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Release Year: 1979
Director: Robert Benton
Writer: Robert Benton
There's no such thing as a tidy divorce, especially when it plays out before a large audience. Think about it: Brangelina, Bennifer, TomKat, Tedanna…
Okay, we made that last one up. That would be Ted and Joanna Kramer, the battling parents of 1979's critical and box-office hit Kramer vs. Kramer.
The film follows the evolution of Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) after his wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep), decides she's had enough and walks out on him and their six-year-old son, Billy (Justin Henry). Shoved into the role of a single parent, Ted has to stop being so self-centered and start being Super Dad. He pretty much nails it. Then Joanna comes back after a year and a half and tells Ted she wants her son back.
Written and directed by Robert Benton (and adapted from Avery Corman's novel of the same name), Kramer vs. Kramer is a grown-up drama for, well, grown-ups. It may be about a custody battle over a kid, but it's not told from the kid's perspective, which makes it a little unconventional. The family drama went on to become the highest grossing film of 1979, raking in over $106 million (source) and crushing Alien, Star Trek—The Movie, and The Muppet Movie.
Not bad for a film without a single shark, Wookiee, or musical number, right?
The film, which TIME magazine called "the emotional bender of the year" (source), was a massive hit with critics, too. On Oscar night, everything was coming up Kramer: the film took home the Academy Awards for Best Actor (Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Streep), Best Director (Benton), Best Adapted Screenplay (also Benton), and Best Picture. It was also nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing, and Jane Alexander and Justin Henry were nominated for their acting performances, too.
Accolades aside, the film asks the tough questions: What does it take to be a good parent? Should moms be the default caregiver? Can you be a good parent if you want more in life? Do you really add the milk last when you're making French toast?
And Kramer avoids pat answers to those questions. Instead, it takes a serious, nuanced approach to gender roles in parenting and the problem of work-life balance. It started a national convo about challenging traditional gender-based views of child custody, and it did it without taking sides or getting preachy or making anyone into a villain.
Reminds us of Mr. Mom…
And the Academy Award for Best Picture goes to…Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith?
It's a rare feat for the highest-grossing film of the year to also be the most critically acclaimed. For example, here are the 10 films that raked in the most dough from 2001 to 2010:
That lineup has more colons and numbers than, well, we don't know what. A basketball league for colons? A bunch of colons in line at a deli counter? You get our point.
It doesn't take a film scholar to look at that list and recognize that most of these films weren't exactly critical darlings. They weren't all terrible—not by a long-shot—but in the age of blockbusters, clearly there's little room for thought-provoking family dramas to make lots of money.
The age of blockbusters, BTW, has been ongoing since Jaws first took a bite out of the summer box office in 1975. That's why it's all the more remarkable that Kramer vs. Kramer was such a big, fat hit. It was the highest-grossing picture of 1979, raking in more than $106 million. Sandwiched between Grease and The Empire Strikes Back, the two biggest moneymakers of 1978 and 1980, respectively, this succinct, adult story about two divorced parents fighting over custody of their son sticks out like a sore thumb.
So what gives? Why is Kramer vs. Kramer one of only two films in since 1977 to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and pull in the most cash? (What's the other one? Let's just say it's a big-budget spectacle.)
Vulture's Adam Sternbergh thinks it was because, in those days, TV was full of comedies, sitcoms, and escapism, so people went to the movies to get their grown-up drama fix. In other words, it was the reverse of today, when TV is the home to prestige dramas like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Homeland, so the multiplex is filled with super heroes, aliens, and the occasional boy wizard (source).
That might make sense if Kramer vs. Kramer wasn't already an anomaly in 1979.
Remember: when you scope out the highest-grossing films of each year, Kramer vs. Kramer is sandwiched between Grease and The Empire Strikes Back. If we zoom out to include another highest-grossing film of the year on either side, we pick up Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), both of which are excellent films in their own right, but neither of which feature mature, Shakespeare-caliber narratives.
That means Columbia Pictures didn't have The Jeffersons and The Dukes of Hazzard to thank for Kramer vs. Kramer's unique combination of a critical and commercial success. Was it a big "In your eye!" to blockbuster popcorn flicks by America's adult population? Was it just a freak occurrence? Ultimately, Shmoop thinks it was probably a little bit of both. Conditions, for one reason or another, were right for a blockbuster breather; and Kramer vs. Kramer, with its two hyper-talented, bona-fide movie stars, struck at just the right time, while the dramatic iron was hot.
The iron was hot in another way in 1979. The '70s saw an explosion in the divorce rate and lots of questioning of gender roles. Fathers were getting more involved in their kids' lives; moms were entering the workforce in record numbers. As TIME's review put it, "all the old definitions of marriage and family [had] been torn apart" (source).
Kramer tapped into that zeitgeist with a film that slapped these social issues on the table with a bang.
Even today, if you say something's a "Kramer vs. Kramer" situation, anyone over the age of 60 knows exactly what you're talking about.
Now you do, too.
Al Pacino turned down the role of Ted Kramer. He didn't even read the script. Hoo-ah!
Justin Henry lost the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor to 78-year-old Melvyn Douglas, who refused to attend the ceremony. "The whole thing is absurd, my competing with an eight-year-old!" he groused. How ironic is it that Douglas won his Oscar for a movie called Being There? (Source)
When Henry lost Best Supporting Actor to 78-year-old Melvyn Douglas (Being There), he was crushed…so crushed that Superman himself—a.k.a. Christopher Reeve—had to be brought over to console him. (Source)
If you want to recreate Dustin Hoffman's infamous (and improvised) wine glass swat, you're in luck. The restaurant, J.G. Melon, still stands. Just look for the table with a framed photo from the film hanging nearby—and don't blame us when your date gets mad about all that glass in their hair. (Source)
Some people think that Kramer was made to answer the burning question of baby-boomers everywhere: What happened to Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson from The Graduate? Last we saw them, in the 1967 film that made Dustin Hoffman famous, Elaine had ditched her 30-second-old marriage to another guy and they were sitting in the back of a bus headed who-knows-where, wedding dress and all. Did their relationship last? Did it just turn into another sad suburban marriage story?
Rumor has it that Katharine Ross, The Graduate's Elaine, was even considered for the role of Joanna. Shmoop can't say how much an influence the earlier film was, if at all, but the fact is that both movies, one a satire and one a drama, were both major cultural phenomena of their time. In Kramer, Hoffman did for single dads what he did for alienated college grads a decade earlier. (Source)
Kramer vs. Kramer at TCM
Turner Classic Movies knows classic movies. If they didn't, their name would be way dumb. This sums up the story of the film's production in a short and sweet article.
Kramer vs. Kramer by Avery Corman
Prefer the book to the movie? No offense, but you're kind of in the wrong place. Try this link to the novel that started it all.
"How Meryl Streep Battled Dustin Hoffman, Retooled Her Role, and Won Her First Oscar" by Michael Schulman
Turns out Kramer vs. Kramer's shoot was almost as dramatic as the movie itself. This Vanity Fair profile is a must-read, if you ask us.
Roger Ebert's Review
Dude knew movies, and he loved this one.
"Why Was Kramer vs. Kramer the Top-Grossing Movie of 1979?" by Adam Sternbergh
Considering Alien, The Muppet Movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and The Amityville Horror all came out that year, too, it's a valid question.
Kramer vs. Kramer Official Trailer
There's a whole lotta voiceover goin' on.
"Billy Acts Out"
The infamous ice cream scene
"I'm Leaving You"
Whoops; we just spoiled the first five minutes of the movie.
"Making French Toast"
Hope you like your French toast crunchy.
Dustin Hoffman Winning Best Actor Oscar
Not exactly the speech you'd expect from such a serious actor, is it?
Meryl Streep Winning Best Supporting Actress Oscar
…and beating out her BFF Margaret (Jane Alexander).
Kramer vs. Kramer Winning Best Director and Best Picture Oscars
If you ask us, Benton totally knows he's going to win.
Hoffman Talks About Streep
He claims he handpicked Streep for the role.
Hoffman and Streep Discuss the Wine Glass Scene
Dustin and Meryl spill the tea about the wine.
"Concerto for Mandolin in C Major"
The first movement of Vivaldi's concerto ought to sound very familiar to you if you've watched the movie.
The Official Movie Poster
We don't know why Billy looks like he just murdered a drifter, either.
French Lobby Card
"Kramer" in French is "Kramer." Huh.
Shooting the Elevator Scene
Two of America's finest actors, stoked to almost be done working together.
Dustin Hoffman, Stanley Jaffe, and Robert Benton on Set
The star, the producer, and the director.
Hoffman and Meryl Streep on Set
Hoffman lost all the buttons on his coat during shooting, so Streep had to follow him around, holding it closed. (Okay, fine. No, she didn't.)
Hoffman and Justin Henry Behind the Scenes
Acting is hard work, man.
The Kramers in Happier Times
Well, this photo shoot wasn't awkward at all.