TNR Film Classic: 'Kramer vs. Kramer' (1979)

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BOOKS AND ARTS DECEMBER 2, 2011

TNR Film Classic: 'Kramer vs. Kramer' (1979)

Last week a note on what a pair of good actors can do for a weak romantic script. This week a look at what a crackerjack cast—first-class all the way—can do for a middling contemporary drama. Kramer vs. Kramer, based on a novel by Avery Corman, was written by Robert Benton who also directed. I don’t know the book: the script tells, in lithe dialogue, the story of a New York couple who split. The struggle is not about the divorce, which as such is never glimpsed, it’s about the custody of their small son. The drawing of the characters is adequate, possibly excepting the wife who is off screen a good deal of the time. Her inner crisis, which is why she leaves, and her recovery are more matters of report than enactment. All the people go through expected difficulties the way that runners take the hurdles in a track event: no surprise in it, it’s just a question of how they do it. The anatomy and engagement of the script are those of a television drama bellying up to reality.

But the actors make it more. It’s an old plaint of critics that good actors do much of the writing for lesser authors, fleshing out characters that have only been sketched. That’s not quite the case here. As written, Benton’s characters are clear enough but are a set of samples. The actors provide the dimensions of travail and grief, and of humor, that turn commonplace incidents of fiction into unique yet representative experiences.

Dustin Hoffman, the husband, is back in form—a new and better form, in fact. Early in his film career he was splendid in The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy; then he began to seesaw between sleeping and waking—comatose in Papillon and John Loves Mary, for instance, awake in Unny and Agatha. And in Straight Time he leaned on a kind of screen presence, strong and silent, that he doesn’t have. (He does have his own kind.) In Kramer his role is uncomplicated, a man of likes and dislikes carefully arranged to make him both individual and “average”; but Hoffman burns through the givens into the unknowns even in this “average” man. His playing with his child; his patience, true and enforced, with his child; his “office” affection for his boss; his genuine affection for the woman in the apartment below who helps him; his fight for his child, in an emergency operating room and in court—all these and more stab deeper than mere credibility to the community that good acting provides. Hoffman unites us with him and with one another, tacitly but well. And all of this is based on a furious energy, as it was in Lenny and Agatha: what I’d call the drive of a talented small man. It’s an energy that both James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson had in their own ways, an energy that probably has its source in psychic compensation but, in a gifted man, it quickly becomes authentic in itself.

To continue the old-star comparison: Meryl Streep, the wife, is today’s Bette Davis, or could be if there were now an equivalent film industry. Streep is first an actress, a much less mannered and self-centered actress than Davis but with Davis’s qualities of unconventional beauty and of reliance on acting as much as on starriness—the woman star who really acts and does it in differing roles. Think of Streep as the airy southern rich lawyer in The Seduction of Joe Tynan and as the supermarket worker in The Deer Hunter, sitting in the stock room stamping prices on items and crying softly. Age allowing, Davis could have done things like that.

But I vastly prefer Streep. In Kramer she plays a somewhat neurotic woman whose dissatisfaction with marriage drives her out, leaving her son, 10minutes into the film and who returns—about a film-hour later, I’d guess—when she has herself in hand and wants to reclaim her son. Obviously the brief appearance at the beginning had to be strong enough to make her a continuing presence and to give her a foothold after she returns. Streep handles this difficulty easily, by concentrating on the truth of the woman and by having the talent for that concentration. I’ve been waiting for some years now—nastily, I guess—for Streep to make a false move on stage or screen in widely varied characters. I’m still waiting. So much for nastiness.

There’s a traditional role in the theater dubbed “Charles, His Friend,” which of course has a female counterpart—the confidant(e) of the protagonist. Jane Alexander seems born to be an extraordinarily good “Charles.” I’ve seen her in a lot of plays and films, romantic or strident or maturely feminine roles, and in all of them she has lacked sex and shine—central and centering power. What she can supply is intelligence and, within domestic limits, reliable sensitivity. She has never been better than as the woman downstairs in Kramer—no standard soap-opera understanding “Charles” even by the new soap-opera standards, a reinforcer of the drama though not one of its pivots.

Howard Duff is a late bloomer—rebloomer, really. He reappeared (for me, anyway), after long absence, as the family doctor in A Wedding. Here, as Hoffman’s lawyer in the vicious custody fight, he enriches the screen. With gray wings on his head and an elegant gray moustache, with juicy voice and silver-headed cane, prowling the courtroom or sitting in a bar with an absolutely apt tumbler of neat whiskey before him. Duff embodies the Irish-American histrion who, in life even more than in the theater, has done much to brighten the landscape.

Even the small part of a woman in Hoffman’s advertising agency who spends a night with him is well cast. The attractive Jobeth Williams, now in the Off Broadway Ladyhouse Blues, has a comic scene to play naked: on the way to the bathroom she encounters Hoffman’s small son who is supposed to be asleep. Williams does it wittily.

And this brings us to a recurrent mystery/miracle. All through film history, some directors who have nothing else in common have been able to get good performances from children. I don’t mean from child stars like Rooney, Garland, Temple, O’Brien—small monsters who apparently were professional prenatally and could deliver. I mean directors who got good performances from children under 10 who never did anything else: Benoit-Levy (La Maternelle, Ballerina), De Sica (Bicycle Thief), Truffaut (The Wild Child), Ritt (Conrack)to name just a few. Now Benton’s name must be added. Justin Henry, about six when the film was started, had not acted before. With Benton’s help, and surely with Hoffman’s and Streep’s help, the boy goes through as wide a range of scenes as he could possibly be asked for, and he is true, absolutely true, every moment. He’s enchanting. And the mystery of how it’s done—which probably begins with a very acute casting sense, a “smell” of possible response and imagination—that mystery goes on.

Nestor Almendros, a master, did the cinematography, but he didn’t need to. Outside of the exquisite opening sequence, which begins with a burnished close-up of Streep, the cinematography could have been done adequately by any competent man. The music is mostly a Vivaldi mandolin concerto which is “planted” in the film by a shot of two New York street musicians playing it and which dresses the sound-track neatly. (Did you know that, in nice weather. Fifth Avenue at night is now a series of recital halls? In one shop doorway after another, soloists and various small groups play, for contributions.)

Benton’s direction must first be praised for his choice of actors and his collaboration with them. This is his first serious film: previously he directed Bad Company and The Late Show, both heavily comic. Here he’s dealing with heartbreak, even though it’s seen through a temper of quick comedy, and his hand is just and right. He does well with the interiors of scenes, the movement of actors and camera, the internal cuts. My one quarrel is with the overall editing, the joining of sequences. I’m always conscious of his cutting away for timelapses, beginning with an early insert of garbage trucks—after Streep walks out—to tell us that a night has passed. And too often, at the end of the sequence, Benton cuts or fades to black. This device, once common, is now relatively rare and should stay rare. No one wants to be jolted to consciousness of the screen itself while watching a film, unless that moment of black, that consciousness of the screen’s existence, is itself part of the film, as it sometimes has been in Bergman. I can’t remember any instance of black in Kramer where the film couldn’t simply have cut ahead to the next sequence, perhaps holding the opening shot of the new sequence a few frames longer to let us get our bearings.

But Benton has made a good vernacular film that, because of its acting and its urban detail more than its story or writing, is what I’d call a time-capsule work. Compare it with Woody Allen’s Manhattan which—funny lines, lush photography, and all—made an attempt at a large embrace of New York, an attempt to enclose its current styles and behavior in a paean to the city; and failed because of the script’s flickering vision and the cast’s inadequacies (except Meryl Steep, who was in that one, too). Benton’s film makes no attempt to sing the city, but it fastens so tight a grip on some city lives that the city they live in can’t escape. Put Kramer vs. Kramer, not Manhattan, in the time capsule, and if it is dug up centuries from now, it will report some truth about the city today—flavor, quirk, pain, and maneuver, and the wry comedy in which they all seem to be set.

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posted in: books and arts, film, new york, avery corman, bette davis, dustin hoffman, edward g. robinson, howard duff, james cagney, jane alexander, john loves mary, meryl streep, papillon loves, robert benton, kramer vs. kramer

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