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Domestic Recuperation in Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) December 10, 2007

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Hollywood, Literature.
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Written and directed by Robert Benton
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Justin Henry, Jane Alexander
Based on Avery Corman’s novel

Avery Corman’s novel focuses on fatherhood. Although it certainly takes two to tango in a divorce, the strokes and colors he paints on Ted Kramer’s side are very much apparent. This is not to imply though that he belittles the importance of Joanna Kramer in the said engagement, but nevertheless, despite her critical role in the story, she represents the negative space all throughout, and her contradictions seemingly justify the idea behind the dramaturgy. Thus if she hasn’t left, there wouldn’t be any story.

Robert Benton does the same thing, but what he has accomplished that Corman somewhat fails to nail is the fluidity of action, as if you are seeing in front of you a magnificent waterfall cascading almost 20 feet from above, and in a few seconds an array of boats comes close and just about to fall, and it makes you think whether what’s about to happen is an exciting adventure or an extreme danger, or maybe both. Undoubtedly, in any adaptation it is the script that functions significantly; loyal followers of the book are anticipating to feel the fidelity of the director towards the original, and to them to do justice is to at least be faithful. But adaptations that soar really high, in my opinion, are those that steer away from the original, not entirely and intently, and are able to overcome the idea of inferiority. These filmmakers hold the material as if it were their own; a morsel of themselves are lost in the process, or for some like Stanley Kubrick and Robert Bresson, every frame of their film is a fraction of their soul. To say that a film is a faithful adaptation would have to be the biggest lie after all. And in the process, the convenience of omission always comes handy. As Truffaut puts it, equivalence is never enough.

Whereas Corman starts with an air of paranoia following Joanna’s labor in the hospital, Benton commences directly with her parting words to Billy — supposedly her last goodbye — giving it much importance so as to establish this early the conflict that will be faced by Ted. Their son Billy, who is now a grown-up with a very close relationship with her mom, learns to live by his dad’s household incompetence and subsequent manic breakdowns. The narrative follows a classic linear structure as it continues to explore the intricacies of single parenting through a series of events that will eventually lead to Joanna coming back to claim his son, after eighteen months of abandonment, for good. It has been said that Benton wanted to share the writing credits with Dustin Hoffman, who, with producer Stanley Jaffe, worked with the group to finish the screenplay. Hoffman incidentally had a divorce under way by the time he received the proposition for the film, and it clearly showed how he effectively related his personal experiences to his delivery of dialogue and his nuances which became integral to the film’s success.

Possibly the greatest aspect of Kramer vs Kramer that deserves unequaled praise is its ensemble of actors. It is in fact an acting coup, an astonishing display of emotional fireworks, and every single one who appears in the film adds a chunk of rare magnificence. Hoffman is electrifying — he delivers such staggering brilliance that is quite restrained but never over-the-top, as he chooses to take a step further than what is required of him. It is also impressive how Hoffman challenges himself by taking a diverse range of roles during his early rise to popularity, with films that skyrocketed his name not only as a celebrity but as a respected actor as well — The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, All The President’s Men, and Straw Dogs to name a few, and including Tootsie and Rain Man in the next few years — as he manages to leave an indelible mark on every moviegoer’s minds. On the other hand, a young Meryl Streep is submissively enchanting. It shows that the qualities we admire about her up to now are very much felt in this film, from her departure up to the end when she’s about to leave Billy to Ted, her eyes filled with so much torment you could really see the waves of eternal confusion in her face. Also, it would be a sin not to mention Justin Henry’s exceptional presence — his lovely impertinence — and that infamous ice cream scene surely is one of the most memorable highlights of this little work. Jane Alexander is truly underrated but she shines here effortlessly, and even small actors, like that woman whom Ted has slept with and Billy has seen naked, are indeed remarkable.

It is interesting to note that almost half of the Oscar winners for Best Picture in the 70s and 80s are films adapted from novels and non-fiction stories. Patton, The French Connection, The Godfather I & II, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky, Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People, Gandhi, Terms of Endearment, Amadeus, Out of Africa, Platoon, The Last Emperor, and Rain Man — a whole lot of them has gained recognition; and that is not to say that America has lost some of its brilliant storytellers, but exactly the contrary: it has added substantially to the diversity of their national cinema. On the other hand, what’s happening at present in Philippine cinema and television drives at the opposite side of the road, and it seems unstoppable. Filipino films in the 70s and 80s, and even 90s (Patayin sa Sindak si Barbara, which is a remake of a remake), not to mention famous comic series also during those decades, are adapted to the boob tube — their storylines are lengthened, simple plots turned into mazes, and original actors replaced with undeserving ones. This may sound to be overtly generalising but most of them turn out to be nightmares. Even with rubber bands once you exert too much effort, they break, don’t they? Nothing wrong with adaptations, just do justice at the very least.

Now before I go too far and fill these spaces with hasty generalisations, I would like to express how deserving this film is of its merits. When Ted lets Joanna see Billy after she decides to concede her legal custody of the child, alone and certainly not for the last time, we realize that happiness is indeed a warm gun. * * * *

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