2. “Kramer vs. Kramer” – This Dustin Hoffman/Meryl Streep vehicle is an outstanding American movie – that garnered five Oscars wins, including Best Picture – about a not-so-great American pastime: divorce.
On an ordinary day, Joanna Kramer (Streep) simply packs up her suitcase and says good-bye to her husband Ted (Hoffman) right after he gets home from work. She explains (later) that she lost her self-esteem, was unhappy in their marriage and didn’t feel worthy to mother their son Billy (Justin Henry).
On the day of reckoning – while standing in the elevator – she says to Ted, “He’s better off without me, and I don’t love you anymore.”
Ted is in disbelief and denial but realizes the scope of his (and his son’s) predicament the next morning when Joanna is not beside. In 1979, the Women’s Liberation Movement hadn’t reached every American household, so Ted never “needed” to prepare meals before, and as we see, making breakfast for Billy is not one of his strengths. Not by a long shot.
Housework and shopping just scratch the surface of Ted’s new duties. He also needs to pick up Billy at school, read bedtime stories, provide discipline, tend to him when he’s sick or hurt, and attend an occasional PTA meeting. Ted has become the exception to the rule in 1979: He is now a single male parent.
Of course, as one would expect, his parenting skills improve over time, but rather than standard TV-movie of the week clichés, Hoffman brings much more to Ted. He succumbs to all the emotional stages of loss, but we also feel the mounting pressure of his job and his new piled-on responsibilities at home. It’s a trifecta of tension that pushes Ted to the limit. Not only does Hoffman successfully juggle these obstacles, but he captures the loving bond between father and son, and soon, a fourth obstacle of stress becomes the most daunting of all.
Even though Streep’s Joanna is seen as the villain by abandoning her child, she engenders empathy for her predicament. Joanna’s limited role in their marriage truly is not acceptable, but in 1979, that was the norm. “Kramer vs. Kramer” takes an important stance by shining a light on marriage inequality, and in the end, Joanna is not such a scoundrel after all.
Image credits: Columbia Pictures; Clip credits: Movieclips