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Kramer vs Kramer (1979)
There are three sides to this love story.
Filmmaker(s): Robert Benton

Ted Kramer is a career man for whom his work comes before his family. His wife Joanna cannot take this anymore, so she decides to leave him. Ted is now faced with the tasks of housekeeping and taking care of himself and their young son Billy.

Kramer vs Kramer (1979)

Split Decision

This drama is considered successful. I think it is not because it tells us anything special, or that the characters are particularly worthy.

I believe it is because of the way the narrative is constructed. It has two arcs.

One of these has the husband establishing the world. We follow only him, spending time understanding what he is about and how he adapts. Against this domestic environment, the wife has only one speech. This is in a cafe. She tells us ahead of time that it is a speech that she has prepared and practiced. This is purely within the real world. Since we are presented the man’s world only, this insight-by-reactive-speech is unbalanced. We strive to understand. In the end, she succumbs to the guy’s reality.

By itself, this narrative arc would be insufficient.

The second arc is the trial. We know courtrooms in film. We know what they mean. They place us as the jury. We cannot leave the theater without making a judgement. In this, our woman also has only one speech.

What makes this work, I believe, is how one layer is imposed on the other. It works less well today that when it was new. In part this is because we’ve worn out the power of the courtroom genre. When this was fresh, the simple appearance of the place and its rituals would be enough to convey an entire narrative dynamic.

The other is that when it was new, it was a novel idea that a woman could have her own inner life. Believe me, this was true. So the unusual nature of her leaving and her speeches provided a balance because they were so extraordinary. The insertion of a “sexually liberated” woman to sleep once with Hoffman’s character — and the fact that she was a lawyer — underscored this urge.

But today, that balancing mechanism is gone. We see today a film about a guy and not a marriage. The balanced dynamic between the two people is gone. The balanced dynamic between the two story arcs is gone as well.

Posted in 2010

Ted’s Evaluation — 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.


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