"What law says that a woman is a better parent simply by virtue of her sex?" Ted Kramer asks in this film. Our society has had a notion that the bond between mother and child established in the womb made fathers less able, less interested, and less important than mothers in caring for children. Today, many children, lawyers, judges, and women are seeing things differently.
Kramer vs. Kramer is based on Avery Corman's 1977 novel. The 1979 film won five Academy Awards for Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Director (Robert Benton), Best Screenplay (Robert Benton), and Best Picture.
Dustin Hoffman is Ted Kramer, a hardworking young man in a New York advertising agency whose wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) deserts him and their six-year-old son Billy (Justin Henry) in hopes of finding a life for herself beyond motherhood. Ted is forced to make do as provider and sole caretaker of his son. In the process, he finds Billy to be quite a special human being. Then Joanna reappears and wants custody of their child.
Dustin Hoffman's performance conveys the blooming of Ted's capacity for tenderness and his growth toward rounded parenthood. Meryl Streep invests her brief portrait of Joanna with all the ambivalence of a woman who at first knows what she can't take any longer and in the end is able to see what she can and cannot handle.
Kramer vs. Kramer offers a revealing look at child custody battles in the courtroom. It's a dirty business and everybody is hurt in the process. The film also provides a glimpse of some of the problems and challenges of single parenthood, a situation millions of Americans find themselves confronting. Jane Alexander plays a neighbor who helps Ted weather his adjustment.
Kramer vs. Kramer is to be commended for its vivid presentation of these important questions: Is good parenting a matter of personal qualities or sex determined? Are women who leave behind husband and children running from or to something? What criteria are courts using to decide the best interests of a child when neither parent is unfit and each seeks custody?