Saturday, December 19, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979)

Scene from Kramer vs. Kramer
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Kramer vs. Kramer
Release Date: December 19, 1979
Director: Robert Benton
Written By: Avery Corman (Novel), Robert Benton (Screenplay)
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 105 minutes

Oscar Wins: 5
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman)
-Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep)
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Oscar Nominations: 4 
-Best Supporting Actor (Justin Henry)
-Best Supporting Actress (Jane Alexander)
-Best Cinematography
-Best Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-All That Jazz
-Apocalypse Now
-Breaking Away
-Norma Rae

And the winner is...

There is a certain kind of cinema that transcends being mere entertainment and can break into socially relevant commentary. With the right film, it can present a message that is not only powerful, but indicative of a changing tide within the zeitgeist. Even if there have been more successful films, director Robert Benton's Kramer vs. Kramer is one of those films that changed the American conversation about divorce. It wasn't so much a traumatic story of separation, but more of a film that explored an argument that wasn't often considered: what if the father is a more suitable parent? There's a lot to unpack from this film, including two dynamic performances by Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. However, it's one of the films that perfectly embodied a changing tide in society, and one that's still being challenged to this day. Beyond any 70's culture trappings, it's one of the few contemporary films to have won and transcend time.

It all began with a book, written by Avery Corman and published in 1977. Shortly thereafter, the rights were bought and the quest to make it into a film was quickly considered. Among the original choices was French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, who was best known for his influential debut The 400 Blows. He had intended to work on it with writer Robert Benton and cinematographer Nestor Almendros. Almendros assumed that Truffaut was working on the film, but the director backed out to pursue other projects. However, his one piece of advice was to let Benton direct (Almendros would stay on board as well). With that done, the only thing left was to do casting and to start filming.

Much like the film's subjects regarding divorce, Hoffman and Streep were in noteworthy states at this time. Hoffman was going through his own nasty divorce while filming. Because of his expertise, Benton offered him a co-writer credit, which he inevitably turned down. Streep, who initially tried out for JoBeth Williams' role, was moved to lead. There's many rumors regarding why that is. Some claim that original choice Kate Jackson couldn't star due to conflicts with her current role on Charlie's Angels. Another source claims that there was always belief that Streep would play the role and that Jackson was passed over simply because she wasn't as good. Whatever the cause, Streep had a series of conflicts going on at the time that definitely influenced her role. For starters, she was still grieving the loss of her spouse John Cazale - of whom she had worked with previously on Best Picture winner The Deer Hunter. She was also pregnant with her first child. 

Streep was also adamant behind the scenes. Because the film was so heavily focused on Hoffman's relationship with Justin Henry, her limited screen time meant that she had to make the most of it. In the original script, her character was poorly written and had too much ambiguity. During the court room scene, Benton lent her the script for editing, of which she rewrote entirely to give her character more of a sense of purpose. With limited exceptions, Benton claims that what is on screen is what inevitably made it into the movie. Hoffman was also annoyed of Streep because of her work ethic. Having only been in movies for four years at that point, he felt that she was being too ambitious and off putting. However, the reason that it all worked was because he respected her goals. When she wasn't on set, she was also filming Woody Allen's Manhattan.

The film was a financial success. The film grossed $106 million and became the highest grossing movie of 1979. The praise was also aplenty, with most praising its bold portrayal of father figures. Beyond Hoffman and Streep, Henry was praised for his work and was just as prominent in the awards circuit as his peers. It was said that when he lost the Golden Globe later that year, he threw a big temper tantrum. Considering that he was only 8 at the time, it is sort of excusable. Due to its unlikely success, the film inspired a whole slew of dramas based around divorce throughout the 1980's, including The Good Mother, Heartburn, and The War of the Roses. While otherwise dissimilar (and some credit goes to fellow 1979 film The Champ), it is responsible for making the conversation more public. Despite the onslaught of films, it would be the definitive take on the matter to most audiences.

The Academy Awards definitely recognized the film with its nine nominations, including seven wins. Henry became the youngest actor in history to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Supporting Actor category. It was also the first of two Best Picture winners (the other being Ordinary People) to focus on dysfunctional families in contemporary settings. Considering that Streep is the most nominated actress in history, it's impressive to note that this was her first Oscar win, for Best Supporting Actress. However, her win wasn't without its own problems. It was said that after winning the award, she accidentally left it in the ladies' room on the back of a toilet. She was thankfully able to later recover it. Streep would win her second Oscar a few years later for another film about difficult child separation with Sophie's Choice.

The very phrase Kramer vs. Kramer invokes a whole subject beyond the film. Where the general debate used to be that the child went with the mother, cases following this film would start to give more lenience to the father, if he was apt. The phrase in general has come to refer about divorce court proceedings in America. While few films have covered the subject with such effectiveness, it managed to inspire more adult dramas around the subject of the broken up family. Even if it took a little longer for this concept to be normalized, it showed a shifting ideal in American culture, which resulted in having entertainment that reflected "dysfunctional" families in a more positive light. While there have been many examples, few have actually come close to comparison, especially in the case of reflecting the child's personal reaction.

Kramer vs. Kramer is a film that still feels important, even if it has a dated view on a lot of other things. Even if certain aspects of the film aren't similar to today's environment, it deserves a lot of credit for helping to advance the conversation around problematic relationships. It is an example of when entertainment could matter and do something important. It was a message movie that didn't feel overbearing, while also featuring great acting by almost everyone involved. Even if the film's stars had their own problematic chemistry, it played perfectly into their characters and resulted into something that still feels real and honest, despite being about such a touchy subject. 

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