, which doesn't make it a movie I'd want to watch over and over, but it's still a fabulous film.  The dialogue is clever, the story is intriguing and realistic, and the soundtrack enhances the mood wonderfully.  Ultimately, though, I think the three best aspects of this movie are Dustin Hoffman, Justin Henry, and Meryl Streep. 

Dustin Hoffman is an amazingly talented actor, and he portrays Ted Kramer's transformation in this film perfectly.  It probably helped that he was going through a divorce in real life at the time, but whatever the reason, he did a tremendous job, and thoroughly earned his Best Actor Oscar, in my opinion.  But I don't think his performance or the film itself could have been nearly as effective if Billy had been played by a cute little kid who couldn't act.  Justin Henry is cute and can act, which is a rare combination for an 8-year-old.  His understated yet powerful performance is better than many adult performances I've seen.  He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, which makes him the youngest person ever nominated for a competitive Academy Award.  I think it's terribly sad that he didn't win.

And then there's Meryl Streep, whom I feel that I can never praise too highly (although I didn't really understand her role in The Deer Hunter - but there was very little I understood about that film).  She isn't in very much of this film, since she leaves in the first scene and doesn't return until near the end, but she is absolutely fabulous in those few scenes, especially considering that she has to cry pretty much the whole time.  I think that Meryl Streep is arguably the best Hollywood actress ever, which is a little unfortunate for her actually because people just kind of take it for granted that she's going to be amazing.  For this film, she won her first of only two Academy Awards.  I believe that the fact that she hasn't won more is a crime to rival the Best Picture choice of 1952.

Bottom line: the incredible portrayals of all of the Kramers take a film that would have been pretty good otherwise and make it a classic well worthy of the title Best Picture.  If only every film on the list was like this one.

Next up: Ordinary People

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