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Ted Kramer comes home to find that his wife, Joanna, is leaving him and their son, Billy. Ted must juggle a demanding job with the new responsibilities of being Billy's primary caregiver in the absence of his mother. After a trying period of adjustment for both Ted and Billy, their relationship turns to love and trust. When Joanna returns and wants Billy back, the estranged parents must go to court to fight for custody of the son they both love.
Director: Robert Benton
Producer: Stanley R. Jaffe
Writer: Robert Benton; based on the novel by Avery Corman
Cinematography: Nstor Almendros
Production Design: Paul Sylbert
Set Decoration: Alan Hicks
Editing: Gerald B. Greenberg
Music Editor: Erma E. Levin
Supervising Sound Editor: Sanford Rackow
Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Ted Kramer), Meryl Streep (Joanna Kramer), Jane Alexander (Margaret Phelps), Justin Henry (Billy Kramer), Howard Duff (John Shaunessy), George Coe (Jim O'Connor), JoBeth Williams (Phyllis Bernard), Bill Moor (Gressen), Howland Chamberlain (Judge Atkins), Jack Ramage (Spencer), Jess Osuna (Ackerman)
Why KRAMER VS. KRAMER is Essential
Novelist Avery Corman published Kramer vs. Kramer in 1977, a time when there was a more traditional view of child custody cases. For most people, there was no issue. When a man and woman got divorced, the mother took care of the children. While Corman's novel challenged that view, it wasn't until 1979, with the release of the filmed adaptation, that his story would explode accepted views on custody and parenting. Kramer vs. Kramer didn't just set box office records for family drama, it changed the way people thought about divorce, family and child custody.
The cultural success of Kramer vs. Kramer cannot be overstated. In a year with such movies as Moonraker, the highest grossing James Bond movie ever up to that point, Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam war epic Apocalypse Now, Blake Edwards' smash-hit comedy 10, the first feature comedy by Steve Martin, The Jerk, the first feature movie of the beloved Muppets in The Muppet Movie and, finally, the long-awaited big screen adaptation of the classic television show Star Trek with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Kramer vs. Kramer was the top box-office draw of the year. Read that list again. All of them were beat out at the box office by a movie about a couple getting divorced and fighting for the custody of their son. Nothing like that had happened before, certainly not in the recently ushered in age of the summer blockbuster.
At the 52nd Academy Awards, Kramer vs. Kramer took home five Oscars®, including the big one, Best Picture. It also won Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Robert Benton and Best Supporting Actress for Meryl Streep. It was also nominated for, but did not win, Best Film Editing (Gerald Greenberg), Best Cinematography (Nestor Almendros), Best Supporting Actress (Jane Alexander) and, in a record setting nomination, Justin Henry became the youngest nominee ever, in any category, when he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at age eight.
Kramer vs. Kramer also received Best Picture from The Golden Globes, Los Angeles Film Critics Association and The New York Film Critics Circle. Likewise, Hoffman and Streep were honored by each one of those organizations for their performances.
by Greg Ferrara
Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)
The seventies saw film scores go from found music and light accompaniment to bombastic full scale orchestral arrangements with the success of the John Williams' scores for Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977) and Superman (1978). Rather than employ a composer for Kramer vs. Kramer, Benton instead went with classical pieces, including "Sonata for Trumpet and String" by Henry Purcell and "Concerto in C Major for Mandolin & Strings" by Antonio Vivaldi. As a result of the film's success, Vivaldi's concerto became one of the most popular pieces of classical music that year and interest in Vivaldi peaked, bringing back a revival of interest in his works, including "The Four Seasons."
Kramer vs. Kramer had a major cultural impact on how mother/father roles were perceived in society. Time Magazine took the opportunity to do an eight-page spread on the movie and the changing attitudes in American society towards gender equality.
The film's success opened the doors for parody as well. As a result, humorist Bruce Feirstein wrote the satirical book, Real Men Don't Eat Quiche, in response to the changing attitudes in gender and childcare. It topped the New York Times bestseller list for 55 weeks.
Kramer vs. Kramer became one of the few non-blockbuster movies to top the year's top box-office in the post-Jaws landscape, proving that presenting a thoughtful film on divorce and child-custody in the seventies was something many audiences could identify with.
The film was so successful that in one episode of the hit sitcom, Soap, Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) revealed on her death bed that her one regret in life was that she had not yet seen Kramer vs. Kramer.by Greg Ferrara
Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)
Meryl Streep was unconvinced that a mother in a financially stable marriage would want to leave her son until her own mother told her that she herself had moments when she had wanted to walk out the door.
In the restaurant scene where Joanna returns to tell Ted that she wants Billy back, Dustin Hoffman had become highly agitated due to Meryl Streep arguing with director Robert Benton about switching the dialogue around. When the scene concludes and Ted gets up from the table, then smashes his wine glass against the wall, it was a real moment of frustration from Hoffman and Streep's reaction is genuine.
George Coe, the actor who plays Ted Kramer's boss, was one of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players on Saturday Night Live. Although it is little known, he was in fact listed as such for the first three episodes. He remained on the show for the first season filling in small parts but was taken off the opening credits.
The courtroom was an existing location, an actual abandoned courtroom the studio got permission to use. This caused problems for cinematographer Nestor Almendros because the room was huge and no movie lights could be hung above the set. He and his crew rewired the light sockets in the room and used light bulbs as high as 500 watts to shoot the scene.
During the scene where Ted Kramer intrudes on a company Christmas party to secure a job, Dustin Hoffman ends it by kissing a woman unexpectedly. The woman was Ingeborg Srensen, a Playboy Playmate and one-time Miss Norway.
Kramer vs. Kramer had an unusually long post-production due to the fact that it finished shooting in December of 1978 and the studio wanted it to run during awards season, which begins in December. As a result, Robert Benton and editor Jerry Greenberg had months to hone and perfect the film before it was finally released, a full year later.
Justin Henry, at age eight, became the youngest nominee for any Oscar® in the Academy's history, a record he still holds. During the awards, Melvyn Douglas was nominated in the same category, Best Supporting Actor, at age 79. It was the biggest age difference between competitors in Academy history and Douglas himself became the second oldest winner, behind George Burns for The Sunshine Boys (1975).
by Greg Ferrara
Memorable Quotes from KRAMER VS KRAMER
Margaret Phelps (Jane Alexander): "Joanna is a very unhappy woman and it took a lot of courage to walk out this door."
Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman): "How much courage does it take to walk out on your kid?"
Billy Kramer (Justin Henry): "When's mommy coming back?"
Ted Kramer: "I don't know, Billy. Soon."
Billy Kramer: "How soon?"
Ted Kramer: "Soon."
Billy Kramer: "Will she pick me up after school?"
Ted Kramer: "Probably. And if she doesn't I will."
Billy Kramer: "What if you forget?"
Ted Kramer: "I won't forget."
Billy Kramer: "What if you get run over by a truck and get killed?"
Ted Kramer: "Then Mommy will pick you up."
Ted Kramer: "Come on now, what about Billy?"
Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep): "I'm not taking him with me. I'm no good for him. I'm terrible with him. I have no patience. He's better off without me."
Ted Kramer: "Joanna, please."
Joanna Kramer: "And I don't love you anymore."
Ted Kramer: "Where are you going?"
Joanna Kramer: "I don't know."
Ted Kramer: "How was school today?"
Billy Kramer: "Same as usual."
Ted Kramer: "Hey, I see the Knicks finally won a game, what do you know?"
Billy Kramer: "I don't care."
Ted Kramer: "What do you mean?"
Billy Kramer: "I like Boston."
Ted Kramer: "Boston? Why do you like Boston?"
Billy Kramer: "'Cause Mommy's from Boston."
Billy Kramer: "Who's gonna read me my bedtime stories?"
Ted Kramer: "Mommy will."
Billy Kramer: "You're not gonna kiss me good night anymore, are you, Dad?"
Ted Kramer: "No, I won't be able to do that. But, you know, I get to visit. It's gonna be ok, really."
Billy Kramer: [crying] "If I don't like it, can I come home?"
Billy Kramer: "I want my mommy!"
Ted Kramer: "I'm all you got."
Billy Kramer: "We need cereal."
Ted Kramer: "Okay, what color?"
Ted Kramer: "Listen why don't you go upstairs and see him and I'll wait here."
Joanna Kramer: "How do I look?"
Ted Kramer: "You look terrific."
Compiled by Greg Ferrara
Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)
Kramer vs. Kramer, the novel, became a best-seller in 1977 and Robert Benton, a Hollywood screenwriter and sometime director, took an immediate interest. Benton had been writing in Hollywood for years and, along with writing partner David Newman, penned the now-classic Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. He enjoyed other successes as a writer with What's Up, Doc? (1972) and Superman (1978), both of which were co-written with David Newman, among others. He had even enjoyed critical success as a director, if not commercial success. His directorial effort, The Late Show (1977), with Art Carney and Lily Tomlin, garnered near unanimous praise and when Benton started writing the screenplay for Kramer vs. Kramer he already had himself in mind to direct. The studio, however, with Stanley Jaffe in charge of production, wanted Franois Truffaut. Benton would have to make his case.
Benton didn't have to fight very hard. He already had enough successes to carry some clout and insisted that if they wanted his screenplay, they would have to take him as the director. Jaffe had already hired Nestor Almendros as cinematographer with the expectation that Truffaut would be brought on to direct. Almendros and Truffaut had worked together multiple times and Almendros got to work mapping his plans for the shoot. Jaffe realized the book itself, a huge bestseller, and a big star in the lead (they were looking at Dustin Hoffman) would be enough to sell the film and Benton had more than proved himself with his two previous efforts, Bad Company (1972) and The Late Show. He got the job.
Casting the principals proved a trickier matter. Dustin Hoffman was cast in the all-important lead role of Ted Kramer and it was important to find both an actress and a very young actor who could play well with Hoffman.
Meryl Streep was sought out early. She had already made a big splash on television in the mini-series Holocaust (1978) and in movies with her Oscar®-nominated performance in The Deer Hunter (1978), although Kramer vs. Kramer would finish shooting before she had even received her first Academy Award nomination (as Best Supporting Actress). And so, early on, Stanley Jaffe, Robert Benton and Dustin Hoffman decided Streep should audition for the role of Phyllis, Ted Kramer's lawyerly bedmate with whom he has a sexual rendezvous in his apartment that ends up with her meeting Billy in one of the movie's most memorable scenes. The role of Joanna Kramer, Ted's estranged wife, would go to Kate Jackson, star of television's Charlie's Angels. Two things conspired against that.
First, Kate Jackson couldn't get a break in shooting that would allow her to shoot the film and the producers of Charlie's Angels wouldn't budge. Second, that audition with Streep happened, and once Benton and Hoffman saw what Streep could do, they told Jaffe outright, "She's Joanna." The part of Phyllis went to JoBeth Williams, three years away from success in her own right with Poltergeist (1982) and The Big Chill (1983).
Casting Billy was a lot tougher. At least two hundred child actors were brought in and some forty of those directly screen tested with Dustin Hoffman himself. Both Hoffman and Benton were looking for natural instincts, not overly trained actorly qualities that child actors often have. Justin Henry possessed none of the rehearsed mannerisms and techniques that doomed so many of his competitors. He worked well with Hoffman and even took to improvisation easily. He got the part.
Rounding out the cast was acclaimed film and stage actress Jane Alexander as Joanna's former friend and confidante, who becomes Ted's ally and supporter. Howard Duff got the part of Ted's attorney John Shaunessy and character actor George Coe got the part of Ted's boss, Jim O'Connor.
By Greg Ferrara
Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)
Kramer vs. Kramer was the movie that put Meryl Streep in the limelight of Hollywood. She had been around for years, done extensive theatre work and even landed an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actress for The Deer Hunter (1978) but it was Kramer vs. Kramer that truly made her a star. After this movie, she would get lead roles and she wouldn't have to audition for them anymore. It might not have turned out that way if she hadn't felt confident enough to fight for changes in the script with regards to her character.
She was confident, though, because she believed the producers and director, Robert Benton, had confidence in her. She was grateful for the opportunity provided with the role but couldn't get excited about the part until it changed. She said, "I couldn't have been interested in the role if they hadn't changed the script!" She felt that the story was relying on the audience to understand why Joanna left without letting Joanna express it for herself. It was her belief that the character as written, in both the screenplay and the book, was too one-dimensional, an obvious villain for Ted and Billy to react to and change their lives accordingly. Her objections were strong but didn't fall on deaf ears. Robert Benton said, "She was elucidating concerns that we all had but she gave them words." As to her complaint that Joanna's departure was vague and undefended, he said, "It was true. So we listened. And she became the real Mrs. Kramer." Specifically, Streep liked the idea of her character leaving, the other characters discussing why she left and then, once they were sure they had the answer, she returns and tells them herself. A lot of how that return was portrayed came from Streep's input.
On the set, this sometimes caused tensions to flare up between Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. Hoffman was hearing lots of advance publicity about newcomer Streep and how she was mastering the role and Hoffman felt he was being upstaged. When Streep wanted to change around the dialogue in the restaurant meeting scene, Hoffman became furious. As Hoffman recalled, "I hated her guts. Yes, I hated her guts. But I respected her." He accepted that Streep wasn't arguing for what was best for her character but what was best for the movie.
This didn't stop the two of them from poking fun at each other on the set. Hoffman and Streep would often, jokingly, try to get Justin Henry to pick one of them over the other. One day on the set, Hoffman asked Henry who he'd rather be with. Henry said, "Her. She's nicer," to which Hoffman replied, "Oh yeah? Work with her five weeks then see what you say."
The final courtroom scene had one more important rewrite: Joanna's explanation of why she left. Benton feared major delays but, in fact, Streep had in mind what she wanted and quickly rewrote the monologue. Benton said, "Well, the scene is brilliant. I cut only two lines. What you see there is hers."
Despite Streep's considerable input, Kramer vs. Kramer belongs to Dustin Hoffman. He made sure throughout the production to work with Justin Henry in a way unrestricted by too much adherence to every single written word and for several scenes, Hoffman and Henry would work through rehearsals until what they were talking about became the lines of the characters. Hoffman joked around with Henry and talked to him on the set before the shoot so the two could form a real relationship they could work off of on the screen. The results were spectacular. The ice cream scene, in which Billy defies his father, was almost entirely improvised by the two, working through it in rehearsals until Benton decided it should be honed for inclusion in the film.
The performance itself surprised a lot of industry insiders for its restraint. Hoffman had become known for going to great lengths to mold a character and his performances in movies like Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Lenny (1974) spoke to that but his performance of Ted Kramer was a restrained one. His interpretation of the character, an egocentric ad executive, was to play him as non-descript as possible, letting the circumstances turn him from an inattentive provider to a caring father. It's an interpretation that worked and it's considered one of Hoffman's finest performances.
Still, Robert Benton didn't just accept input from Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman. Even cinematographer Nestor Almendros made a few suggestions. When he found out they were planning on decorating Billy's room with Disney figures, he objected. Not because of anything having to do with lighting and camerawork, rather, he felt it would be intrusive. He said, "I thought that would be like inviting a third character into the intimate scenes between the child and mother and father." He suggested painting clouds on the walls instead and Benton liked and approved the idea.
Almendros also scouted locations in and around New York and chose to shoot Kramer vs. Kramer in an unassuming style, focusing not on New York's familiar sites but the characters and their drab office and living interiors. As he later said, "My idea was to do a film where the style of photography would be non-apparent to the audience. Only my peers would notice." It was that type of sacrifice of personal glory to the good of the film that happened throughout the shoot. The actors, producer, director, cinematographer and everyone on the crew felt a sense of community and closeness that contributed to a set that, excepting for tensions between Hoffman and Streep that worked well towards their characterizations, worked smoothly and cleanly to produce one of the best films of the year.
by Greg Ferrara
Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)
When the 52nd annual Academy Awards rolled around in April of 1980, it came as no surprise when Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) took home 5 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress -- from its 9 total nominations. The film had already received several awards from such film societies as the LA Critics Association, New York Film Critics Circle, and many others. One of the biggest blockbusters of the year, it grossed over $70 million at the box-office, making it clear that both the critics and the public agreed. This simple, yet timely story of changing gender roles is one of the most sincere, emotionally stirring, and skillfully woven films ever made on a family torn apart by divorce.
Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman), a New York advertising art director, comes home from work one evening to tell his wife and son that he has just had "one of the five best days of his life." His career is on the fast track to success and his upper east-side family life seems picture-perfect. That same evening, his wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep), tells Ted that she is leaving him and their son (Justin Henry), to "find herself." His life suddenly in disarray, Ted is forced to make some career sacrifices and focus on becoming the boy's sole care-giver, a role that at first emphasizes the emotional divide between father and son. Eventually, the two grow close and reestablish themselves as a family when Joanna unexpectedly returns to claim her son, igniting a bitter custody battle.
Kramer vs. Kramer is based on the 1977 novel by Avery Corman and was adapted for the screen by Robert Benton. At first the film producers wanted the renowned Francois Truffaut to direct, but Benton insisted on being allowed to direct as well. The producers then agreed to let Benton make his directorial debut with Nestor Almendros as his cinematographer. A Cuban expatriate, Almendros had previously worked with Truffaut on several films and was added to the crew very early in production so that he had input on creative decisions. The resulting piece won Benton both Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars and put him on the map as one of the most sought after writer/directors of the day.
Hoffman also landed an Academy Award for his remarkable performance. According to Vincent Canby's New York Times film review, "Mr. Hoffman is splendid in one of the two or three best roles of his career. It's a delicately witty performance, funny and full of feeling that never slops into the banal." This win was his first Best Actor Oscar despite three other nominations for his performances in The Graduate (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1969), and Lenny (1974). It was also said that Hoffman assisted with the editing and many of the rewrites on Kramer vs. Kramer.
Starring opposite Hoffman as Joanna Kramer, Meryl Streep transformed her minor role into a major performance and won unanimous praise from the critics, just as she had the previous year in The Deer Hunter (1978), which won the actress her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Originally the film's producers wanted Kate Jackson from Charlie's Angels for the part of the mother. They believed Streep would work best for Phyllis, the character JoBeth Williams ended up playing, because she had never carried a cinematic lead despite several popular theater and supporting film roles. "In their thinking, Meryl was not yet a bankable enough commodity to play Hoffman's wife," author Diana Maychick wrote in her biography, Meryl Streep. So Streep met with Benton and Hoffman to audition for the part of Phyllis four days after her wedding to sculptor Donald J. Gummer. Once they saw her, however, they thought she was absolutely perfect for the role of Joanna.
Streep ended up rewriting most of her part to make her character more sympathetic, including her entire courtroom speech. She did "research" by reading women's magazines and talking to her mother. Hoffman reportedly thought she was trying to upstage him and argued with her over many of the changes. Eventually though, she won him over and Joanna was made into a much more sympathetic and complex character. Hoffman later told Maychick, "Yes I hated her guts, but I respected her." He realized that Streep "was not fighting for herself, but for the scene. She sticks with her guns and doesn't let anyone mess with her when she thinks she's right." Streep's performance earned her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for that year her first Academy Award.
Screen newcomer Justin Henry also received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Kramer vs. Kramer, making him the youngest actor ever to be nominated for any Oscar category. According to Susan Sackett in The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits, "Justin Henry was just six years old and a novice actor when he was signed for the part of Billy Kramer. He was selected from a field of over 200 candidates, with Dustin Hoffman helping to make the final selection for the right boy to play his son, even screen testing with 40 finalists before choosing Justin. The senior actor spent much time coaching the boy for their scenes together. "The first few days his concentration was horrible," said Hoffman, according to Inside Oscar. "He kept looking at the camera...by the third week, he was becoming an actor."
Producer: Stanley R. Jaffe
Director: Robert Benton
Screenplay: Robert Benton, based on the novel by Avery Corman
Cinematography: Nestor Almendros
Editing: Gerald B. Greenberg
Production Design: Paul Sylbert
Music: Herb Harris, John Kander
Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Ted Kramer), Meryl Streep (Joanna Kramer), Justin Henry (Billy Kramer), Jane Alexander (Margaret Phelps), Howard Duff (John Shaunessy), George Coe (Jim O'Connor), JoBeth Williams (Phyllis Bernard), Bill Moor (Gressen).
by E. Lacey Rice
Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)
Awards and Honors:
Kramer vs. Kramer was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won five. It received Best Picture (Stanley Jaffe), Best Director (Robert Benton), Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep) and Best Screenplay Adapted from another Medium (Robert Benton). Its remaining four nominations were for Best Film Editing (Gerald Greenberg), Best Cinematography (Nestor Almendros), Best Supporting Actress (Jane Alexander) and Best Supporting Actor (Justin Henry).
It also won the Csar (French Academy Award) for Best Foreign Film (Robert Benton) and The Golden Globes, The New York Film Critics Circle and The Los Angeles Film Critics Association's awards for Best Motion Picture (Drama), Best Film and Best Picture, respectively. Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep won Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress from The Golden Globes, The Kansas City Film Critics Circle, The New York Film Critics Circle and The Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
The Critics' Corner on KRAMER VS KRAMER
"Columbia Pictures has the perfect Christmas offering. Kramer vs. Kramer is a perceptive, touching, intelligent film about one of the raw sores of contemporary America, the dissolution of the family unit. It's a tribute to writer-director Robert Benton, along with leads Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Justin Henry, that Kramer is about people, not abstract stereotypes." - Variety, November, 1979.
"Kramer vs. Kramer is a rare movie that finds its tone, its focus and its poetry in its very first image. The image: a close-up of an anguished woman, her face surrounded by darkness. The shot is so intimate that the audience at first yearns for some relief. But the relief never really comes. Kramer vs. Kramer is composed almost entirely of actors' faces, of intense passions and of winter light." - Frank Rich, Time Magazine, December, 1979.
"This is an important movie for Robert Benton, who co-wrote Bonnie and Clyde  and also wrote and directed Bad Company  and The Late Show . He spends a great deal of attention on the nuances of dialog: His characters aren't just talking to each other, they're revealing things about themselves and can sometimes be seen in the act of learning about their own motives. That's what makes Kramer vs. Kramer such a touching film: We get the feeling at times that personalities are changing and decisions are being made even as we watch them" - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, December, 1979
"Kramer vs. Kramer is a Manhattan movie, yet it seems to speak for an entire generation of middle-class Americans who came to maturity in the late 60's and early 70's, sophisticated in superficial ways but still expecting the fulfillment of promises made in the more pious Eisenhower era...Kramer vs. Kramer is one of those rare American movies that never have to talk importantly and self-consciously to let you know that it has to do with many more things than are explicitly stated. It's about fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and most particularly, perhaps, about the failed expectations of a certain breed of woman in this day and age...Though much of Kramer vs. Kramer is occupied with the growing relationship between the abandoned father and son, through tantrums and reconciliations and playground accidents, the central figure is that of the movingly, almost dangerously muddled mother, played by Miss Streep in what is one of the major performances of the year." - Vincent Canby, The New York Times, December, 1979
Not all reviews were glowing. Cineaste Magazine said the movie, "keeps under tight control the despair and chaos inherent in the mother's abandonment of her husband and child, never probing into the nature of the marriage, and instead emphasizes the growing warmth and love of the father-son relationship. And although its treatment of marital breakdown and sex role reversal has some complexity and sophistication, the film nevertheless ends up affirming traditional family values and commitments."
"...intelligent, beautifully crafted, intensely moving film..." - Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide
Compiled by Greg Ferrara