THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ (1979)

In 1980, the 52nd Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1979, and December 31, 1979, the awards were held on April 14. The ceremony was once again hosted by Johnny Carson.

At only 8-years-old, Justin Henry made history with his nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Kramer vs. Kramer. Henry became the youngest ever nominee in any competitive category. It’s a record he still holds to this day. Henry was beaten by 79-year-old Melvyn Douglas for his performance in Being There. The age gap between the two nominees was the largest age difference between two competing actors in Oscar history. This record was broken in 2013 by Emmanuelle Riva (age 85) and Quvenzhané Wallis (age 9).

Leading the field this year was the touching familial drama Kramer vs. Kramer, which scored five Academy Awards from its nine nominations. The film took home Best Picture, Best Director for Robert Benton, Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman, Best Supporting Actress for Meryl Streep, and Best Adapted Screenplay. This almost qualifies it as a winner of the “Big Five,” except Streep’s win in the Supporting category does not count as part of this exclusive group.

The nominees:
All That Jazz
Apocalypse Now
Breaking Away
Kramer vs. Kramer
Norma Rae

The winner:
Kramer vs. Kramer

Based on Avery Corman’s 1977 novel of the same name, Kramer vs. Kramer is the moving portrait of the crushing impact of a messy divorce. Ted Kramer is a workaholic advertising executive who lives for his work far more than his family. After receiving a promotion he’s been striving towards for months, Ted arrives home to find his desperately unhappy wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) is leaving him, in order to find herself. She leaves behind their young son Billy (Justin Henry) for Ted to raise alone. After a difficult readjustment period in their new lives together, Ted and Billy soon form a strong bond as father and son. 15 months after she abandoned her family, Joanna returns to claim Billy. A nasty and bitter custody battle begins, as both Ted and Joanna fight for the right of sole custody of their son, leaving him caught hopelessly in the middle.

Why did it win?
Recognising a piece of cinema which taps into its time and era with a narrative perfectly relevant and timely is something the Academy does best. When a film hits with just the right story at just the right time, it often becomes unstoppable in the race for Best Picture. Such was the case with Kramer vs. Kramer – a film which highlighted the collapse of the American family unit and the destruction and chaos divorce was having on so many husbands, wives, and children.

With its impeccable cast and heartbreaking narrative, it was a proposition for the Academy they could not resist. It was a film many could relate to featuring characters many would have seen themselves in. Perhaps you were the jilted partner who had an unforeseen breakup thrust upon them. Perhaps you were the lost soul who had no choice but to flee a damaging relationship in order to learn who you were. Or perhaps you were the child caught up in the drama of your parent’s divorce and the messiness of a custody battle. Whatever the reasons, Kramer vs. Kramer was a film which was easy to connect, relate, and sympathise with.

The late 1970s/early 1980s represented a cultural shift in America and around the globe, in regards to the ideas of family life. With divorce becoming the norm for a staggering number of families, parents were being forced to reevaluate how their children would be raised, challenging the very notions of motherhood and fatherhood. Kramer vs. Kramer personified these changing times with a narrative so perfectly timely and relative to its audience, and the results were astounding.

On a relatively small budget of only $8 million, Kramer vs. Kramer would earn over $106 million at the U.S. box-office to become the highest-grossing film of 1979. Just take a moment to appreciate this fact. An inexpensive familial drama, made for less than $10 million, was the most successful film of this year. It managed to outgross mega-blockbuster films like Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Rocky II. That kind of result is unheard of nowadays. It’s clear the film struck a chord with the audience of this era, and those box-office dollars speak for themselves.

Adding to that, Kramer vs. Kramer received overwhelmingly positive reviews, with many calling it one of the greatest American family dramas of all time. The New York Times called it a “fine, witty, moving, most intelligent adaptation of Avery Corman’s best-selling novel,” while Variety hailed it “a perceptive, touching, intelligent film about one of the raw sores of contemporary America, the dissolution of the family unit.”

After such an overwhelming response from audiences and strong reviews from critics, the race for Best Picture was over almost as soon as it had begun. Kramer vs. Kramer swept every major American precursor award (BAFTA went with The Elephant Man, which was not eligible for this year’s Academy Awards, but would compete the following year) including the Golden Globes, Directors Guild, Writers Guild, the critics awards of New York and Los Angeles, and the National Board of Review. Despite a strong year of contenders, there was clearly no other choice for the Academy for Best Picture.

Did it deserve to win?
One of the most contentious Best Picture winners of this era, for one simple reason – it beat Apocalypse Now. Many call this one of the Academy’s biggest blunders, and, to some degree, I see their point. Apocalypse Now is a genuine classic piece of cinema. It was bold and daring, with some of the most indelible images ever committed to film. But, despite its modern-day reverence, the film was rather poorly received, at the time. Reviews were mixed, and the film ultimately received far more negative reaction than it did positive. Yes, it’s unfortunate the Academy were evidently unable to overlook the critical response and see the film for the masterpiece it was. Somehow, like many other films, failing to win Best Picture just makes Apocalypse Now that much more powerful.

Perhaps I’m in the minority on this one, but I would still maintain Kramer vs. Kramer is an enormously deserving winner of Best Picture. This film hits me like a freight train, every single time. The last 15 minutes represent the first example of a film in this The Best Picture Project journey to make me truly cry like a baby. And this isn’t coming from a place of a film affecting me from personal experience either. My parents are not divorced, so I have no real personal connection to this film, other than being moved by it as a fan of great dramas.

In the hands of lesser talents, the film could very easily have fallen into being nothing more than a sappy, heartstring-tugging melodrama. Of course, it features some of the elements, but they’re consistently elevated by the impeccable performances of its glorious cast and its sensational screenplay and direction.

Hoffman gives the greatest performance of his career, as the father desperately attempting to make sense of his world being turned upside down. His scenes with the adorable Henry are truly magical, which feel even more sublime when you learn a lot of their work was improvised. Their father-son relationship feels terrifically genuine, and Henry delivers one of the finest young actor performances the screen has ever known. The film ultimately heralded the arrival of Streep as the greatest actress of her generation, particularly in those devastating courtroom scenes, which were re-written by Streep herself. It would have been easy to make Joanna a villain. After all, she does essentially abandon her child for seemingly frivolous reasons. But Streep finds the pathos in her character, and the motivations behind her unspeakable actions become remarkably understandable.

That’s ultimately the film’s crowning glory. It shies away from ever really taking sides between the warring parents, and we are given the opportunity to see and understand both Joanna and Ted’s motivations and perspectives. Naturally, we warm to Ted, and he gets the lion’s share of sympathy. However, as we learn more of Joanna’s broken psyche, it becomes almost impossible to truly side with just one parent when we realise how deeply damaged and lost a mother had to be where seemingly her only option was to abandon her young son. Ultimately, we leave the film finding empathy and understanding for both parents, and that’s a difficult task many filmmakers would have failed to achieve.

Writer/director Benton crafts his screenplay and his film with themes that are fresh and relevant, and a keen observation for portraying this deeply affecting issue with true understanding. There’s no judgement from Benton of any of his characters, and that’s precisely what this film needs to succeed. His dialogue is superbly written, with scenes and scenarios many will instantly identify with. But, most of all, he fills this film with an enormous heart and warmth that’s hard not to be swept away by.

Was there perhaps a “better” choice for the Academy this year? Of course. There often is. But don’t let that take anything away from the beautifully touching experience Kramer vs. Kramer delivers. It’s a film still as timely as ever, and a film that still manages to pack an enormous emotional punch. Its sensational performances are still glorious to behold, and, whether many agree with me or not, it’s a film that absolutely deserved to take home Best Picture.

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