Kramer vs Kramer (1979) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Two thumbs up. Tuna way up, Scoop almost as far.

Tuna's comments in yellow:

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) best picture, Dustin Hoffman, best actor, Meryl Streep, best supporting actress, best supporting actress nominee, Jane Alexander, best director, Robert Benton, best writing, material from another medium, Robert Benton and best young actor from Young Actor Awards, Justin Henry. How can you have great acting, great writing, nominations for best editing and best cinematography and have a bad film? The answer is, you can't. I enjoyed this film even more than the first time I saw it.

The story, briefly, is that Hoffman plays an ad exec who lives for his job, and doesn't really appreciate his wife, Streep, and son Justin Henry. Then, Streep, who feels trapped and alone, leaves. Over the next 18 months, Hoffman becomes a real father, and not just a good one, but a great one. Then Streep shows back up and fights for custody. What made this film great, besides the incredible talent, was its honesty.

Turns out there was a good reason for the honesty. Hoffman was going through his divorce when he was offered the script. He wanted to turn it down, but reluctantly agreed when he was told that Benton and Stanley R. Jaffe would work with him for as long as it took to rewrite for the honesty Hoffman wanted before he would ply the role. Even after principal photography started, improvisation was the rule, rather than the exception. 

Even if you hate character driven drama, you will probably find much to enjoy in this film. It is rated 7.4/10 at IMDB, well below many films that are nowhere near as good.


In an amusing scene, company attorney Jobeth Williams ends up in bed with Hoffman. She gets up in the middle of the night to go home, walks starkers into the hallway, and bumps into Hoffman's son. Very long clear shot of her breasts and buns.
 Scoop's comments in white 


One of the best things about Kramer vs Kramer is its natural simplicity. It is very much like a European naturalist film rather than like a Hollywood movie. It scrupulously avoids spectacle or contrivance, even when those characteristics might have livened up the film.

First of all, it avoids a villain. Meryl Streep plays the woman who ruins Dustin Hoffman's life twice. First, when she leaves him, and second, when she comes back to claim custody of their son. But you can't hate Meryl Streep. For one thing, look at her. Did you ever see a person with more compassionate eyes? They cast her for her innate likeability. For another thing, the script painstakingly establishes that she is a good person. She didn't explain her reasons for leaving Dustin and their boy at the moment she did it, but they were credible. She was troubled, and she knew she was troubled. She knew her life was headed for disaster, and she didn't want to allow herself to go there, or to take her son along. The exposition of her point of view is important. They didn't want to turn her into Darth Vader.

Second, it avoids "big moments". In a third rate melodrama, Dustin would have been late for work and messed up a presentation in his first day after she leaves him, but he doesn't. Despite the fact that he oversleeps and has to take on unfamiliar parenting tasks, he gets there on time, although harried and frazzled. In a second rate melodrama, Streep would have come back for custody, intending to move to California or Zanzibar, or something, but there was no such conflict. She was planning to stay in New York. In the very worst case, if Streep had won full custody of the child, Hoffman would have seen spent more time with the boy than he did before Streep left. In reality, Streep's victory in court would have been better for Hoffman's career, since he would have been freed from the day-to-day parenting tasks that cost him one job already. In essence, the dramatic conflicts were small, but they seemed large to the characters. That's the way it is in real life, where small things like French toast become large from our personal perspective.

The film stays true to life, except for the all-too-convenient ending when Streep suddenly has a change of heart and decides to let Hoffman keep the child. How often does this happen in real life? Sadly, that was a pure Hollywood contrivance, but the way they concluded it in the film - with Streep going up the elevator to tell the boy, the door closing, the film ending - was sensitive enough that the falseness of the moment was mitigated.

This is one of the most naturally acted films to come out of Hollywood. Hoffman, Streep, and young Justin Henry all got right to the heart and soul of real, breathing human beings. They were irritating, they were noble, they were forgiving and forgiven, as are we all in such times . The extreme people like Mother Theresa and Hitler, St Francis and Papa Doc, come along rarely in our race. Most of us are neither saints nor sinners, just folks trying to get through life in our own ways, trying to be good people, sometimes failing, like Kramer and Kramer. Streep and especially Hoffman both trusted the characters enough to let them be unlikable once in a while, and to regret their actions later. Almost every other film could learn from this complex characterization developed through both the script and the performances. 

The exclusive DVD documentary about the making of the film manages to soft-pedal a very important point in the casting of this film. In fact, the geniuses are so intent on congratulating themselves on their "choice" of Streep that they seem to have forgotten the real story. Producer Stanley Jaffe, writer/director Robert Benton, and writer/actor Dustin Hoffman were unanimously agreed on their choice for the role - Kate Jackson, who played Sabrina on Charlie's Angels. Columbia pictures executive Sherry Lansing coerced them into taking Streep for various contractual and financial reasons only peripherally related to Meryl's talent. They eventually agreed, but Streep was not easy to convince, because she had met Hoffman before, at an audition. As she recollected for Time magazine:

"He came up to me and said 'I'm Dustin - burp - Hoffman' and he put his hand on my breast. What an obnoxious pig, I thought."


Ah, well, it all worked out in the end.

One of the intriguing complexities of the story is that while the script establishes that Hoffman is probably the better mother of the two parents, at least by the traditional "nurturer" stereotype, it also establishes that Streep seems to be a better father by the traditional "provider" stereotype. After only one year in the workplace, she is earning more than Hoffman, who is supposed to be a workaholic hotshot with a decade of devotion to his industry.

It is also one of the few movies to present the male point of view in parental custody battles. American courts have traditionally sided with women because they were women, and Dustin Hoffman captured the rage and pain that men often feel when confronted with this sexual discrimination. 

There is a flip side to the moral ambiguity and complexity of the movie. It gets top marks for reality and intelligence but, as drama, reality is overrated. I like the movie, and I admire the work and craftsmanship that went into the characterizations, but it's not a film that I would watch again and again. It doesn't make me laugh very much, or cry very much, or feel anything very strongly, and I wasn't on pins and needles to see the outcome. There is nothing exceptional or imaginative about the visuals, although they are certainly satisfactory. It is, in fact, very austere with both its visuals and sound, to emphasize that it ain't kidding around with this phony Hollywood stuff.  

A solid, honest movie. 

Both Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, who may be the two most influential and scholarly movie reviewers of the post-war era, have said at various times that Marlon Brando is probably the greatest screen actor. I wonder if the choice ought to be Dustin Hoffman. He has been nominated for seven Oscars, and some of those are among the most memorable performances ever recorded on film. Tootsie, Rain Man, and Ratso come immediately to mind, not to mention The Graduate. If Hoffman isn't the greatest screen actor, he certainly must be one of the two or three best character actors. I can't think of anyone but Alec Guinness with a career to match him, and there is nobody really like him today. I suppose Geoffrey Rush comes closest.

The amazing thing about Hoffman is that he has done it in spite of not fitting the traditional actor's mold. When you dream of the ideal actor, he has the handsome looks, the golden tones, the powerful presence. If you build an actor, you build him like James Earl Jones or Lawrence Olivier or Orson Welles, a dashing presence with a deep voice. But Hoffman? Well, he wears a 37 short, mumbles, and has one of the whiniest voices ever created by the accidents of DNA. If you didn't know Dustin Hoffman, met him at a party, and he told you he was a famous actor who had seven Oscar nominations, you'd think he was kidding. You'd listen to that voice, and look at his unimposing 5'5" frame, and figure out how to ditch him and talk to somebody sane. But he wouldn't be kidding at all. He's not only a prolific actor, but a great one; not only a great screen actor, but an acclaimed stage actor as well. I think there must be a lesson there somewhere, and it must be something like this: hard work and dedication are just as or more important than natural talent. I think that's a good thing.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • excellent DVD transfer, digitally re-mastered from a pristine print. Light-years beyond anything else I've seen from this film.

  • exclusive new documentary about the history of the project

Name of 1979 movie (nominees highlighted in teal) Current IMDb rating
Apocalypse Now 8.4
Manhattan 8.2
Alien 8.2
Life of Brian 7.9
Being There 7.9
The Tin Drum 7.8
Breaking Away 7.6
All that Jazz 7.5
Kramer vs Kramer 7.4
Norma Rae 7.2
Kramer vs Kramer is a good movie, but history has knocked it down from the top of the class of 1979, although it once rested on the pinnacle, having won the Best Picture gold that year. 

The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.4 
  • With their dollars ... it was a very solid box office hit. It grossed $100 million in 1979, equivalent to double that today and it has since taken in about $60 million in rental income. 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B- (Scoopy) or maybe even an A (Tuna).

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