In keeping with the serious tone of the previous installment of OM/YE, this week I decided to have a look at an old academy fave Kramer vs. Kramer. I’m as big a fan of Dustin Hoffman as anyone, having thoroughly enjoyed his performances in a wide range of titles including I Heart Huckabees, The Graduate, Dick Tracy, Hero, and Death of a Salesman (among countless other roles). And yet, somehow or another I could just never really get myself worked up about seeing him play a dad in a movie about a custody dispute. I guess I just didn’t know what the big deal was.
Now, having seen the movie, I’m starting to piece it together. This film was made at a time when the US was still very strongly feeling the effects of the women’s liberation movement and the sexual revolution, and just as the nation (and New York in particular) was ramping up toward the “me” decade of yuppie business-types doing cocaine and amassing personal wealth social costs be damned. The film also seems to capture a bit of a push-pull dynamic between the East Coast types (yuppie “me” decade folks) and the West Coast types (hippie “find yourself” types), as indicated by Ma Kramer’s (Meryl Streep) trip to California to discover why she’s so unhappy with Pa Kramer’s workaholic ad executive lifestyle.
The movie begins with a very successful day at work for Pa (Ted) Kramer, as one of the managing partners tells him he’s got promising opportunities for moving up in the ranks. And then he comes home to Ma (Joanna) Kramer, who informs him that she’s leaving. Cue montage of Dustin Hoffman going from no parenting skills to great father, and from promising businessman to rank-and-file ad employee. Then Ma Kramer shows back up, wanting to spend time with her kid. Pa resists. Litigation ensues.
So, (spoiler alert) Kramer ends up winning. The courtroom scenes really are quite fascinating, as it almost seems as though the future of what is acceptable for [white upper-middle class] American culture is on trial. The defense attempts to paint Ma Kramer as a flighty, irresponsible new-agey woman who hates kids, while the plaintiff’s counsel does his best to cast Pa Kramer in the unfavorable light of cold, callous businessman who is never home and thinks it’s a woman’s place to change diapers and wipe noses.
Of course, the real loser here is the kid. All this great cultural shifting going on, and all he gets is the honor of being the youngest Academy nominee for best supporting actor. But seriously though, the kid did a great job. I think he really earned his nomination toward the end of the film, as he reacts to what’s taking place with the state of his custody.
Like so many of these older movies, I think this was definitely worth the watch, if for no other reason because of its important place in modern American culture. But, also like so many of the others, something about the movie’s age just makes it feel like I’m fulfilling an assignment by watching it. Couldn’t they have at least blown some stuff up or something? Seinfeld’s neighbor never even shows up in the movie, which I found to be the film’s biggest disappointment of all.