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Film / Kramer vs. Kramer

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Ted Kramer: Margaret, I just need to know something. Did you put Joanna up to this?
Margaret Phelps: No, I did not put Joanna up to this.
Ted Kramer: Give her a little pep talk, maybe?
Margaret Phelps: Joanna is a very unhappy woman and it took a lot of courage to walk out this door.
Ted Kramer: How much courage does it take to walk out on your kid?

Adapted from the novel by Avery Corman, Kramer vs. Kramer follows the story of Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman). Ted's a workaholic who is not really involved in the domestic life of his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) and 6-year-old son Billy. He is forced to become involved immediately one day, when Joanna leaves him, forcing him to raise Billy alone. A year and a half pass before she finally returns to claim Billy; an emotional custody battle ensues.

This was 1979's Academy Award winner for Best Picture, and the film that earned Hoffman and Streep their first Oscars for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. Robert Benton's wins for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay brought the total to five. Her performance as Joanna is also widely considered Streep's Star-Making Role.

This film features examples of:

  • Adaptational Heroism: In the novel, Joanna is much more self-centered and narcissistic, whereas in the movie, she comes off as genuinely overwhelmed and unhappy and in need of help. This was because Meryl Streep thought the character as originally written was too unsympathetic, and the filmmakers agreed with her. (So did everybody else, if $106m return on a budget of $8m and five Oscars are anything to go by.note )
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Joanna is brunette in the book, compared to being blonde in the film.
  • Armour-Piercing Question: After Margaret confronts Ted by saying it took a lot of courage for Joanna to walk out on him, Ted responds by asking how much courage does it take to walk out on Billy, leaving her completely stunned.
  • Artistic License – Law: Many lawyers have decried the film for acting like there had been no progress in divorce law in the previous 50 years, especially since enough time has passed that modern viewers may very well just assume the laws really were that antiquated in the ‘70s.
  • Benevolent Boss: Despite being Ted's boss, Jim is a very good friend of Ted. The pair are seen long after work at the start of the film having a few laughs and Jim awards Ted for his hard work by promoting him to be in charge of the mid Atlantic account and at one point invites Ted for a drink at an office party, which Ted had to refuse as he had to collect his son Billy from a birthday party. But Jim's friendship with Ted is put to the limits when Ted turns up late for a meeting with the board of directors and causing a huge major loss on the account he was assigned with, as well as his duties as a father interfering with his work. And eventually Jim reluctantly fires Ted over luncheon because of the huge mess Ted caused in the account and it is implied not only did Jim lose an employee but a friend because Ted knew Jim wrecked his chances on winning custody over Billy.
  • Big Applesauce: The film is set in New York. Some monuments can be seen. For example, when he goes to his new office with his son, Ted shows him the Chrysler Building.
  • Call-Back:
    • The first meal Ted tries to make his son is french toast, which ends up going terribly due to his inexperience. On their final day together, the two make french toast again, but this time it is much easier.
    • The scene where Ted kisses his son goodnight reminds the first scene of the film, where Joanna does the same just moments before leaving the apartment. The same words are used: "Good night. Sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite. See you in the morning light."
  • Character Development: Ted, practically an absentee dad at the beginning, as he's out of touch enough that he doesn't know what grade his son is in. He then becomes a caring and devoted father.
  • Custody Battle: The last third of the movie deals with the custody battle between Joanna and Ted when she comes back to take custody of Billy.
  • A Day in Her Apron: More like at least a year and a half, but the trope still fits.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Ted has his moments such as sarcastically thanking his neighbor Margaret for cheering him up. Billy himself, despite being only seven years old, has this great one when Ted picks him up from a birthday party:
    "Want to make a bet? All the other mothers were there before you"
  • Did Not Think This Through: Margaret admits in court she did persuade her friend Joanna to leave Ted if she was unhappy. She didn’t expect Joanna to literally abandon Billy, though, which she lampshades during her speech.
  • Diegetic Switch: Antonio Vivaldi's "Mandolin Concerto" plays over the opening credits and scenes, as Ted is finishing up a meeting with his boss and Joanna is packing to leave. Then it's being played onscreen by two street musicians Ted passes, before it switches back to background music.
  • Disappointed in You: Ted understandably is angry Jim fired him and walks out on him in a huff. To be fair, Ted unfortunately did have it coming for the huge mess he caused in the account he was assigned with.
  • Door-Closes Ending: The elevator doors close on Ted as Joanna goes upstairs to tell Billy that he can stay with his dad.
  • Double Standard: Works against Ted in court, with the tendency of family court to assign custody to the mother in custody battles.
  • Establishing Character Moment: How removed is Ted from his family's life? When he has to take Billy to school the morning after Joanna leaves, he doesn't even know what grade Billy's in.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Maybe Ted was cooked up with his work and barely remembered he had a family but even he wouldn't walk out on Billy.
  • Foreign Remake: Polish Tato (Dad) would be almost a 1-to-1 remake if not a hefty dose of Cultural Translation that got added during the production and distanced it away from the source. But the first draft of the script was going as far as lifting lines verbatim.
  • Hand-or-Object Underwear: After Ted brings his coworker Phyllis home for a one-night stand, she encounters Billy in the hallway, having neglected to throw a robe on for her trip to the bathroom, and after seeing Billy in the hallway, she covers her chest and groin with her hands.
  • Hollywood Law: Ted's fear of Billy having to testify if he appeals is ridiculous, considering that an appeals court does not hear new evidence, and nobody testifies as a witness.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: After Billy's temper tantrum and a nasty argument, Ted goes to the liquor cabinet and throws back some whiskey.
  • I Want My Mommy!: Billy repeatedly screams this while having a temper tantrum.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • Even though Ted deserved to have Joanna walk out on him due to him choosing work over family he wasn't wrong telling his neighbor Margaret that Joanne walking out on their son Billy was a terrible thing to do. He was also within his rights to tell Joanna during the infamous argument scene at a cafe she can't just walk back into Billy's life after leaving their son for 15 months.
    • Similarly while sympathetic towards Ted on his family issues Ted's boss Jim O'Connor was right to suggest Billy was better off living with relatives. He was also right to scold Ted for missing the deadline due to his parenting and eventually firing him, though it was implied Jim found the latter very hard to do.
  • Just Friends: Ted and Margaret, as Ted tells Billy directly. Any thoughts of a Maybe Ever After ending are quashed late in the film when Margaret tells Ted she's getting back together with her ex-husband.
  • Leaving You to Find Myself: Deconstructed. Joanna leaves Ted not out of a vague desire to be a more complete person, but because all her life she's been looked after (by her family, in college) and now that she's married to Ted, he's a workaholic who leaves the entire business of raising Billy and looking after their house to her. She feels totally overwhelmed, doesn't love Ted any more, considers herself to be a terrible parent, and explicit tells Ted that Billy is "better off without me". That this is not just self-justification on her part is demonstrated when, after she's been awarded custody, she decides that Billy really is better off living with Ted, and decides not to take custody of him.
    • Reinforced later on when Billy asks Ted why his mom left, and while Ted could blame Joanna for leaving, he instead tells Billy that he himself tried to make Joanna into someone else and was too selfish to listen to her when she tried to protest, and that she left not because she doesn't love Billy, but because she can't stand Ted.
  • Married to the Job: Ted, or as he likes to call it, bringing home the bacon.
  • Men Can't Keep House: When Ted first tries to cook for Billy after Joanna leaves. Averted for the rest of the film.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Margaret near the end of the film breaks down in tears when she learns Ted lost the case to be Billy’s legal guardian as she realizes she only made things worse for Ted by testifying in court which may have affected her friendship with Ted as Ted may have seen her as a traitor as she lied to him at the start that she didn’t advise Joanna to leave.
  • Naked People Are Funny: After Ted brings his coworker Phyllis home for a one-night stand, she encounters Billy in the hallway, having neglected to throw a robe on for her trip to the bathroom.
    Phyllis: [walking naked into the hall while whispering to Ted] It's just that these morons are violating the FTC regulations so I have to get down there and make sure— [turns and sees Billy] AHH!! [covers her chest and groin with her hands]
    Billy: Hi.
    Phyllis: ...Hi.
    Billy: What's your name?
    Phyllis: I'm Phyllis Bernard.
    Billy: Who?
    Phyllis: I'm a f-friend of, business associate of your father's. Father. Dad.
    Billy: Do you like fried chicken?
    Phyllis: Fried chicken, very much.
    Billy: So do I.
    [Awkward pause]
    Phyllis: Ah... Well, I, it's been really... [starts backing away from towards the bedroom again] It's been really nice seeing you, and, ah—
    Billy: [going into the bathroom] Bye.
    Phyllis: I'm...bye. [backs into bedroom. Pause.] Kramer. I just met your son.
  • Precision F-Strike: "Damn her!" It's only a mild one out of context.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: Vivaldi's Concerto in C major for mandolin and strings appears over the opening credits, while several Henry Purcell pieces are employed through the rest of the film.
  • Sarcasm-Blind: Ted sarcastically thanks Margaret for 'cheering him up' after Joanna leaves with Margaret literally falling for his sarcasm by saying she did not come to him to cheer him up.
  • Shout-Out: Dustin Hoffman reads the Tintin book Red Rackham's Treasure to his son.
  • Taking the Kids: Joanna wants to.
  • Versus Title
  • Vetinari Job Security: Ted, who is desperate for a new job, gets hired by telling his prospective boss that this is a one day offer.
  • Yuppie: Arguably an Unbuilt Trope at the time of the film's release since the two main characters fulfill the definition of yuppies just before the term was defined in The '80s. The main plot is however not about career, but describes their personal sacrifices, as they divorce and struggle for their son.