Ted befriends his neighbor Margaret (Jane Alexander), who had initially counseled Joanna to leave Ted if she was that unhappy. Margaret is a fellow single parent, and she and Ted become kindred spirits. One day, as the two sit in the park watching their children play, Billy falls off the jungle gym, severely cutting his face. Ted sprints several blocks through oncoming traffic carrying Billy to the hospital, where he comforts his son during treatment.
So, hadn’t she failed at the most important relationship in her life? “It did not succeed,” she answers weakly.
April 14, 1980. Outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the stars of the new decade arrived in style: Goldie Hawn, Richard Gere, Liza Minnelli, George Hamilton. Among the movie gods was Meryl Streep, one of the only women not in sequins.
The highest-grossing film of 1979, with a total box-office take of just over $106 million, was Kramer vs. Kramer, a movie about two New Yorkers getting a divorce and fighting over custody of their son.
They filmed the remaining testimonies, and the court sequence was in the can. At one point between takes, Dustin went up to the actual court reporter they’d hired to sit behind the stenograph machine.
After one last “thank you very much,” she held up the Oscar and headed left, before Jack Lemmon was kind enough to point her right.
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Clearly, there was a discrepancy between what they saw and how Meryl saw herself. Was she a fearless advocate, telling three powerful men exactly what their script was missing? Or was she a basket case whose raw grief was written all over her face? Whichever Meryl Streep walked out of that hotel room, she got the part.
The weeks had been fraught, and Benton was panicking. “I was in unfamiliar territory,” he said: no guns, no outlaws. “The suspense had simply to do with emotion, not anything physical.” Benton and his wife had planned to take their son skiing in Europe after the shoot. But two-thirds of the way through, convinced he was never going to work again, he came home and told his wife, “Cancel the trip. We need to save all the money we have.”
Benton gives his film its depth and complexity by challenging the audience's preconceptions and snap opinions at every turn.
“That wasn’t said at all,” Dustin snapped back. “I can’t stop people from feeling what they are feeling, but I don’t think everyone feels that way.”
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JOANNA: I woke up this morning … kept thinking about Billy. And I was thinking about him waking up in his room with his little clouds all around that I painted. And I thought I should have painted clouds downtown, because … then he would think that he was waking up at home. I came here to take my son home. And I realized he already is home.
JOANNA: After I left … when I was in California, I began to think, what kind of mother was I that I could walk out on my own child. It got to where I couldn’t tell anybody about Billy—I couldn’t stand that look in their faces when I said he wasn’t living with me. Finally it seemed like the most important thing in the world to come back here and prove to Billy and to me and to the world how much I loved him … And I did … And I won. Only … it was just another “should.”
That, at least, was Meryl’s version. The story the men told was completely different. “It was, for all intents and purposes, the worst meeting anybody ever had with anybody,” Benton recalled. “She said a few things, not much. And she just listened. She was polite and nice, but it was—she was just barely there.”
By now we have no inclination at all to choose sides. Our sympathies do tend to be with the father -- we've seen him change and grow -- but now we are basically just acting as witnesses to the drama. The movie has encouraged us to realize that these people are deep enough and complex enough, as all people are, that we can't assign moral labels to them.
In the moments after the ceremony, the Kramer vs. Kramer winners were shown into a room of about a hundred reporters. “Well, the soap opera won,” Dustin boomed as he walked in, anticipating their disdain. It was clear that this wouldn’t be a typical glad-handing press conference, and the reporters were eager to match Dustin’s feistiness. The columnist Rona Barrett remarked that many women, particularly feminists, “feel this picture was a slap to them.”
Jack Lemmon and Cloris Leachman came out to deliver the first award of the night: best supporting actress. When she heard her name, last among the nominees, Meryl rubbed her hands together and mumbled something to herself. “And the winner is … ,” Leachman said, before handing the envelope to Lemmon.
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Benton had written his own version of her reply, a spin on Shylock’s “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech in The Merchant of Venice: “Just because I’m a woman, don’t I have a right to the same hopes and dreams as a man? Don’t I have a right to a life of my own? Is that so awful? Is my pain any less just because I’m a woman? Are my feelings any cheaper?”
There were shards of glass in her hair. The camera caught the whole thing.
That’s the conflict Benton needed to resolve in the final scene, which he set in the lobby of Ted’s building. It’s the day Joanna comes to take Billy, some time after she has won the custody battle. She buzzes up and asks Ted to come downstairs, where he finds her leaning against the wall in her trench coat. She tells him she isn’t taking Billy after all.
Kramer vs. Kramer is greatly enriched by its exceptional cast.
Benton heard the slap and saw Meryl charge into the hallway. We’re dead, he thought. The picture’s dead. She’s going to bring us up with the Screen Actors Guild. Instead, Meryl went on and acted the scene. Clutching Joanna’s trench coat, she pleaded with Ted, “Don’t make me go in there!” As far as she was concerned, she could conjure Joanna’s distress without taking a smack to the face, but Dustin had taken extra measures. And he wasn’t done.
Kramer Vs. Kramer is a perceptive, touching, intelligent film about one of the raw sores of contemporary America, the dissolution of the family unit.
When Meryl left the room, Stanley Jaffe was dumbfounded. “What is her name—Merle?” he said, thinking box office.
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“Not it, Mrs. Kramer,” he bellows, sticking an accusatory finger in her face. “You. Were you a failure at the one most important relationship in your life? Were you?” It’s at that moment we see the “whole human being” Joanna believes herself to be crumble before our eyes, trapped like a sea creature in a fisherman’s net.
As they sat in J.G. Melon, she had a question. The way the restaurant scene was written, Joanna starts off by telling Ted that she wants custody of Billy. Then, as Ted berates her, she explains that all her life she’s felt like “somebody’s wife or somebody’s mother or somebody’s daughter.” Only now, after going to California and finding a therapist and a job, does she have the wherewithal to take care of her son.
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Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)
Wouldn’t it be better, Meryl asked on set, if Joanna made the “somebody’s wife” speech before revealing her intention to take Billy? That way, Joanna could present her quest for selfhood as a legitimate pursuit, at least as the character saw it. She could say it calmly, not in a defensive crouch. Benton agreed that re-structuring the scene gave it more of a dramatic build.
It consists largely of home video shot by her father Robert.
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John Cazale and Streep during the filming of The Deer Hunter, 1977.
Oh, why did I do that?, Benton thought. He had no time for this. Now he’d have to overrule her. I’m going to lose a friend. I’m going to lose a day of shooting. I’m going to maybe destroy a performance.
Situations are set up and then the young boy is more or less left free to respond in his own words, with Hoffman leading and improvising as well, and many moments have the sense of unrehearsed real life.
The court awards custody to Joanna, a decision mostly based on the assumption that a child is best raised by his mother. Ted discusses appealing the case, but his lawyer warns that Billy himself would have to take the stand in the resulting trial. Ted cannot bear the thought of submitting his child to such an ordeal, and decides not to contest custody.