Kramer vs. Kramer – Streep, Hoffman & Social Change
As much of a success as “Kramer vs. Kramer” had at the box office back in 1979, I didn’t see it until recently. In my defense, I was in 9th grade at the time and had lived through my own parents’ divorce (which had been finalized three years before) in addition to hearing all of the battles my next door neighbors’ house before their marriage ended. I wasn’t interested in seeing another two people fall apart on the big screen in Tecnicolor™. As Pat Benitar once said “Love is a battlefield.” That may be so, but divorce is a World War, honey.
Kramer vs. Kramer is, I believe, the movie that truly launched Meryl Streep’s career as a serious dramatic actress and even though she had a much smaller role than Dustin Hoffman, the tension she brought to the courtroom scenes was palpable.
Though the acting throughout this movie was superb, the story and subject matter was groundbreaking and caused society and the court system to re-examine how custody cases should be handled. At the time this movie was released, mothers were given custody of their children across the board except in extreme cases of abuse. Today, mothers are still chosen to be the custodial parent more often than fathers, but other circumstances are taken into consideration when choosing the custodial parent is decided in court (specifically abandonment) which has allowed more fathers to win full custody of their children. Joint custody has also become a more popular option in cases where both parents want custody. I submit to you that Kramer vs. Kramer was the catalyst in the movement towards more equitable treatment of child custody cases.
The dramatic portrayal of a father forced into a position of being the sole caretaker of his child (outside of school and daycare) due to his wife’s abandonment of the family was a concept that most people at that time were unfamiliar with and watching Dustin Hoffman’s character not only adapting to that lifestyle (grudgingly and not terribly patient at first) but sacrificing his career and social life in order to properly care for his child demonstrated that a mother was not the only person who could successfully parent a child. Hollywood, up until this time had shown us bumbling widowers struggling to father their children, but these stories were mainly romances which involved remarriage and blended families (ahhhh….normalcy restored with a wife steering the family ship safely off the rocks of a single father household). With the high rate of divorce in the mid- to late 1970’s, custody became more of an issue but any father willing to go to court to fight for his child(ren) was fighting against a system which favored women.
I won’t spoil the ending for you (just in case you haven’t watched it), but it is a tear-jerker so keep your Kleenex handy. I will say that watching Streep’s & Hoffman’s characters work towards a resolution is a really touching scene and as an observer it seems to easy to think that if they just decided to try again that their relationship might work. I just wanted to shake them and say “Hey! You’ve worked out all of your personal problems and become better people! Now that you’ve figured everything out, you can focus on each other again!”
So with the right story, Hollywood can provoke positive changes in society and it has done so more than once. This is the second of the Dustin Hoffman movies that I am aware of that has impacted how people think. Back in 1982 Dustin in Drag made us reconsider gender roles, harassment and pay for men vs. women in “Tootsie.” My brief synopsis: Michael Dorsey is an out of work actor (due to his own obnoxiousness) who decides to apply for a female part in a daytime drama. He is hired for the part and becomes the show’s most successful character, but winds up being bullied by his director, sexually harassed by one of his co-stars and is not as well compensated as the male actors. Hilarity ensues, but the message is clear that working women had to deal with a lot more at work and were not taken as seriously as men in the workplace.
Hopefully when thinking about societal attitudes being affected by Dustin Hoffman movies your mind didn’t turn to1967’s “The Graduate.” Mrs.Robinson was way ahead of her time and the cougar movement didn’t begin in earnest until early 2000’s.
In the final analysis, Meryl & Dustin made a big splash and influenced our culture with this movie while also solidifying Meryl’s position in the movie industry. The world became if not a better place, at least a fairer one and we grew to understand that good parenting isn’t based upon gender, but on the parents’commitment to providing the best possible situation for their child(ren).
YouTube interview with Meryl on Kramer vs. Kramer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3wxrZ8FJmQ