By Christian M.
In 1979, Kramer v. Kramer largely introduced America to the broader cultural experience of custody cases. With these words Thane Rosenbaum, the director of the Forum Film Festival, begins tonight’s discussion of this powerful film.
The Academy Awards winning film tells the story of an unconventional family, torn apart by a sudden divorce. Mother Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) decides in the opening act, after years of neglect and unhappiness, to not only leave her husband, but also her son. Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is seen coming home late from work, as usual, and is completely taken by surprise that Joanna would want to leave him. Taking the elevator down, Joanna tears parts her family and old life, but not before saying:
“I am not [a good mother for Billy]! I’m a terrible mother! I’m an awful mother. I yell at him all the time. I have no patience. No…No. He’s better off without me.”
For tonight’s discussion of the film, the panel is made up of the film’s director, Robert Benton; the writer of the similarly-titled novel, Avery Corman; and by the noted divorce attorney, Raoul Felder.
Rosenbaum starts by asking Corman what the novel was based on, whether it was based on someone he knew, on something he was reading, and whether he knew that he picked on a cultural moment that was just different than what we all have experienced about what the legal system does about divorce?
Corman answers with, “Yes.” He had become a young father at the time he wrote the novel, and he was home as a freelancer with two children. His desire to write the novel was connected to the gender politics of the time. Although he agreed politically about what was said about women in the marketplace, he couldn’t square that up with what was going on in his own home life, as a father. There was so much anger going on at the time towards fathers, the unreported precinct, as Corman calls it. His second motivation for writing the book was the goal of nullification, neutralization of the father’s role, which in that time especially, had a colored stamp.
In the movie, Ted Kramer is depicted as a workaholic, working long nights in order to “bring home the bacon.” By virtue of this, he has lost the connection he had with his wife and more importantly; he also lost her love for him. When she leaves him, he is left alone to raise his son Billy, who is only seven years old. While deprived of much sleep and completely lost in finding his way in the kitchen, Ted starts the next morning trying to make French Toast for Billy, characteristically, he utterly fails at this simple task.
Benton, who wrote the screenplay (adapted from Corman’s novel), is asked:
Did you think you were making a cultural film that was broader than the art itself, did you think there was a political statement in there, did you think you were intervening into the feminist movement when you were raising these questions of the complexity of the new family of America? Or is this just an interesting film with young actors that wounded up becoming unbelievably famous?
BENTON: When we were beginning to start filming the movie, my son was eleven years old. After finishing the picture we were about to go skiing. After a bad day, I came home and said to my wife: ‘I completely screwed this wonderful book. I have ruined the career of otherwise terrific actors, I have made it impossible for a brilliant actress to continue, I will probably never work again.’
When you’re in the midst of making something, you hope it’s good, and you have days when you think it’s good, and days when you think it’s awful. But looking back I think it would be extremely difficult not to make a good movie from this extraordinary book. I think the choice of Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep was exactly the right choice. I cannot image two people who would be more well suited for those particular roles. And Billy (Justin Henry) was just a gift handed to us.’
ROSENBAUM: So Raoul, take us back to the 1970s as a divorce lawyer handling custody cases. How rare a case was this, when, obviously Avery and Robert picked up on something that was taking place in the legal system, and there was a story in this, but this particular type of story with these particular facts. How rare was this?
FELDER: Well, there has been a sea change in the law since then. In those days, you would pretty much have to show the mother was unfit for custody. Now, it’s no longer the case. All over America, the only test is: “What is in the best interest of the child.” Simply said, (young) children went with their mother.
Felder agrees that Kramer v. Kramer was an interesting case, but he couldn’t see how Ted lost. Of course, as an experienced family lawyer (practicing for over 40 years), Felder would have done the cross-examination different. For instance:
FELDER [Hypothetically]: ”Joanna Kramer, when you got married, you said: ‘I take you to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, to love and to cherish, for as long as we both shall live.’ Forever was eight years?! Now, it didn’t work out Joanna. How do you know you are not going to damage Billy again? And walk out on him again?”
Joanna [Hypothetically]: ‘Well, I know that …’
FELDER [Hypothetically]: “Yes, but when you got married you said that it would be forever, and you broke that sacred promise. How can we know you won’t do the same to your promise now to Billy? And who is this lover you are seeing now? Does he have a steady job and will he be able to take care of Billy? For all we know, it may be the neighborhood drug-dealer!”
Aside from being a movie with great actors who deliver great performances, Kramer v. Kramer really had a cultural significance, truly then in 1979, but it’s effects are still felt today. The movement that Kramer v. Kramer started was that more men would go to court, and ask for the custody of their child. In divorce cases were there was no custody battle, you had more men asking for better visitation rights than normal. By this story they were given permission to be more active fathers, like Ted Kramer. Another good side that came from it, is that women were willing to let that happen. It was exactly what they had wanted, namely, more participation by the men.
CORMAN: You had a cultural element that didn’t happen ever before. One family court judge even said that Kramer v. Kramer was being cited in proceedings as though it was law. It’s a movie!
Both the novel and movie meant something to people and in many respects, it changed lives. In a different sense, the movie shows the change of Ted and Joanna’s morality, their live guiding principles. What is according to them the right thing to do? For Ted the answer to this question changes radically.
As a noted long hours worker, Ted is his boss’ main man. He tells him, “You can count on me 25 hours a day and you can count on me 8 days a week. I have never let anything at home come into the office. When I go outside, I’m on top of my work. I’m a survivor.”
But when Ted starts to overcome his self-centeredness and starts to accept that Joanna is not coming back (as it were, accepts the content of her letter to Billy), his change begins. His bond with Billy, which was fragile at first, blossoms, and father and son, parent and child, start to know each other, have a daily living rhythm together, have fun, laugh and yell at each other. The second part of his change is visible when Billy injures himself by falling down and Ted carries him to a hospital. When the doctor tells him that he can wait outside while he takes some stitches, Ted refuses to go.
In the movie, Ted loses the case because of the presumption that a mother is better suited to take care of a young child. But this legal assumption is not really what is central, most relevant. No, what this movie really is about is said beautifully by Benton:
“This is not a movie about the law. This is a movie about forgiveness. This is a movie about love and about somebody finding the center of life, that he had not paid attention to. It is not about winning or losing a law case. It is about mercy, and that love is not romantic love, but empathy. The tear that happens in the beginning of the picture, is mended. They have become a family again. Not a conventional family, they’ll never get back together.”