Kramer vs. Kramer 1979
“…. Ted has long since realized it was he who drove Joanna away, but what we expect when Joanna takes the witness stand is a heartless manipulator, confident of the court's sympathies. Instead, in a single, devastating speech (which she wrote herself), Streep brings out Joanna's pathos and heroism and gives her argument for custody all the dramatic weight that the movie has already bestowed upon Ted's. It's a searing moment, an apotheosis of screen acting, and it leaves us without mooring, adrift in a wash of discarded principles….
“…. Robert Benton has more than a dollop of Manhattan chauvinism in his blood, and I'm afraid it shows here. California is where Joanna repairs to get her head together, and the first step in that process, of course, is finding a therapist. And so, as attractive as she seems, when Joanna returns saying, "I never knew who I was, but in California I found myself," we can't help thinking she's just a wee bit flaky. Benton emphasizes this effect with a few shots of her watching Billy play from a hiding place nearby. Peering through a thick pane of glass, she looks haunted, even frightening. Then, too, Streep is an unusual screen presence. With her carefully drawn brows, her overdrawn cheekbones and her odd, clownish smile, she's a creature from a Picasso painting, all cubist surfaces and planes. Her voice is very quiet--you can hear a pout in it--and though she radiates coolness and mystery, it's the mystery of a soul in turmoil. Sympathetic she is, and Streep brings such a reservoir of feeling to her relatively few minutes on screen (after the opening, she doesn't return for nearly an hour) that she overwhelms many of our reservations. During the courtroom scene, while Hoffman is on the stand, her face fills with regret, then tenderness and forgiveness, and yet she scarcely moves a muscle. What Streep does under the skin is more than what most actors accomplish with their whole bodies. Yet, Joanna still seems flaky: a good woman, a good mother, but no competition for Dustin Hoffman's reformed Ted Kramer.
“And who could be? In Kramer vs. Kramer Hoffman delivers the finest performance of his career: so deeply felt, so thoughtful and moving that everything he's done before seems like preparation for this portrayal….
Boston Phoenix, Dec. 25, 1979
[get some on film's opening?]
“…. Isn't this the way many marriages end these days? A lot of silent suffering, then a sudden collapse. We don't know what's wrong with Joann, but we can see that she's bouncing off the walls of her gray-beige East Side apartment like a moth inside a silk lampshade. When she says she's had it, that's that . . . The Corman book … was a bland, journalistic novel about mediocre people. But the Benton movie is a major dramatic work--startling, emotionally involving, with characters that are now larger and finer in every way….
“The courtroom scene is perhaps the greatest test of Benton's honor as a filmmaker and a man, because the temptation to turn Joanna into an annihilating bitch must have been strong. But Benton is too shrewd for that--he rejects polemics in favor of understanding. He makes Joanna highly sympathetic. As she explains, tearfully at first, then proudly, she needed to go off and find her self-confidence and a professional identity before she could feel adequate as a mother….
“Meryl Streep, of course, doesn't get the plummy, heartwarming moments; it's not her movie, yet she ennobles it with her cool, non-actressy radiance. Her beauty is till mysterious for us--the sharply stenciled brow, the small, precisely cut features seem almost Minoan in their strangeness. At first, Benton uses her as a kind of icon. The opening shot--a close-up as she says good-bye to Billy--gives an almost Vermeerish cast to her face, and later, when she spies on Billy and Ted from behind a window, she looks witchlike, sinister. But in the climactic courtroom scene the mystery drops away. Her Joanna is not demonic, just restless in the modern way. She left her child because she was betraying herself; now that she possesses her own identity (her high-salaried job is a bit miraculous, but we'll let that pass [hm]), she wants him back. Joanna's jargon-ridden language is banal, but the feeling, the mixture of guilt and pride, is not, and Streep, avoiding all the traditional acting clichés of frustrated mother love, builds the emotion to a peak without ever raising her voice.”
New York, December 17, 1979
“…. Robert Benton and actors Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep … work with exemplary tact and restraint; we're willing to surrender because we don't feel unfairly manipulated….
“Benton gets splendid performances from the entire cast….
“Meryl Streep also gives a strong performance, but the major weakness of the film is the conception of Joanna's character. She's drawn in very general, almost abstract terms--as an embodiment of the oppressed woman. Joanna spouts a lot of feminist rhetoric about finding herself; the liberal sentiments are impeccable, but they're too vague and hackneyed to register with much force. Neither Corman nor Benton has been able to imagine Joanna with the same wealth of concise, quirky details that help to define Ted. Meryl Streep brings her own emotional intensity to the part. She is one of those rare performers who can imbue the most routine moments with a hint of mystery. Streep is a magical actress, but all of her film performances so far have been exercises in alchemy; she hasn't yet had a substantial role that is really worthy of her talents.”
New West, December 17, 1979
“…. The drawing of the characters is adequate, possibly excepting the wife who is off screen a good deal of teh time. Her inner crisis, which is why she leaves, and her recovery are more matters of report than enactment. All the people go through expected difficulties the way that runners take the hurdles in a track event: no surprise in it, it's just a question of how they do it. The anatomy and engagement of the script are those of a television drama bellying up to reality.
“But the actors make it more. It's an old plaint of critics that good actors do much of the writing for lesser authors, fleshing out characters that have only been sketched. That's not quite the case here. As written, Benton's characters are clear enough but are a set of samples. The actors provide the dimensions of travail and grief, and of humor, that turn commonplace incidents of fictions into unique yet representative experiences….
“To continue the old-star comparison: Meryl Streep, the wife, is today's Bette Davis, or could be if there were now an equivalent film industry. Streep is first an actress, a much less mannered and self-centered actress than Davis but with Davis's qualities of unconventional beauty and of reliance on acting as much as on starriness--the woman star who really acts and does it in different roles. Think of Streep as the airy southern rich lawyer in The Seduction of Joe Tynan and as the supermarket worker in The Deer Hunter, sitting in the stock room stamping prices on items and crying softly. Age allowing, Davis could have done things like that.
“But I vastly prefer Streep. In Kramer she plays a somewhat neurotic woman whose dissatisfaction with marriage drives her out, leaving her son, ten minutes into the film and who returns--about a film-hour later, I'd guess--when she has herself in hand and wants to reclaim her son. Obviously the brief appearance at the beginning had to be strong enough to make her a continuing presence and to give her a foothold after she returns. Streep handles this difficulty easily, by concentrating on the truth of the woman and by having the talent for that concentration. I've been waiting for some years now--nastily, I guess--for Streep to make a false move on stage or screen in widely varied characters. I'm still waiting. So much for nastiness.”
New Republic, December 22, 1979
(Kael and Sarris would soon suggest a “nastiness" of a different nature.)
(Before the 1979 Academy Awards):
“As for Best Supporting Actress, Meryl Streep should win for her pulsating Bette Davis-like performance in Kramer v. Kramer. She will probably not be hurt by her stupidly Cherniskevskian comment that Woody Allen hangs around Elaine’s too much to become another Chekov. In his own era, Chekov was attacked for wasting his time with the frimvolous bourgeoisie….”
Village Voice, April 14, 1980