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Kramer vs Kramer

In 1979, Oscar's decade of dominance was capped off by a different kind of movie, a movie that showed the drama of everyday life, normal people facing typical problems and struggling to get through them. Many Oscar winners are about situations no one will ever face. Not many people have witnessed the 1864 destruction of Atlanta, fought for the world heavyweight title, engaged in a mob war, or thrown the one ring into the fires of Mt. Doom. What many people have gone through (myself thankfully not included) is divorce. Kramer vs. Kramer is about what happens when they don't live happily ever after. Dustin Hoffman plays Ted Kramer, who comes home late from the office one night and is met at the door by his wife Joanna, played by Meryl Streep, who immediately tells him she's leaving. Ted feels her return is imminent, but has to face the challenges of raising his son without Joanna, while trying to carry out his job as well. It's a little rough at times. Ted at one point is late picking Billy up from a birthday party and Billy sulks. Billy spills a drink on some of Ted's papers from work and Ted yells. Eventually the two of them get used to the difficult arrangement, and they settle into a nice routine. But then, Joanna shows up once again, stalking the two of them at first, but eventually making contact and informing Ted she plans to sue for custody. Ted then has to hire a lawyer and prepare to fight for his own son, something made even more difficult when he loses his job and has to beg for the first offer that comes along. Do not enter into this thinking this is a traditional courtroom drama, because the courtroom plays a very small role and in many ways is the least interesting part of the movie. The real meat of the story is the development of Ted's relationship with Billy. At first Billy resents the fact that Joanna has left and Ted is the only thing that remains in his life. Ted struggles to adapt as well, but once he comes to terms with the fact that Joanna is not coming back and begins to build his relationship with his son, their life together improves a great deal. The dynamic between Hoffman and Justin Henry, who plays Billy, is wonderful. Henry never did much in acting after this, but here he more than holds his own with Hoffman. The famous ice cream scene is very well played as both characters try to win out without making it seem that there is any battle of wills going on at all. Streep does well enough, but she disappears for about 45 minutes after the first scene so she doesn't have too much to work with. The movie's focus on Ted and the fact that Joanna simply isn't there for most of it places our sympathies on Ted, which as his lawyer explains, is contrary to the sympathies of the court most of the time in these cases. Other nominees that year included Apocalypse Now and Breaking Away. Breaking Away is a cute little sports movie, but far from the best sports movie ever, or even the best of its era. A few years earlier Rocky won the big one and a couple years later it was Chariots of Fire. Both of which were better than Breaking Away. Apocalypse Now however is an all around excellent movie. Martin Sheen does a stunning job, his best work up until West Wing, and Marlon Brando is absolutely terrifying as Kurtz. But the credit for this one goes to Francis Ford Coppola who does a fantastic job of turning a 19th century novel about British officers in Africa into a movie about Vietnam, so good a job that if you weren't familiar with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, you may not even realize that Apocalypse Now wasn't written directly for the screen by a Vietnam vet. It's a close race between these two, and the acting of Hoffman and Henry makes a convincing point for Kramer vs. Kramer, but I would have given the nod to Coppola. Apocalypse Now is simply a wonderful achievement in film making that ought to have been rewarded with the Oscar. Kramer vs. Kramer is a great movie, and certainly deserves your attention, but in my opinion it was the second best movie of 1979 by a hair.


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