Dustin Hoffman is short. He’s really short. In Kramer vs. Kramer he has a six year old son and it looks as though his son will be hovering over dad within a year max. Too bad height doesn’t determine one’s acting chops. Otherwise I’d be a decent actor. Hoffman puts on one of his finest performances in the 1979 Oscar winner. He wins a little gold trophy as does his counterpart, Meryl Streep. Not bad, and all in a film where melodrama could easily trump the natural drama in which a barely there father becomes an only parent overnight thanks to his wife walking out on him and his son.
Ted (Dustin Hoffman) is making his way up the corporate ladder at an advertising firm. He’s landing and managing ever larger accounts. Meanwhile his wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep), and son, Billy (Justin Henry), hardly make it on the ad man’s radar. Joanna decides she’s had enough and abruptly walks out on her husband and child. Ted is convinced this is an irrational act committed in anger, she’ll be back in a matter of hours. She never shows and Ted begins to realize what life is like as a single parent.
The driver in the two first acts of the film are that of Ted and Billy getting to at first know one another on the level of a healthy father and son relationship, followed up by a growing bond between the two. In between the developing relationship between he and his son, Ted wrestles with balancing his work with his new found responsibilities. The daunting nature of the challenge is hard to miss. The breaking points are in the smallest of moments early on when Ted is still coming to grips with having to care for Billy without any help.
Unlike many modern day dramas, Kramer vs. Kramer uses very little music to signal the emotional cues. In place of a sweeping, sappy soundtrack is an incredible set of performances by Hoffman, Streep, and even Justin Henry as Billy. Most child actors in this type of film fall into the trap of being overly emotional in response to the situation or serving as comic relief, but Henry’s performance never does either. He is a child coping with the loss of his mom and adjusting to life with a father he hardly knows.
The courtroom drama that drives the last third of the film, and earns it its title, does tend to swing an emotional hammer in intense questioning between lawyers and the two parents. The scenes are believable and convey the outrage felt by this mother and father fighting over the custody of their child. The case seems sealed and shut from the viewer’s perspective, which makes the outcome a punch to the gut.
If you’re feeling down about your own parenting, want to watch two of the finest actors alive today give landmark performances, or simply want to feel taller, Kramer vs. Kramer is a can’t miss film.