(Stanley Jaffe Productions)
The reentrance of family dramas into film was gradual, with such romantic melodramas as The Turning Point or Paul Mazursky’s socially relevant comedy An Unmarried Woman. But it was Robert Benton’s Kramer Vs. Kramer, the 1979 Oscar-winner, which gave legitimacy and definition to the new cycle of family pictures.
The cycle lasted about four years, the average duration of a film cycle, during which two other films won, Ordinary People and Terms of Endearment, and five others were nominated, Breaking Away, Coal Miner’s Daughter, On Golden Pond, Tender Mercies, and Places in the Heart.
Like other films which started cycles, no one associated with Kramer’s production initially expected such an extraordinary success, and the film’s carefully designed advertising campaigns, using different posters for different target audiences, prove this point. Nonetheless, based on Avery Corman’s novel, it was a timely film, describing the confusion of many women who wanted to establish a firm identity, independent of their roles as wives-mothers. Beautifully shot on location in Manhattan, it featured a great cast, headed by Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep as the splitting couple, Justin Henry as their son, and Jane Alexander, as their sympathetic neighbor. All four were nominated for their performances, with Hoffman and Streep winning.
The 1979 writing awards were divided between Kramer, which won best adapted screenplay, and Breaking Away, Peter Yates’s family comedy set in working class Bloomington, winning original screenplay for Steve Tesitch.
The new screen woman is concerned not only with her career, but also with asserting herself as a worthy human being whose status neither derives from nor entirely depends on her marital and familial roles. Meryl Streep won a supporting Oscar in the role of Joanna Kramer in Kramer Vs. Kramer, a young woman who walks out on her self-absorbed husband, leaving him the responsibility of raising their 6-year-old son alone. She is depicted as a confused woman, deeply dissatisfied with her mother-wife chores, but not as a career woman. She has a profession, but her dilemmas are not confined to career frustrations.
Kramer Vs. Kramer was the first major Hollywood movie to deal with a married woman who deserts her family in order “to find herself” and to regain her self-worth. Further, in sharp departure from previous cinematic conventions, she willingly gives up her son, after winning a cruel custody battle, telling her ex-husband: “I came here to take my son home, and I realized he already is home.” The movie also changed the traditional image of the husband-father, played by Dustin Hoffman, who won Best Actor. Ted Kramer starts as a tense, egotistic advertising executive, so engrossed in his career that he neglects his family and forbids his wife to work. But he is capable of changing and, by the film’s end, he is transformed into a loving, caring father who has learned the lessons of parenthood.
Looking back, Kramer Vs. Kramer was a message picture, a soap-opera melodrama, which suggested that a man can be a good parent, too, under pressure and with the right motivation. It is one of the weakest films to have won the Best Picture Award in Oscar’s history.
Oscar Nominations: 9
Picture, produced by Stanley R. Jaffe
Director: Robert Benton
Screenplay (Adapted): Robert Benton
Actor: Dustin Hoffman
Supporting Actress: Meryl Streep
Supporting Actress: Jane Alexander
Supporting Actor: Justin Henry
Cinematography: Nestor Almendros
Film Editing: Jerry Greenberg
Oscar Awards: 5
In 1979, two movies received 9 nominations: “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” which won five Oscars, including Best Picture, and Bob Fosse’s dark musical, “All That Jazz,” which received four technical awards.
The other three nominees were Coppola’s Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now,” the comedy Breaking Away,” and the socially-conscious drama “Norma Rae,” for which Sally Field received her first Best Actress Oscar.