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Best Supporting Actress Meryl Streep didn’t support squat in this Oscar winner

Photo: Columbia Pictures

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The Dark Knight takes on the Man Of Steel. Before picking sides in that title fight, check out these films about showdowns.

Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)

The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, in its infinite and highly arbitrary wisdom, gave Dustin Hoffman the Best Actor award for his performance in 1979’s Kramer Vs. Kramer, and declared Meryl Streep the Best Supporting Actress. And it’s true that Hoffman gets plenty more screentime than his distaff costar, so perhaps the ruling’s not entirely unfair. But as the two halves of one failing marriage, both actors travel a fully developed emotional arc and hold equal dramatic heft in this excruciating dual character study. Robert Benton’s adaption of Avery Corman’s novel of the same name primarily revolves around determining whether men and women are capable of performing work that society historically assigns to the opposite gender. A single workaholic can learn how to raise a boy with patience and care, a woman trapped by domesticity can break free and pursue her passions to the fullest extent, and both actors could carry this brutal pas de deux of high-wire dramatic acting. Calling Streep “supporting” practically qualifies as an insult; Joanna Kramer puts herself through hell to ensure that she’ll never become an accessory to a man’s story ever again.

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The film begins in earnest with Streep’s Joanna taking an abrupt leave of her husband and child. As she puts it, she was driven away by a pattern of condescension, disinterest, and marital negligence from her Ted (Hoffman), but that’s for the lawyers to decide. The first half follows a rather predictable schematic as company man Ted scrambles to figure out just how this whole “being a parent” gig actually works; a disastrous attempt to whip up some French toast before school speaks volumes. (“You want the shells in there, that makes it crunchy.”) When Ted and the film get a little too comfortable with the life of single fatherhood, Joanna breezes back into their lives to exercise her rights as a mother and reclaim the son she abandoned the previous year, which is where the movie truly takes shape. Kramer Vs. Kramer exists for the sake of its grueling courtroom scenes, where their respective attorneys unleash vicious character assassinations in the hope of defaming their opponents out of custody. Nothing’s off-limits—not errant phrases whispered in confidence, not sexual history, and not deliberately hurtful invective designed to reduce whoever’s taken the stand to a gelatinous blob of guilt and self-loathing. Mercifully, the Kramers’ lawyers stop just short of forcing the ex-couple’s grade-school son to testify, but by that point, plenty of irreparable damage has been done.

Few films have depicted the deleterious effects of societally imposed gender roles with such brutal fidelity. Nearly 40 years later, mainstream culture still roundly rejects the notion that some women would rather go through life without experiencing motherhood, or that men can capably raise a child all by their lonesome. Both Ted and Joanna sabotage themselves by doing the things they feel they ought to, rather than want to. If it wasn’t for the horrendous glasses, this could’ve come out last week. Isn’t getting a ballpark figure of sexual partners still the go-to move for lawyers looking to denigrate a woman’s character?

Availability: Kramer Vs. Kramer is available on Blu-ray or DVD from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital streaming services.

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