Kramer vs. Kramer Review
Late-30s workaholic Ted Kramer (Hoffman) returns home one evening to discover his wife Joanne (Streep) is leaving him. There's no other man involved, but she feels she's dying inside and has to discover who she is beyond being simply a wife and mother. In her absence, Ted struggles to hold down his demanding advertising job and simultaneously look after their seven year-old son Billy (Henry). He quickly comes to realize he doesn't have any idea who his child is or how to raise him. Gradually, however, the two warm to each other and Ted starts to delight in his role as a father. Then, 18 months after she left, Joanne returns wanting custody of Billy. Bitterly angry, Ted refuses and the two go to court.
It's a small, simple story, exactly the sort of melodramatic material that forms the basis of countless made-for-TV dramas and workaday, lacklustre films. What rescues 'Kramer vs Kramer' from falling into this kind of maudlin trap is a superb creative team working at the very top of their game, driven by a very personal connection with the material.
The story of 'Kramer vs Kramer's creation is, for those who sometimes despair at the state of contemporary American cinema, both inspiring and depressing – inspiring because it came at a time when the qualities of collaboration and improvisation were still thriving in mainstream movie-making, depressing because those qualities are so little in evidence today.
Director Robert Benton and producer Stanley Jaffe sent Benton's script - adapted from Avery Corman's novel - to Dustin Hoffman's agent and, receiving encouraging noises, traveled to London to meet with the actor. Hoffman was so uninterested he initially didn't even want to meet with the pair. In the midst of a divorce himself, he explained that what he was experiencing was much deeper and more complex than what he had read in the novel or the script. Benton asked him what he'd like to do and Hoffman asked if the two would be willing to spend a few months working with him, to capture the truth of his experience and see if it could be integrated into the project.
Gamely, they agreed. Jaffe moved into a room in a nearby hotel where, for much of 1978, the three met daily for 12-hour writing/talking sessions during which the guts of the screenplay was hammered out. In the documentary that accompanies the film, Jaffe describes these sessions as being like 'group therapy', and emphasises that all three men honestly shared their own experiences, on the implicit understanding that nothing they said would travel outside the room.
Born out of the unusual degree of trust and intimacy afforded by this situation, the screenplay they eventually produced was a cracker, charting with agonising clarity the implosion of Ted and Joanne's marriage, the awkward beginnings of a deeper relationship between Ted and Billy, Joanne's return, the descent into courtroom hell and, finally, the delicate peace the couple achieve.
The script's evolution did not end, however, when filming began. A lot of the scenes - including virtually all of those between Hoffman and Henry - were improvised. At an early stage Henry's parents, who were dutifully drilling their son in his lines every night, were told to throw the script away and not bother! Henry would turn up on the set, do a brief rehearsal with Hoffman of the scene to be shot that day and then go straight into filming it. Even this ad-hoc approach was often made still more free-form, the infamous 'ice-cream' scene being a perfect example. The scene was originally supposed to be located solely at the dining table. In between takes, Hoffman shared with Henry an experience he'd had with his own daughter in which, expressly against his wishes, she had belligerently consumed ice-cream without touching her dinner. Henry loved the story, Hoffman immediately convinced Benton to do it and the two actors improvised the dialogue as the scene was filmed.
This quality of spontaneity and honesty makes 'Kramer' a very compelling film to watch, as all the main actors leap wholeheartedly into the spirit of the piece. Chief among these, obviously, is Hoffman, whose raw, beautiful performance runs through the film like a live wire. The film was a cathartic experience for Hoffman and he admits that the rage that fuels his scenes with Streep was genuine and was directed, in reality, at his ex-wife, a point that was, understandably, rather lost on Streep at the time!
Streep, for her part, was also undergoing a personal tragedy, having recently lost her fiance, the actor John Cazale, who had died from bone cancer. If the extraordinary degree of vulnerability she achieves as Joanne is due, in part, to this unfortunate circumstance, it doesn't compromise the characteristic dimension of intelligence she brings to her character. Joanne's emotional and psychological disintegration (Streep describes her as being 'mentally ill' at the film's beginning), eventual recovery and final act of compassion are represented with a remarkable emotional shorthand and inner concentration that completely negates the need for histrionics. It's a performance of maturity and great insight, and understandably garnered Streep her first Oscar.
As the Kramer's friend Margaret, the wonderful, underrated actress Jane Alexander makes up the third part of this triptych. She spends approximately the same amount of time onscreen as Streep and the trustworthy, likeable quality she brings to the film as Margaret forms a crucial counterpoint to Joanne's controversial behaviour, preventing the movie from drifting too far into male self-justification. Finally, young Justin Henry gives a performance of extraordinary naturalness and unselfconciousness that clearly had Hoffman and the rest of the performers on their toes.
Thronged with strong feelings as it is, ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ is much more than just a superior weepie. In fact it’s a masterpiece. The credit has to go to Benton, who’s collaborative approach works beautifully with performers as sensitive as these (all three leads had a strong background in theatre and knew each other prior to filming ‘Kramer’). Although the lion's share of the writing was his, Benton freely accepted ideas from the cast (a generous move from a man who won his first Oscar for writing ‘Bonnie and Clyde’!), even encouraging Streep to write her own testimony for the court-room scene at the end of the film, as he felt the speech he had written was inauthentic. After the picture had finished shooting, Benton offered a screenwriting credit to Hoffman but he turned it down. Such generosity is typical of Benton, whose best qualities as a film-maker – immaculate taste, an extremely refined aesthetic style and great rapport with actors – are in the ascendant here.
After Hoffman and Benton, it's cinematographer Nestor Almendros who contributes most to making Kramer a lasting cinematic experience. Apparently Benton advised Almendros to base the look and colour of the film on the paintings of 15th Century Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca. Coming off the back of his Oscar for 'Days of Heaven' the year before, Almendros was clearly equal to even this challenging task, and 'Kramer' ranks among his very best work.
The very first shot of the film is something of a masterstroke; a tight close up on Joanne's distraught face, softly lit and looming out of pure darkness. The intensity of her expression and the lack of dialogue are immediately overwhelming. The shot is held for so long in silence that the viewer starts to feel (quite intentionally) suffocated. There's also a timelessness about the image which, with no clothes or other artifacts to root it in a particular century or country, could be from any time or place. It's an extraordinary start to the film, paralleling Goron Willis' famous opening to 'The Godfather' (another movie about family squabbles).
Almendros shows Billly and Ted at first as isolated figures cocooned in pale, carpeted spaces, indicating that what was once a comfy duplex has become, without Joanne, stifling and empty. Later, as their relationship warms, he shows them outside in the park, amongst deep autumnal reds and browns. When Joanne returns (tellingly, in winter) a cold light seeps into the frame and Almendros returns the viewer's attention to the spaces between people (Ted alone in his apartment, Margaret alone in the corridor outside, Joanne adrift in the vast coldness of the town hall) as much as the people themselves. The only visual constant is Billy's sky blue bedroom, a soft-lit haven, the little nest which Billy emerges from each day and the site of the most intense arguments and intimate declarations between him and his dad, as well as the point of his mother's crucial farewell.
Without (I hope) going overboard, it's worth looking at some of the paintings of della Francesca (or Bellini or Titian) to see how faithfully Almendros realised Benton's vision. Even the backgrounds in the interior scenes shot in Ted and Joanne's apartment have been given a subtle but compelling character. Compare, for instance, the precise lighting used to evoke the textures of the wall in back of the Kramer's living room with the gorgeously graduated background hues of a Moroni or Bellini. There really is a quality to the shading that Almendros has achieved which parallels the achievements of these artists. At the same time, Kramer is visually an extremely involving film and the exquisite constructions never come at the expense of storytelling.
The other jewel in Kramer's crown is Gerald Greenberg's editing. In 'The Conversations', the set of interviews with legendary editor and sound designer Walter Murch undertaken by novelist Michael Ondaatje after their meeting on the set of 'The English Patient', Murch says that one of the secrets of editing effectively is not in learning how to make all the scenes in a film flow together seamlessly, but in discovering how to make them jar against each other in a way that makes the story and performances come alive.
Greenberg's work in 'Kramer vs Kramer' is a masterclass in this art. Each scene is like a short musical passage that barely has time to complete its theme before the next melody is introduced, the cumulative effect being to startle the audience, for the duration of the film, into a heightened alertness, as they try to catch the essence of a scene before it's snatched away. That's not to say the film is full of jump cuts; to the contrary, dissolves and transitions are applied with a breathtaking degree of sensitivity. Benton's oft-quoted 'literary' sensibility is in evidence here; with Greenberg he's shaped the episodes that constitute the film's visual narrative into a perfectly modulated whole.
An example of this can be seen at the start of the film, as Ted is angrily showing Margaret out. She tells him that Joanne has done a very brave thing, leading Ted to demand: "How much courage does it take to walk out on your son?" A close up of Margaret's stricken, unblinking face follows, which slowly dissolves into the next scene. Unexpected and arresting, the style of the transition holds the audience's attention even as Ted's line sinks in, reflected and amplified by Margaret's expression. By contrast, our first meeting with Ted is deliberately cut short in order to make a different point. He's in his boss's office, feet up on the desk, drink in hand, telling a boring story. A colleague pops his head in to say goodnight, drawing attention to the late hour. Ted resumes his story at which point - mid-sentence - Benton cuts to the next scene. We've been following Ted's story, expecting some resolution, but when this is taken away, the real point of the scene is made clear: Ted would rather stay late at the office bragging than be at home with his wife and son.
As artful as these transitions are, 'Kramer' in no way disappears up its own Arriflex. To the contrary, the narrative itself hurtles forward. At 100 minutes, this film is pared down to the bone. The first cut apparently ran 43 minutes longer and featured more scenes with Alexander and Williams, plus an additional character of a housekeeper. While it would be great to see this material included on a future release of the DVD, it's hard to view Kramer in its original form as being anything less than structurally perfect.
Given that Hoffman drove the project, that it centers on his character's experiences and that the screenplay was conceived by three men, it's little surprise that the emotional chips in ‘Kramer’ are stacked firmly in the bloke’s corner. It’s a man's view on the experience of divorce and Joanne is made to look terribly selfish and her demands at the end of the film very unreasonable. However, I don’t see this as being in any way a sexist or anti-feminist film. The level of integrity that the film sets itself demands that the actions of all its characters are seen with absolute clarity. Joanne is made to look selfish because what she does in the film is essentially selfish, although obviously with a tremendous amount of justification. The film’s eye is just as merciless when showing Ted’s complete self-obsession, his arrogance and, most painfully, his furious rejection of Joanne when she returns and says she feels better about herself than she ever has done. Were the film to show, say, the previous three years in their marriage, it would, I imagine, show just as accurately the steady decay of Joanne’s personality as – through self-denial – she sacrificed her own goals and ambitions for the sake of her family; a scenario that would lead one to identify with her to the same extent that one identifies with Ted in ‘Kramer’. The key point here is that the filmmaker’s motivation was not to set out to make Joanne look bad, but to look at the divorce from Ted’s side as clearly and unsentimentally as possible.
Columbia Tri-Star has given ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ a superb, even flawless anamorphic 1:85:1 DVD transfer. The film looks quite simply stunning, especially when you consider it’s now a quarter of a century old. Colours are bright and clear, skin tones perfect and Almendros’ exquisite lighting handled with great care. Fabulous.
Only a mono track? Well, it at least sounds warm and involving. Dialogue is clear and the two lovely classical pieces that form the film’s only musical accompaniment sound rich and detailed.
Pretty much all you get – other than the theatrical trailers and the text-only filmographies that film companies insist on listing as ‘Special Features’ – is Michael Arick's 2001 documentary 'Finding the Truth: Making Kramer vs Kramer' (48:44). Thanks fully it’s a fine piece of work and has the involvement of all the lead actors – including a grown up Justin Henry – Benton, Avery and Jaffe.
Avery Corman starts off explaining how his book charted the way in which the ‘inner potential’ explosion of the 60s matured in the 70s into a veritable plague of nonsensical… sorry, a widening interest in various forms of self-help and therapy. Benton and Jaffe then explain the project’s conception and then the actors weigh in with their experiences.
Kramer vs Kramer was obviously a very special experience for everyone who worked on it. This isn't the usual 'Oh, I just loved working with so-and-so' fluff. All the people involved mention how exciting it was to work in such a collaborative fashion. Streep in particular contrasts Benton’s generosity of spirit with Woody Allen’s extremely controlling approach (“There’s a comma in there for a reason, Meryl.”) as she was filming ‘Manhattan’ at the same time as playing Joanne.
Everyone who worked on the movie was surprised by its massive success (five Oscars, including best film, best director and best actor, meaning it narrowly missed out on becoming one of the few movies in history to garner all four major awards). It entered popular culture as a byword for the painful process of divorce, even to the extent of U.S family court judges referring to it in the same context as a legal document!
There's also some brilliant stories: Hoffman reveals that, during the filming of the court-room sequence, he began talking to the woman playing the stenographer, who, it transpired, was a real-life stenographer. He asked her if she had ever had to attend divorce hearings during her career. “Yes,” she replied, “But I switched to homicides. They're much easier."
One part of the documentary in particular stayed with me. Jaffe makes the point that 'most people try to make the generic picture, and we tried to make the specific picture'. Streep adds that ‘Kramer vs Kramer’ represented a different type of film-making, when behaviour was interesting for its own sake and there was room for actors, directors and writers to be involved in an ongoing, collaborative creative process that could continue to evolve even when the movie was being shot. This went some way to summing up, for me at least, that special quality of American 70s cinema which is so little in evidence today.
Considering its myriad qualities, the superb transfer and the fact that it’s available for £5.99 currently on a number of websites, I’d have to say that this edition of ‘Kramer’ is quite simply essential for any fan of Hoffman, Almendros, Benton or fine movies in general.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 12:18:27