On December 19, 1979, “Kramer vs. Kramer” was released. Based on a novel by Avery Corman, the film starred Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman. “Kramer vs. Kramer” earned nine Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), and Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep). The film made more than $106 million at the box office, making it the top-grossing film of 1979. Reflecting a cultural shift in America, the movie was critically acclaimed for its even-handed portrayal of the effects of divorce on a family.
From the start, “Kramer vs. Kramer” powerfully portrays the complicated nature of divorce. The film opens with Joanna Kramer (Streep) kissing her sleeping child goodbye as she packs up her suitcase. With a resolute firmness, she tells her husband, Ted Kramer (Hoffman), “I’m leaving you.” Before he can even process the moment, Joanna has left them behind and moved to California. She is suffocated by her life as a wife and mother. As Ted deals with the loss of his wife, he invests more time into parenting their son. However, Joanna soon returns from California and wants custody of their son. A dirty custody battle ensues. One of the most masterful elements of the film is that neither Ted nor Joanna emerge as a clear-cut hero or victim. This complex and balanced portrait of both characters was achieved thanks to the skillful direction of Robert Benton and Streep’s notes and rewrites.
When Streep tried out for the part, Hoffman was already cast as Ted. The filmmakers’ first choice for the part of Joanna was Kate Jackson. However, she had to turn down the role due to her demanding filming schedule “Charlie’s Angels.” They also considered Ali McGraw, Faye Dunaway and Jane Fonda to star as Joanna. However, the relatively unknown Streep landed the lead role.
Streep got into character for the film by flipping through beauty magazines that she imagined her character might read. The pages of Glamour and Elle were crowded with stories of working mothers who “had it all.” Then, she watched Upper East Side mothers with their children at the playground in Central Park. In an interview with Newsweek after the film’s release, she explained, “The more I thought about it… the more I felt the sensual reason for Joanna’s leaving, the emotional reasons, the ones that aren’t attached to logic. Joanna’s daddy took care of her. Her college took care of her. Then Ted took care of her. Suddenly she just felt incapable of caring for herself.” By tapping into that emotion, as well as the recent loss of her boyfriend, actor John Cazale, Streep gave an emotionally riveting performance in “Kramer vs. Kramer.”
In “Kramer vs. Kramer,” audiences were moved by the struggles of each Kramer family member throughout the separation and divorce. Some feminist critics still felt as though Joanna’s character served as a castigation of the feminist movement. Despite these criticisms, Streep’s performance and changes to the original script gave voice to a growing group of women who were also struggling to “have it all.” As the divorce rate in the United States spiked in the late 1970s and the 1980s, audiences identified with the highly emotional experience portrayed in “Kramer vs. Kramer.”