Life is tough and it just keeps on getting tougher in Robert Benton’s 1979 classic film of a heartbreaking divorce. On a day destined for change, Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) comes home from work one New York evening bringing news of his promotion only to find his wife, Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep), en route to a new life, thank you very much. Ted is left reeling in a state of shock as he struggles to come to terms with his wife’s departure. Throughout the film, we sympathize with Ted and his young son, Billy (Justin Henry), as they falter into a new routine of life: doughnuts and french toast for breakfast, a change in the way they bond to each other as father and son, Ted eventually taking on a lower-ranked job to cope with the pressures of single parenthood. When Joanna resurfaces, several months later, seemingly less feeble, she files for custody of little Billy. This leads to court proceedings where the couple’s lawyers ruthlessly hash out the facts and fiction of their marriage in the fight for the child. Joanna emerges victorious when she is awarded more custody rights, as a mother, but the film ends with a poignant twist in the final scenes.
Based on a novel by Avery Corman, this simple film is designed to illustrate the pains of divorce where the child is the innocent victim caught in his parents’ crossfire. The viewer is skillfully coerced to empathize with Ted, instead of Joanna, as the film focuses on his trials and tribulations throughout the journey; this is reinforced by the personalities given to the characters. Ted is seen as a practical man who is just trying to “bring home the bacon”. He is the temperamental, yet doting, father who does what needs to get done to keep himself and Billy, his number one priority, afloat. Joanna, on the other hand, is painted in a feeble light, she appears selfish and irresponsible as she abandons her son in favor of finding interesting things to do. She also appears insecure and unstable (not least because she is seen lurking in a coffee shop watching Billy from afar as the film draws to an end). It is only in court, in the final scenes, that the viewer begins to understand Joanna’s motives for ending the eight-year marriage and leaving her son.
This is a film filled with surprises from start to finish: Ted, Billy and Margaret (Jane Alexander), Joanna’s confidante, are surprised to see Joanna walk out on her life, Margaret is surprised to see Ted’s doting side, Ted is surprised by continuous changes in his career and Ted’s new girlfriend Phyllis Bernard (JoBeth Williams) is surprised to be caught in the nude by Billy, in the corridor! This is also a film of uncomfortable compromises: Joanna puts an end to compromising throughout her marriage, Billy, who is very convincingly sulky, has to adapt to each and every changing circumstance that divorce brings, Ted compromises his career to suit his new role as single parent, Ted’s friend and first boss, Jim O’Connor (George Coe), has to compromise his choice of candidates for top role in the firm because of Ted’s changing family circumstances.
Evidently, seen through many different angles, this film can teach a great deal about human relationships. It is no wonder that this film won five Academy Awards1 and is considered to be a classic – it has succeeded in portraying the pains of divorce and the ripple effect on all the parties involved.
1Source of Academy Award information: www.imdb.com