“…In California, I think I found myself. I got myself a job. I got myself a therapist”…now sounds like a slogan for a T-shirt called, simply, the ’70s. Adam Sternbergh, Vulture, quoting Meryl Streep’s character Joanna in 1979’s Kramer Vs. Kramer
Significantly, the movie that made the most box-office money in 1979 also won the most major Oscars—a rarer feat than you might imagine. It was the divorce and child custody drama Kramer Vs. Kramer, in which the mother leaves her family behind.
What brings to mind this groundbreaking film is Michael Schulman‘s newish bio Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep in which the author describes how, in the process of making this film, Streep was given permission to amend some key lines in order to make them ring truer from a woman’s point of view.
When it was released New York Times critic Vincent Canby characterized Kramer Vs. Kramer, starring Dustin Hoffman as Joanna’s husband Michael, as a “fine, witty, moving, most intelligent adaptation of Avery Corman’s best-selling novel.” More about the Kramers:
Though much of Kramer vs. Kramer is occupied with the growing relationship between the abandoned father and son, through tantrums and reconciliations and playground accidents, the central figure is that of the movingly, almost dangerously muddled mother, played by Miss Streep in what is one of the major performances of the year. Joanna is not an easily appealing character, especially when she returns after eighteen months of therapy in California and seeks legal custody of the child she walked out on.
An excerpt from Michael’s court testimony gets to the heart of fathers’ rights:
My wife used to always say to me: ‘Why can’t a woman have the same ambitions as a man?’ I think you’re right. And maybe I’ve learned that much. But by the same token, I’d like to know, what law is it that says that a woman is a better parent simply by virtue of her sex? You know, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what it is it that makes somebody a good parent? You know, it has to do with constancy, it has to do with patience, it has to do with listening to him. It has to do with pretending to listen to him when you can’t even listen anymore. It has to do with love…
From Joanna’s altered-by-Streep speech:
Look, during the last five years of our marriage, I was scared and I was very unhappy. And in my mind I had no other choice but to leave. At the time I left I felt that there was something terribly wrong with me. And that my son would be better off without me. And it was only after I got to California that I realized, after getting into therapy, that I wasn’t such a terrible person and just because I needed some kind of creative or emotional outlet other than my child, that didn’t make me unfit to be a mother. I know I left my son. I know that that’s a terrible thing to do. Believe me I have to live with that every day of my life. But in order to leave him, I had to believe that it was the only thing I could do. And that it was the best thing for him. However, I have since gotten some help, and I have worked very, very hard to become a whole human being. And I don’t think I should be punished for that.
Spoiler ahead: Joanna is given primary custody, not an unlikely scenario even today. “Although the law no longer presumes mothers are better parents,” states Lisa Guerin, J.D. (DivorceNet), “the best interests of the child often dictate that children stay with mom.”
But she then lets Billy stay with Dad after all.