Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Four decades before <i>Marriage Story</i>, a quintessential divorce drama swept the Oscars

Four decades before Marriage Story, a quintessential divorce drama swept the Oscars

Photo: Photo: Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

The Popcorn Champs

The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?

The opening scenes of Kramer Vs. Kramer, the highest-grossing film of 1979, play out like a horror movie. Dustin Hoffman’s Ted Kramer is a cheerfully oblivious ad exec. The term “yuppie” wasn’t in use yet, but Ted is one. He’s on an upward trajectory at work, and he hangs out at the office long after the day is done, bullshitting with his boss. Even the music—a cheerful, sprightly Vivaldi piece—is familiar and welcoming. But one evening, as the movie opens, Ted comes home and learns that his life is over.

In one gut-ripping scene, Ted’s wife Joanna tells him that she’s leaving him, and that she’s leaving their kid, too. Meryl Streep, playing Joanna, has a quiet and tender moment with her son Billy as she’s putting him to bed, but then she’s all business. Streep is emotional, but she’s brusque as well. It’s immediately clear that she’s not going to change her mind. (The scene may be the first recorded use of the phrase “It’s not you, it’s me.”) And she’s just as insistent that she’s not going to live as a mother anymore either: “I have no patience. He’s better off without me.” As a moment of family rupture, it’s nearly as traumatic as anything in The Exorcist. Before the movie is 10 minutes in, the Kramer clan is no more.

After that bracing opening, Kramer Vs. Kramer becomes a lot of different things. For most of its running time, it’s a chamber-piece drama, with Ted getting to know his kid and figuring out how to be a father. Some moments are devastating, like the one where Ted screams at Billy when he blunders into a stupid battle of wills over ice cream, or the one where he rushes Billy to an emergency room after the kid falls off a jungle gym. (They didn’t have those rubbery-foam floors at 1979 playgrounds.) Other parts, like Billy running into Ted’s naked date (Jobeth Williams) late at night in their apartment and asking her if she likes fried chicken, are genuinely funny.

But the film has one more horror-movie moment. Ted has just started to learn how to be a real father—how to really enjoy his kid—when the camera catches Streep, watching the two of them from a cafe window across the street. It’s like Michael Myers suddenly popping up . Once again, Streep’s Joanna will attempt to destroy the family, taking Ted to court and demanding custody of Billy.

It’s odd to think that a movie this serious and heavy and small could ever be a blockbuster, especially only two years after Star Wars changed the general idea of how blockbusters worked. But Kramer Vs. Kramer became a cultural phenomenon. It swept the major Oscar categories, earning Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, and Adapted Screenplay. It also earned more than $100 million, easily besting spectacle-heavy flicks like Rocky 2, Apocalypse Now, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The success of Kramer Vs. Kramer says as much about 1979 as it does about the film itself.

By the time he took the lead role in Kramer Vs. Kramer, Dustin Hoffman had become a generational movie star, a mantle he’d taken on after helping The Graduate capture the zeitgeist in 1967. Hoffman cemented his stardom with Midnight Cowboy in 1969, and he spent the ’70s as a sort of baby-boomer everyman, taking on previous generations’ corruption and evil in roles like All The President’s Men and Marathon Man. In Kramer Vs. Kramer, Hoffman once again plays a stand-in for the entire baby boom. This was intentional.

Kramer Vs. Kramer was adapted from a 1977 novel by Avery Corman, who’d written it in part to fight back against the rising tide of feminism. “It was too overheated about men,” Corman later said of that moment. So he wrote this book about a good father dealing with a bad mother in “an attempt to redress a wrong.” Kramer Vs. Kramer co-producer Richard Fischoff got ahold of the novel before publication and, according to this great Vanity Fair piece, imagined it as a “spiritual sequel” to The Graduate, an account of what might’ve become of that film’s Benjamin and Elaine a decade after they fled from the church and attempted to make a life together. That’s why Dustin Hoffman had to be the lead.

Hoffman was going through his own divorce at the time. He was not alone. Between 1960 and 1980, the divorce rate more than doubled. In 1970, California, under governor Ronald Reagan, became the first state to legalize the no-fault divorce, making it possible to end a marriage without showing wrongdoing on either side. (Reagan later said that he regretted signing that bill into law.) Kramer Vs. Kramer hit the way it did because it spoke to a particular generation’s fear, anxiety, and anger.

The movie is dated, of course. It has to be. It’s built on the idea of the traditional family home, where the father works and the mother stays home with the kids. That was changing by 1979, but it was still considered the norm. After his wife leaves him, Ted jokes with his boss about “women’s lib.” When his boss advises him to go send the kid to live with someone else since he’ll have to focus on work, Ted says that nothing will stop him from getting the job done, when a more principled figure might’ve quit on the spot. He does plenty of things in the movie that would look unconscionably dickish from any father now.

In fact, the film was dated even when it came out. In a New York Times piece that ran just after the movie’s opening, a series of legal experts bemoan the way the movie’s court case is depicted. The two parents never even consider the idea of joint custody. The judge never tries to figure out what the kid wants. One New York State Supreme Court Justice says, “It’s too bad that the legal profession was portrayed as 50 years behind the times.”

So Kramer Vs. Kramer is a truthiness movie. It’s not that the film offered a realistic portrait of a divorced couple in 1979. It’s that the film’s image of that couple felt realistic at the time. That’s especially the case with the bullshit clanger of a conclusion: Joanna, seeing how good Ted is with Billy, decides that she doesn’t want custody after all, and that she’ll just go and say goodbye instead. It’s a transparent Hollywood ending for a film that had, mostly successfully, presented itself as a social-realist drama. And yet even with that ending, Kramer Vs. Kramer works as a film.

This is, at least in part, because it’s extremely well-made. When you’re watching it, it doesn’t feel like some proto-Men’s Rights polemic. Writer/director Robert Benton, previously best-known for co-writing Bonnie And Clyde, keeps the pacing brisk and propulsive, allowing for small moments but never wallowing too much in the misery of the situations. Francois Truffaut’s cinematographer, Néstor Almendros, captures the cramped claustrophobia of New York offices and the airy beauty of Central Park. And the performances are incredible.

The film owes much of its resonance to Meryl Streep. She later claimed that she told Benton and Hoffman, while auditioning, that Joanna was a one-dimensional evil character and that the script would need to be rewritten if she was going to be in the film. A veteran stage actor, Streep had only just started appearing in films at that point, but she understood how to give her character depth and nuance, even rewriting her big courtroom scene to give context to Joanna’s decisions: “I have worked very, very hard to become a whole human being, and I really don’t think I should be punished for that.” In her performance, Streep makes it clear that Joanna was a trapped, desperate, depressed woman who needed to make some changes in her life if she was going to survive. The film needs the depth and the urgency that she brings.

Streep and Dustin Hoffman still don’t get along, and they never worked together again after Kramer Vs. Kramer. There are many, many stories about all the shitty things that Hoffman did to Streep as they were making the film. Hoffman, a method-acting devotee, pulled all sorts of moves, thinking these would draw more intense emotional reactions from Streep. He slapped her before a scene. He smashed a glass against a restaurant wall without telling her beforehand, getting shards in her hair. He groped her. He taunted Streep with the name of her longtime boyfriend, John Cazale, who had died of lung cancer just before she’d taken the role. He was a real piece of work.

Watching the film now, it’s hard to separate those Hoffman stories from his character, especially when Ted Kramer is fuming at his wife for having the gall to leave him on the day he’s learned he’s about to get promoted. But Hoffman’s actual acting in the movie is beautiful. He makes Ted a full, nuanced human being, committing to both his early cluelessness and the graceful warmth that eventually creeps in. There are some moments, in that courtroom scene, where Hoffman and Streep both do incredible things with their eyes. And Hoffman, crucially, also had chemistry with Justin Henry, the 8-year-old little boy who played Billy.

Henry didn’t go on to have a huge career after Kramer Vs. Kramer (although he also appeared in John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles), but he’s great in the movie. He’s an adorable little moppet, just like every other ’70s child actor, but he also underplays things, reacting with the quiet passivity that some kids have. I’m not sure how real his dialogue is. In my experience, a genuine kid would’ve spent like half an hour at dinner every night asking Ted which Brady Bunch character was his favorite. But Henry sells Billy’s angelic quiet. In the big emotional moments, when Henry’s entire face crumples up, it’s devastating. (Hoffman, of course, told Henry terrible and borderline-abusive things to get him to react like that, which is horrible. But I guess it worked.)

Today, Justin Henry remains the youngest actor ever nominated for an Oscar. He earned it. Henry lost the award to Being There’s Melvyn Douglas. (He should’ve lost it to Apocalypse Now’s Robert Duvall.) According to that Vanity Fair piece, Henry totally came unglued at the ceremony when he didn’t win, and Christopher Reeve, one of the only movie stars that Henry recognized, had to come over and comfort him. Hoffman and Streep both won Oscars, and Streep competed in her category against another Kramer Vs. Kramer star: Jane Alexander, great as the neighbor who advises Joanna to leave and then becomes Ted’s best friend.

Unless you want to get cute and cite something like E.T. or Mrs. Doubtfire, there aren’t a lot of movies about divorce. Marriage Story, which is clearly inspired by Kramer Vs. Kramer and has a shot at winning many of the same Oscars this weekend, is a relative rarity. Maybe Kramer Vs. Kramer, for all its glaring flaws, told the story as well as it could be told, figuring out the tricky balance between entertainment and emotional bloodletting. The closest companion piece to Kramer Vs. Kramer might be The Amityville Horror, the No. 2 highest grosser of 1979. It says something that the year’s two biggest hits were both fraught, intense tales about families coming undone.

In its own way, Kramer Vs. Kramer is just as much about dealing with the fallout of the ’60s as Star Wars or Grease were. In the case of Kramer Vs. Kramer, it’s a generation attempting to negotiate the new freedoms that could sometimes seem oppressive or an evolving social order that must’ve sometimes felt like it had been flipped upside down. Maybe its success reflects a creeping unease with that new freedom, a quiet conservatism that would help Ronald Reagan win the presidency less than a year after the film opened. But Kramer Vs. Kramer, fraught as it often is, isn’t escapism. It’s an attempt to tell a complicated story without looking away from the tough parts. Plenty of movies would do that in the years ahead. But after 1979, not too many of them would be blockbusters.

The contender: A different kind of claustrophobic, visceral angst is at the heart of Ridley Scott’s Alien, the No. 6 picture at the 1979 box office. Almost everything about Alien is perfect: the expertly ratcheting-up tension, the clammily tangible sense of place, and the cast jammed with wildly charismatic character actors. Even when you know everything that’s about to happen, the film yanks you around mercilessly. It lets you hang out with the working grunts on the ship, absorbing their conversational rhythms and getting to know them, before forcing them to confront something from the horrible unknown and ruthlessly dispatching them.

Alien owes much of its power to Sigourney Weaver, Meryl Streep’s former Yale classmate. Like Streep in Kramer Vs. Kramer, Weaver takes a character who might’ve been a mere sketch in another actor’s hands, invests her with need and intensity and personality, and vastly improves everything happening around her. Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley is a paragon of strength and resourcefulness, and she launched a franchise and became an icon.

Next time: The Empire Strikes Back builds on the success of Star Wars, adding plot twists and complexity while retaining the kids’-adventure glee of the first movie.