In 1979, Columbia Pictures released Robert Benton’s film Kramer Vs. Kramer. Almost immediately the film became a hit, and even garnered Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. In the years following, Kramer Vs. Kramer achieved a “classic” status on home video, becoming a regular on the family film circuit at video stores and on television. All that said, a closer analysis of the film reveals that the film paints a rather unflattering portrait of feminism.
Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979) presents and examines the “effects” of feminism on the American family unit to the mainstream of American cinema (albeit from a white male perspective). Of course, the ramifications of feminism had long been the subjects of American films, though those had mostly been small studio efforts, independents or underground films. For the most part, feminism had only been articulated from the perspective of the woman in the family unit, most successfully in Barbara Loden’s landmark Wanda (1970) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969). Focusing an entire feature on the perspective of a male in a feminist film defeats the purpose, though an ensemble approach was taken in John Cassavetes’ film A Woman Under The Influence (1974). However, the male protagonist Nick in Cassavetes’ film is primarily secondary and does not make all of the apologies that define the character Ted (Dustin Hoffman) in Kramer Vs. Kramer.
Following Joanna’s (Meryl Streep) departure, Ted begins apologizing to his son that he enforced the accepted sociological responsibilities and stereotypes onto his wife. The more Ted realizes that his behavior had suppressed Joanna, the more he himself adopts the very behavior he had tried to enforce upon her. The problem with this is that it vilifies feminism. Kramer Vs. Kramer consistently advocates the adherence of the sexes to the sociological archetypes that dominated the family unit in the wake of WWII. To be a success, Ted must behave as the archetypal male at work and as a surrogate mother at home. The catalyst for this division of Ted’s persona is the abandonment of his wife, who has suddenly decided to “heed the call of feminism”.
The film goes even further to vilainize feminism when the narrative reintroduces Joanna as she carries out a custody battle with Ted over their son Billy (Justin Henry). Since the film is designed to bestow the audience’s sympathies upon Ted, he signifies, along with Billy, the American family unit. Since Joanna’s actions are portrayed as selfish, and they clearly stand in the way of Ted and Billy’s success as a family, one must assume that feminism (represented by Joanna) is the antagonist of the film.
During the custody battle in court Joanna’s testimony is restricted to the pseudo-vernacular of the nuclear family as defined by psychologists in the 1950s. Though this could be explained away as some sort of narrative fluidity, these scenes neglect to articulate the feminist perspective. In this case, feminism has no voice, and is simply relegated to being just a motive whose deeper meanings and ramifications as they pertain to Joanna are entirely ignored.
The conflicts that arise from Joanna’s custody battle, particularly Ted’s search for a new job, further the positive image of corporate America and conservative politics. This conservative idealism the filmmakers put forth in these scenes lack the stylization and Romanticism of a filmmaker like Frank Capra from the 30s who dealt with similar themes in a number of genre films. Instead, Benton opts to follow a stylistic approach closer to 70s American realism. Without the tenacity of a cohesive and plastic style, Kramer Vs. Kramer comes across as deceptive. The film moves covertly to make its political points and convey its conservative message, neglecting a number of American cinematic traditions that extend beyond Capra to Chaplin, Keaton, Hawks and Ford.
Realism, at least what passes for realism in Kramer Vs. Kramer, is hardly grounded in the world the audience inhabits. Yet, the film settles for the pretense that it is. Thusly lulling the audience into a state of suspended belief that is designed to instill in that same audience a series of conservative ideologies. If one were to compare Ted to Nick in A Woman Under The Influence, the differences between actual realism and “assumed” realism becomes clear. Though the scenes in A Woman Under The Influence in which Nick is left alone to take care of his children only make up one fifth of the entire film, they more accurately portray the situation both he and Ted find themselves in. In an attempt to entertain his children, Nick and a co-worker take the children to the beach in the winter. There is little dialogue, mostly just Nick trying to control his kids because he cannot engage them in the fantasy world their mother created. Still Nick stubbornly tries to bond with his kids on the same deep level his wife had. All Nick can think to do is to share some beer with his children. Both Nick and Ted are working men, yuppies, disengaged from the inner world of their children. What Cassavetes does in ten minutes takes Robert Benton forty minutes to merely suggest.
Examining all these different components, the evidence appears indicative of an anti-feminist agenda at work in Kramer Vs. Kramer. It isn’t surprising that the perspectives at work in Kramer Vs. Kramer aren’t what they should be considering the political climate at the time under the Carter administration. At best, Kramer Vs. Kramer begins to articulate the inner emotional strife a child experiences during a divorce.