- YEAR: 1979
- DIRECTOR: Robert Benton
- KEY ACTORS: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Justin Henry
- CERTIFICATE: PG
- IMDB SCORE: 7.8
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 88%
SEX SCORE: 1/5
❌ Sadly, this fails the Bechdel test.
✔️ But I do think that it is rewatchable, although it isn’t an easy watch!
❌ I don’t want to fuck the cast. They’re not portrayed as very attractive and it’s not a story about sex or successful romantic relationships
❌ And so it also didn’t inspire fantasies. Quite the reverse!
❌ In the end, I can’t give it a mark for being sex positive. Joanna is judged for having partners and Ted isn’t even questioned, and that’s too outdated a view on sex!
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Netflix, Amazon Prime (free with subscription), YouTube (from ). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
[Content warning: workplace abuse, divorce, misogyny, custody battles, bullying, violence against women]
OK so quite unexpectedly, this post triggered an existential crisis. I’d chosen it to coincide with Mother’s Day on the 14th March and had intended to use it as a prompt to talk again about how badly mothers are represented in movies – in short, mothers are angelic and faultless or evil witches who can be blamed for all our problems – but it’s now over a month later and I have struggled to finish it.
I initially blamed my inertia on Sarah Everard’s murder and the traumatic events that followed it. International Women’s Day this year was drowned out by ample evidence that women are actually not equal and not safe and are largely not valued by wider society, and it was hugely demoralising. The grief and fear was emotionally draining on its own but was followed by disappointment that we still, still, needed to explain why this was so painful and still need to combat the usual ‘but what was she wearing’ victim blaming and the ‘will anyone think of the men’ pleading. I’d also like to add for the record that whenever I say women, I am using it as a shorthand for everyone who suffers because of misogyny – so that’s all women, cis and trans, and AFAB and non-binary people. Using these horrific events to separate cis women’s experiences from those of other women is transphobic.
It’s been a lot. Frankly, it’s been too much.
But that doesn’t really explain why Kramer vs Kramer broke me. Sure, it may have made me more vulnerable, but this movie broke me for much more personal reasons.
It starts with Joanna (Streep), saying goodnight to her six-year old son, Billy (Henry), before packing a bag and waiting for her husband, Ted (Hoffman), to come home from work so she can leave him. She tells him that she has become lost in their marriage and motherhood, feeling isolated and abandoned, and she has to go as she doesn’t know what she will do if she stays. She tells Ted that she has been trying to explain how much she has been struggling for a long time but he didn’t listen. So she leaves, and Ted has to look after Billy. It’s tough. He doesn’t know how to be a parent and he certainly doesn’t know how to continue his high powered job as a single parent. He has to make sacrifices; he loses his job and has to accept one at a lower salary to keep working – lower, we later discover, than Joanna’s. During the 18 months that Joanna is away, Ted learns how to be a better father and so, when she returns and petitions for custody, he fights back. They have an ugly court battle, which Joanna wins, but she decides that taking Billy away from the home he has with his father would be too disruptive so lets him stay with Ted.
Superficially, Kramer vs Kramer does a very good job of showing how difficult it is to be a single father. Ted has no parental instinct, no idea what he is doing and no framework to guide him as to what is expected. It’s a both heartwarming and heartbreaking tale of how both he and Billy find their way into a beautiful and nurturing relationship, and it regularly makes me cry.
But taking this superficial view would, in my opinion, miss the key message of the movie – Kramer vs Kramer is much more a film about how difficult it is to be a mother and a wife and a woman. It’s about the fact that Joanna felt she had no choice but to leave her child in order to save her own life. Yes, it’s about how Ted had to pick up the pieces of her departure but, at its core, Kramer vs Kramer is about the Patriarchy and the pressures it places on women.
And this movie broke me because, while motherhood is without doubt my greatest joy, it is also my rawest nerve. I didn’t like to look at Joanna too closely because I feared that I would recognise too much of myself in her distress. It is a fear rather than my reality as my husband is much much more supportive than Ted and we do co-parent effectively, but catastrophising fears aren’t always rational. Since our daughter was born, I have become even more aware of gendered pressures on me – both the external expectations of society and the ones that I have internalised – and find myself pushing back against the socialised confines of ‘mother’ and ‘wife.’ In practice, this means that I have become so obsessed with a fair division of housework, of traditionally ‘women’s work,’ that I am genuinely unable to determine if my complaints and concerns about equality are legitimate. And I find the whole subject very difficult to talk about without sounding conflicted, and it scares me.
So a movie about a woman who becomes so lost within her marriage and motherhood that she has to run away, and the awful consequences of this choice? Ouch…this one felt dangerous to write.
Kramer vs Kramer was a hugely successful film. Both Streep and Hoffman won Oscars for their roles, and it also won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay – Streep was nominated for Supporting Actor otherwise this would have been only the fourth film to take all of the Big Five Academy Awards. Henry was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, at 8 still the youngest nominee. When researching this, I was surprised that they chose to only nominate Streep as a supporting actor. While she does have limited screen time, she is pivotal to the movie and her scenes have a resonance beyond simply time. I also resent that both lead female parts were offered Supporting Actor nominations and neither Best Actor. In a movie that also fails the Bechdel Test, this feels like an example of the heavy hand of the Patriarchy in Hollywood, let alone in the content of the movie itself.
This is becoming all too common a problem. I’ve just finished reading Helen O’Hara’s incredible book, Women vs Hollywood, so perhaps I’m more sensitive to it now but the Patriarchy certainly does weigh heavy on the production of this movie in other ways too. This is another example of a film where a man chose to abuse a woman for the sake of a good scene, a practice that is so frequent that I’ve created a tag for it. Because, wow, Hoffman treated Streep badly on set. For a start, he particularly recommended her for the part because she was recently bereaved. Filming took place not long after Streep’s boyfriend, the actor John Cazale, had died and Hoffman felt that she could ‘draw on a still-fresh pain’ for this emotional role. I wonder if Streep was consulted on whether she was ready to use her personal grief at work?
(As an aside, does anyone have a better filmography than Cazale? Only eight IMDB credits but they include the Godfather, Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, The Deerhunter and The Conversation – all nominated for best picture with three winners. The other three are two TV episodes and a 10 minute short. The man made good choices!)
I know this was early in her career but what kind of arrogant person believes that Meryl Streep wasn’t able to act well enough so needed to be forcibly reminded of her actual pain to portray emotion? Apparently Hoffman would slap her and taunt her with Cazale’s name, ‘all in the name of method acting.’ One of the producers, Richard Fischoff, claimed Hoffman used ‘stuff that he knew about her personal life…to get the response that he thought she should be giving in the performance’ and biographer Schulman alleged that Hoffman would whisper Cazale’s name in Streep’s ear, ‘planting the seeds of anguish’ before emotional scenes. What a colossal twat. What an arrogant insufferable bastard. What a misogynistic dickhead.
WHY are so many male actors and directors incapable of just letting women ACT? Or even believing that they can? Did he give her a chance to show what she could do on her own or did he decide to hurt her regardless? And does Hoffman think he can now take credit for Streep’s performance? That he orchestrated her Oscar win and she couldn’t/wouldn’t have done it without him? Whatever, it’s undeniably abuse. Emotional and physical abuse, and it is not acceptable. Ever. And yet it is so pervasive in movie-making. It’s really disgusting.
Moving on to look at the movie itself, I found myself constantly trying to decide if Kramer vs Kramer was portraying a pro-Joanna, pro-Ted or truly balanced view of their custody battle. Because it’s surprisingly unclear when I watch it now and I can’t work out what Benton’s intentions were. Thinking about these intentions and perspectives becomes even more interesting when considering Kramer vs Kramer in the context of its release in 1979 – in the midst of second-wave feminism when women were pushing for careers and reproductive rights and starting to fight against inequality, but were already facing consequences as ‘the movement led to the highest divorce rates of all time in America’ and the perceived destruction of the nuclear family, all of which was blamed on the feminists.
Is Kramer vs Kramer a movie about this backlash against feminism and another argument to suggest that women can’t have it all? Or that they need to be punished for wanting it? After all, Joanna’s main complaint is the loss of her previous career and independence but, by seeking to regain this, she is forced to give up her son. Some contemporary reviews certainly thought that, with The New York Times describing Joanna as an ‘almost dangerously muddled mother [and]…one of those fiercely determined people who talks about “finding” herself even as we–and she–suspect there may be nothing to find except another series of compromises. She seems to be a woman in transit to disappointment.’ Coooool.
And again, Kramer vs Kramer is superficially very pro-Ted. He’s on screen more than Joanna, and Scott Tobias in the Guardian suggested that the ‘judgment rendered against Ted Kramer in divorce court – and the shockingly odious terms of his child visitation rights – is so unjust that the film could be interpreted as Men’s Rights propaganda.’ At least some part of us is supposed to be angry at Joanna and we are supposed to judge her for abandoning her child. As I wrote in The Babadook, what kind of mother doesn’t love or want her child? And in Kramer vs Kramer, there is no doubt that Joanna was not portrayed sympathetically – she ‘is only seen through a man’s eyes, her story is not explained.’ The movie leads us to be charmed by Ted’s incompetence to super-father character arc and to judge Joanna for her similar arc from lost mother to stable woman.
But Kramer vs Kramer doesn’t shy away from making sure we do see how bad a father and husband Ted was. Other incompetent father movies tend to be comedies, like Three Men and a Baby, but Kramer vs Kramer wasn’t played for laughs and it is genuinely difficult to watch at times. Billy is suffering without his mother but that’s mostly because his father is useless! Ted doesn’t know what grade his son is in at school or the name of his teacher. He doesn’t know his morning routine. He doesn’t seem to know anything. Honestly, where has he been? Ted may now look like an old-fashioned father, clinging to a time ‘when men were married to the office and fatherhood was more of a ceremonial role,’ but I do think that even in 1979 we were supposed to recognise how awful he was. Roger Ebert at the time felt that ‘[Joanna] may be leaving the family but he’s hardly been a part of it.’ More than that, Ted and Billy’s relationship is so wonderful and loving by the end of the movie that there is no doubt that Ted’s life has been enriched by getting to know his son. They make fatherhood look wonderful and worthy of the sacrifices.
And that is important. When talking about this movie with my husband after watching it, my immediate reaction was from a woman’s perspective – how tough it was for Joanna and how she was punished, losing everything even when she nominally wins – but EA reminded me that we shouldn’t forget how remarkable it was that Ted did step up and take on his parental responsibilities. Many wouldn’t; hiring nannies or sending their children to boarding school. Unlike the prevailing opinion in the 1970s, Kramer vs Kramer makes it very clear that both Ted and Joanna are perfectly capable of parenting if they chose, and reminds us that there isn’t a rational reason why mothers are considered default primary caregivers, particularly once the children are no longer breastfed.
This made the custody court case an absolutely fascinating and completely horrifying experience. Despite Joanna being portrayed as the one who neglected and abandoned her child, Ted has to prove his competence and prove his love because she is still the default parent. In order to combat this significant advantage, Joanna is treated appallingly by the prosecution and her cross-examination is incredibly difficult to watch, both because it’s awful and because so little has changed in 40 years. Just as women who experience misogynistic and sexual violence are blamed because of what they were wearing or where they were walking or for their sexual history, as if this changes their worth, Joanna is essentially slut shamed for dating again and forced to accept sole responsibility for the failure of the marriage, lines of questioning that were notably not thrown at Ted. And yet, and yet, she still wins custody. The whole process feels cruel and unnecessary for both of them.
But in a strange way, Kramer vs Kramer does show how difficult it is to be a mother and a woman in a patriarchal society but uses similar techniques to Ruth Bader Ginsbury in her gender equality cases by showing how hard it is for a man. It’s not just women who can’t have it all – it’s tough for all single parents. Ted is unable to keep his job and has to accept a lower paying role. As Robert Snow wrote for Kinetoscope, it’s ‘fascinating to listen to Ted’s boss (George Coe) accuse Ted of letting his family distract from his job, a scene eerily reminiscent of the language used today to keep women from receiving pay equity or positions of power…[it] proves how much of a mind warp that gender politics can be; an argument that advances work over family is twisted and re-used to harm people regardless of gender, across whole generations.’
There is obviously an argument that Ted gets to look heroic for simply being a parent, as men who ‘babysit’ their own children tend to think they do, whereas Joanna is judged for wanting more. ‘Why is a man being applauded for this, but a woman shamed?…why is it okay, if not heroic, for a man to balance his working and home life, but not a woman?’ And if this were a movie just about Joanna’s ambition, this imbalance would have felt worse. She is vilified for wanting a better career whereas Ted is martyred for giving up his.
But, for me, the balance of the movie is saved by Streep’s genius. She isn’t on screen for long and she has an impossible job to make us feel sympathetic towards Joanna, but she succeeds. Her stunning monologue in court, which she improvised (try to take credit for THAT, Hoffman!), shows just how much her decision destroyed her and how long she had been suffering before she left. ‘Pre-feminism was all about guilting women into believing that wanting a career or desires outside of the home was shameful, that you were an awful woman or mother for even thinking so’ and so I see Joanna is a genuine feminist hero for leaving despite that pressure.
My 2021 eyes are also perhaps more sympathetic to her likely mental illness than those in the 1970s, but contemporary reviews did acknowledge that Kramer vs Kramer reflected ‘a change in the culture.’ The Hollywood Reporter review in 1979 noted that ‘Joanna has to find herself, her own place in society, her own identity. Before the marriage, she had held a good job. Now she is simply Ted’s wife, her boy’s mother, a homemaker, a housewife, and her life in their shadow has become intolerable.’ Feminist argument had revealed how unhappy some women were and gave them the push they needed to change.
Which is why it saddens me that joint custody was never considered. The best possible ending for this movie was for Billy to have two loving homes with two loving parents who just didn’t love each other anymore but respected each other’s choices, and everyone was happier and better parents because of it. Because I do think that Ted got it by the end. He understood where he had failed and why Joanna did what she did: ‘Ted has a better understanding of Joanna than he did at the beginning, because now he knows what her day-to-day life was actually like and he’s come to terms with his own screwed-up priorities.’
Roger Ebert felt that ‘Kramer vs Kramer wouldn’t be half as good as it is — half as intriguing and absorbing — if the movie had taken sides,’ and I agree with him. Sure, the movie could have been less complex if it had had less nuance and took a definite stance – either pro-feminist in Joanna or pro-MRA in Ted – but that wouldn’t have reflected the reality of parenthood and custody battles nearly as well and it wouldn’t have become such a classic and important film. Kramer vs Kramer shows that Joanna and Ted are both on different fronts of the same fight; both are pushing back against gendered expectations, both suffer because they want more than society expects from them – Joanna wanting to be more than just a mother and Ted wanting to be more than just a ceremonial parent – and, ultimately, both of them fail. Joanna doesn’t get her son back and Ted doesn’t get legal recognition of his role as father.
And this movie broke me because it revealed how little has changed since 1979. Fashion sense and casual groping of colleagues aside, this could be made today and all of their complaints and issues would still be the same and would still be believable. Which is fucking exhausting…
NEXT WEEK… Crash