Best Picture #52: Kramer vs. Kramer

Each week this column will highlight one winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, progressing chronologically until all winners have been discussed. There will be a brief discussion of the film itself followed by a mention of what we wish won from the nominees in the given year (though in many cases there were films that were superior in terms of quality and/or impact that were not nominated). This week’s entry is Kramer vs. Kramer (1979).

The last winner from what is easily the best decade for Best Picture recipients, Kramer vs. Kramer is a family drama that sees Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, those two actors who seem to be in about every Oscar darling, as a divorced couple vying for custody of their child. As with many films about divorce (a genre that tends to appeal to me), it makes it abundantly clear why people who once loved each other could come to despise each other so much but it also has a plethora of emotional moments that makes all its characters seem more human, even in the midst of absurd nastiness. It wisely leaves the actual custody battle until the end, opting to focus almost entirely on the relationship between Hoffman and his son in the midst of Streep’s leaving them both, and it finds its strongest moments as they come to understand each other and form a bond they never had before while coming to terms with their misfortune. Unfortunately, by leaving Streep out of it until close to the end, it makes her eventual appearance seem abrupt and her character underdeveloped. Unlike last year’s Marriage Story, which tried to show both sides as reasonable and both characters as full, even if the viewer will naturally gravitate more towards one or the other, Kramer vs. Kramer gives us a full hour of watching Hoffman become a good father just to see Streep show up and try to rip that away from him after leaving her young son for more than a year. Then it goes further to have her continue to change her mind at every opportunity. That she still got some sympathy is really a credit to Streep’s performance alone because the writing made her seem fairly despicable. This isn’t to say that there are no cases where parents do act without thought and against the best wishes of their children, but I found it made the film vastly less interesting than it could’ve been if it didn’t seem to be a battle between good and evil. Nevertheless, the simple moments, like Hoffman racing through the streets to bring his son to the hospital and the two of them making breakfast together, were enough to make the film feel real and impactful.

The Real Best Picture:

Apocalypse Now was the best film of 1979 and maybe the best film of the whole decade. Coppola should’ve closed the decade off with another win.

Best Picture Winners

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