THE Best Picture: Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

By Christian DiMartino

Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer might be one of those Best Picture winners that people write off because of the other movies it beat. Perhaps not though, since the film is a classic and the general consensus is that the film is a treasure. Until recently though, while I was undeniably a fan, I did deem the movie overrated because it won Best Picture over two films that I consider among the best ever made- one, I sometimes think, is the best movie ever made. Upon revisiting Kramer vs. Kramer though, I retract my statement.

Kramer vs. Kramer is a wonderful film that will melt your heart and break it, and sometimes at once. The key to the film’s success is the central performance from Dustin Hoffman, who earned his first Oscar here as a loving father trying to keep his and his child’s lives afloat after an unexpected separation. Hoffman isn’t alone though: Meryl Streep won her first Oscar here as his wife, and while she is absent a good chunk of the film, when she makes her return, she makes it worthwhile. Though they’re not alone either: Justin Henry, who was eight years old at the time, kills it here too as their son, and Jane Alexander is strong too as a friend of the family.

Yet these great performances (Hoffman and Streep in particular) are given justice by the film’s script, which Benton also wrote. Kramer vs. Kramer is about a rather difficult, sad subject, and while it never shies away from the sadness, Benton’s film also has its comedic flourishes. Divorce is no joke, but Benton managed to add a bit of charming to a subject that is anything but charming, and that is no small feat.

Benton gets things started early, as the film opens with Joanna Kramer (Streep) announcing that she is leaving. So leave she does, leaving her husband Ted (Hoffman) and young son Billy (Henry) alone without a clue of what to do. Joanna vanishes without saying where she is going, and she doesn’t write or anything. She’s a real charmer. Well, Ted in particular doesn’t know what to do, seeing as he hasn’t had to do too much in the way of parenting, to the point where him and Billy are almost estranged. Billy gives Ted a hard time at first- acting out and making both of their lives difficult, with Ted not putting up with it. Yet as time goes on, the two begin to click and form a connection.

Said connection reaches an unfortunate interruption though with the resurgence of Joanna. When we see her, she appears to be in good spirits, claiming that she pretty much just needed to get away. Though it’s more than that, seeing as she was unbelievably unhappy, and now that she’s back, she wants full custody of Billy. Thus making things even more difficult than they already were.

I wouldn’t have wanted to be an Oscar voter in 1979, mostly because some of these choices are really difficult. Best Actor, for example. Hoffman won, over the likes of Peter Sellers for Being There, Roy Scheider for All That Jazz, Al Pacino for …And Justice for All, and Jack Lemmon for The China Syndrome, all pretty perfect performances in my eyes. In the end though, even though it’s a close one, they made the right choice. Kramer vs. Kramer is firsthand proof of the greatness of Dustin Hoffman, displaying everything that makes him magical. There are shades of funny, shades of charm, and shades of sadness, and it’s really a beautiful piece of work.

The performances in Kramer vs. Kramer are first rate, and even though the film is about something as heartbreaking as divorce, it does go down easy much of the time and it is wonderfully entertaining, when it isn’t breaking your heart. It’s an excellent film… but I still have to stand my ground in saying that it wasn’t quite THE Best Picture. But it’s not a choice I necessarily disagree with, either. The film beat the likes of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, the two that are among my favorites. I initially thought its win over Apocalypse Now was beyond absurd, but upon re-watching All That Jazz recently, it’s become a new favorite. It also beat Norma Rae and Breaking Away, which are excellent movies as well. But Fosse already had his Oscar and Coppola already had five Oscars, so I guess they wanted to throw a bone elsewhere.

You see though, sometimes it depends on what you’re in the mood for. Maybe Academy voters weren’t in the mood for a nearly 3 hour Vietnam epic, seeing as the previous year’s Best Picture winner, The Deer Hunter, did some of that (great movie too). Or maybe they weren’t in the mood for an anti-musical about the excess and death of a creative genius. Maybe Kramer vs. Kramer hit the right notes with them that year, and that’s perfectly fine. In my eyes, it wasn’t THE best picture, but like Forrest Gump, it’s still a great one.

Kramer vs. Kramer: A

Best Picture

Did Win: Kramer vs. Kramer

Should’ve Won: Apocalypse Now

Best Director

Did Win: Robert Benton- Kramer vs. Kramer

Should’ve Won: Francis Ford Coppola- Apocalypse Now

Best Actor

Did Win: Dustin Hoffman- Kramer vs. Kramer

Should’ve Won: Hoffman (tough call though)

Best Actress

Did Win: Sally Field- Norma Rae

Should’ve Won: Field

Best Supporting Actor

Did Win: Melvyn Douglas- Being There

Should’ve Won: Douglas

Best Supporting Actress

Did Win: Meryl Streep- Kramer vs. Kramer

Should’ve Won: Streep

Best Original Screenplay

Did Win: Breaking Away

Should’ve Won: All That Jazz

Best Adapted Screenplay

Did Win: Kramer vs. Kramer

Should’ve Won: Kramer vs. Kramer

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