Friday, December 19, 2014

The Story of One Man's Family

"There's a lot of things I didn't understand, a lot of things I'd do different if I could. Just like I think there's a lot of things you wish you could change, but we can't. Some things once they're done can't be undone. My wife, my ex–wife, says that she loves Billy, and I believe she does, but I don't think that's the issue here."

Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman)

I remember many things about "Kramer vs. Kramer," which premiered on this date in 1979.

It was the first movie I ever reviewed for my school paper. (I'm not a film critic today so I suppose you can tell that didn't pan out.)

Looking back on it, it really wasn't much of a review that I wrote. I certainly hope I'm a better writer today than I was then, and I believe I am. (I'd just about have to be, wouldn't I?)

The thing that stood out for me then — and still stands out for me after having seen the movie again (for the umpteenth time) a few months ago — was its unflinching candor.

I knew many Ted Kramers when I was a kid. Most of the fathers of my friends were like Ted (Dustin Hoffman) — absorbed in their careers, left the child rearing to the mothers. Most of the mothers I knew did it without question. It's how they were all brought up. But one or two of the mothers I knew did what Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) did.

Joanna left her husband and son Billy (Justin Henry) — then, after 18 months, she came back into their lives wanting custody of her son.

Prior to her return, the focus had been on Ted's relationship with Billy and his evolution from a distant father into an involved one.

At first, he was a father who didn't really know the first thing about domestic life — until his wife left him, then he had to learn things like how to cook and how to shop. One day he was held up by traffic and consequently was late to pick up his son at a birthday party. Billy was peeved. "All the other mothers were here before you," he told his father.

Ted became a father who may have been more nervous about Billy's brief welcoming monologue at his school's Halloween pageant than Billy was.

He had no private life to speak of. Once, when he brought home a co–worker (JoBeth Williams), the co–worker had an unexpected encounter with Billy, who seemed not to notice that she was naked. After their brief hallway conversation, in which they established that they both liked fried chicken, Williams returned to the master bedroom and told Hoffman, "Kramer, I just met your son."

He already knew.

He was a father who, when his son fell from some playground apparatus and suffered a cut near his eye, ran through the streets of New York to the nearest hospital with his bleeding and crying child in his arms. It was a truly harrowing scene, and one of the finest cinematic examples of the love a father feels for his son.

I remember being struck once by the sharp contrast between Hoffman strolling self–assuredly through the streets of New York in "Midnight Cowboy" and the Hoffman who ran frantically to the hospital in "Kramer vs. Kramer" a decade later.

For nearly half a century, Hoffman has been one of America's elite acting talents.

In what may have been the most honest moment in the movie, Ted and Billy discussed Joanna's departure. Billy wanted to know if his mother left because he had been bad. Ted assured him that was not what happened.

It would have been a perfect opportunity to brainwash his son, to poison his mind and turn him against his mother, to tell him that things were different than they had really been. The audience knew how he had struggled to balance the demands of work and home, demands with which single mothers have long been familiar. And I got the sense that the audience — even many of the women in the audience — would not have held it against him if he had. Hasn't everyone — or nearly everyone — had his/her heart broken at some time?

But he didn't do that. I admired the character's integrity.

"She couldn't stand me, Billy," he confessed. "She didn't leave because of you. She left because of me."

Jane Alexander, former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as the sympathetic friend who started out as Joanna's confidante and became Ted's, but she lost the Oscar to Streep.

Hoffman took home Best Actor, and Robert Benton won his only Best Director Oscar. The movie won Best Picture. In all, "Kramer vs. Kramer" won five Oscars out of nine nominations. Well, I guess everyone knew it wouldn't be a sweep — unless Streep and Alexander tied, like Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand did in 1968 — but that certainly was a solid showing.

Nevertheless, I was sorry that Henry didn't win. He lost to Melvyn Douglas ("Being There"), who did a wonderful job, too, but I really felt Henry did a great job of showing what divorce does to children — and how they tend to perceive things.

Adults often forget how things appear to children. Henry deserved some kind of recognition for reminding us.

Buffeted by the bitter winds of separation and divorce, Billy at first cried for his absent mother. By the end of the movie, he cried for his soon–to–be absent father. For a first–grader, he grew up a lot in between. Children don't perceive things as adults do. That should be obvious, but we adults frequently must be reminded of that. They have their own logic, and they reach conclusions in their own ways and in their own time.

Film critic Roger Ebert had a different take on it. "There is a child caught in the middle," he wrote, "but this isn't a movie about the plight of the kid but about the plight of the parents."

Ebert was right, of course. The movie wasn't examining Billy, at least not directly. It was examining his parents.

Considering the times in which we live, if someone decided to remake "Kramer vs. Kramer" today, I think it would be appropriate to examine things a little more from Billy's perspective.

Yes, I think Ebert was on to something when he observed that the movie, as its title implied, was about the parents, but divorce affects everyone in the family. Even if divorce is clearly the best long–term solution, it is often a tragedy for all concerned when it is being played out.

"Kramer vs. Kramer," as Ebert observed, was the kind of movie that could easily have demanded that viewers take sides. Whether a divorce — or a movie about a divorce — makes people take sides really depends upon what the people who are involved choose to do.

"[W]hat matters in a story like this (in the movies and in real life, too) isn't who's right or wrong," Ebert wrote, "but if the people involved are able to behave according to their own better nature. Isn't it so often the case that we're selfish and mean–spirited in just those tricky human situations that require our limited stores of saintliness?"

Couldn't have said it better myself.