81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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Kramer vs. Kramer

October 11th, 2009 · No Comments · 1979, Adaptation, Color, Columbia Pictures, Drama, Dustin Hoffman, Kramer vs Kramer, Meryl Streep, Mid-Point, Plot Point I, Plot Point II, Screenplay Structure

Kramer vs. Kramer Kramer vs. Kramer, the three-hanky movie that pits the sizable talents of Meryl Streep against those of Dustin Hoffman (on opposite sides of a custody battle for the divorcing couple’s son), is a well-constructed film that still holds up some 30 years after it was released.

In fact, some scenes – like the “French-toast scene” – are iconic, talked about by fans and critics alike…and analyzed in great detail by screenwriting gurus such as Robert McKee.

Before I do a little analyzing of my own, I want to point out a scene that made me chuckle: 4:41 into the movie, Ted Kramer (Hoffman) and his boss stroll the sidewalk at night. The movie’s sprightly theme song, which opened the movie, plays under their conversation as they walk. Suddenly, they pass two street musicians who are the very people playing said sprightly theme song. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that kind of a visual joke in a movie before.

I have mixed emotions about Kramer vs. Kramer. Meryl Streep’s character, Joanna Kramer, starts the movie as a whiny, emotionally fragile woman who walks out on her son and husband. Frankly, I have no sympathy for her. Walking out on a husband is one thing. But walking out on one’s own child is something else entirely. So from the get-go I’m taking sides, preferring one Kramer over the other.

Screenplay Structure – Kramer vs. Kramer

ACT I

Inciting Incident: Happens in the first minutes of the movie when Joanna Kramer walks out on her husband and son. That sets the movie in motion and is, in fact, the movie’s reason for existence. If she had not walked out, there would be no Kramer vs. Kramer.

Plot Point I: 34:40 into the movie Ted’s boss chews him out for being late to the meeting a couple scenes prior to this one. Usually, Point Point I appears before 30 minutes into a movie, typically around 25-28 minutes in. This time, however, Plot Point I shows up nearly five minutes after the 30-minute mark.

Act II

Mid Point: Although the scene of Billy falling off the jungle gym and bleeding all over the place also happens near the mid point of the movie, that doesn’t suffice as a mid point in my book. It doesn’t spin the movie in a different direction, or keep the audience guessing what happens next. It seemed to be an isolated incident. The real mid point happens at 52:08 (precisely the mid point of the movie!) when Ted picks up the ringing phone in his office and says, “Joanna?” The two meet at a restaurant. The reason why this is the mid point is because this event is a major turning point, the thing needed in Act II to keep the audience watching. When Ted gets the call from Joanna, the audience first wonders if the couple will reconcile. Then, when it’s obvious they won’t, the audience wonders what’ll happen next.

Plot Point II: Occurs at One hour and 34 minutes, 22 seconds into the film. Ted Kramer walks into a bar to meet with his attorney, John Shaunessy. Ted looks at John and immediately knows, “I lost it.” Yes. The judge awarded custody of Billy Kramer to Joanna. This is a major turning point. Now what will happen? Will Ted appeal? Will Joanna have a change of heart? This is a brilliant Plot Point II. It keeps the audience on the edge of its seat.

Act III

A very short Act in Kramer vs. Kramer. In fact, only about 10 minutes in length. Of course, Meryl Streep cried her eyes out again. Given all the crying she had to do in the film, I’m surprised she had any tears left.

I always enjoy watching behind-the-scenes features. But the one on this DVD was especially informative. Lots of scenes were improvised. Some were a surprise even to the actor(s) and crew involved (like when Dustin slams th wine glass against the wall in the restaurant; Meryl didn’t know he was going to do that).

The Cast
Dustin Hoffman (1937- )………………..Ted Kramer
Meryl Streep (1949- )……………………..Joanna Kramer
Jane Alexander (1939- )………………….Margaret Phelps
Justin Henry (1971- )……………………..Billy Kramer
Howard Duff (1913-1990)……………….John Shaunessy
George Coe (?-?)…………………………….Jim O’Connor
JoBeth Williams (1948- )………………….Phyllis Bernard
Bill Moor (1931-2007)…………………….Gressen

Production Crew
Directed By
Robert Benton (1932- )

Writing Credits
Avery Corman (1935- ), (novel)
Robert Benton, 1932- ), (written by)

Kramer vs. Kramer was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won five: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Dustin Hoffman), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Meryl Streep), Best Director (Robert Benton), Best Picture, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Robert Benton). The little boy who played Billy (Justin Henry) was nominated as Best Actor in a Supporting Role, which made him (at age eight) the youngest nominee for a competitive award in Academy history.

Apparently, this film was influential in changing divorce laws, which almost always favored the mother in custody battles. Thanks to Kramer vs. Kramer, so says the people interviewed for the making-of, more fathers than ever before were given custody.

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