Watching “Kramer vs. Kramer” and Discussing Law
Last week I was fortunate to attend a screening and panel discussion at Fordham Law School’s Forum on Law, Culture, and Society.
Hosted by essayist, writer, and Fordham Law professor Thane Rosenbaum, the sixth annual Forum served up a timely collection of law-related films and post-screening discussions with the talented individuals who made them possible. This year’s selections included HBO’s film about the 2008 financial meltdown, Too Big To Fail, with featured appearances by the New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker; the 1983 film, Daniel, which brought to Fordham Law the real-life sons of the film’s subjects, accused spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg; and Wall Street, with special guests director Oliver Stone and film producer Edward Pressman.
I went to Wednesday evening’s screening of 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer, starring Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman, because I hadn’t seen the film; I chose well. It is a classic that has held up beautifully since its release over 30 years ago, and a must-see for anyone interested in family law. After the screening, the panelists, writer/director Robert Benton, the author of the novel on which the film was based, Avery Corman, and famed divorce attorney Raoul Felder participated in a panel discussion moderated by Professor Rosenbaum.
Winner of five Academy Awards for its heartrending depiction of a family torn apart by a wife’s decision to leave, the movie shines a spotlight on the relationship between a father and his son and what happens when the mother returns and seeks custody.
Mr. Hoffman’s Ted Kramer is a workaholic advertising executive who has just landed the biggest account of his career. Ms. Streep’s Joanna Kramer feels neglected and leaves to find herself, forcing her husband and their child, Billy, to fend for themselves. Father and son become closer over the course of the movie as Ted evolves into an evolved parent. In his words, he had to learn to “bring home the bacon and cook it, too”, and he did it lovingly. When Joanna returns a year-and-a-half later, she claims she never stopped loving Billy and that a little boy belongs with his mother.
Mr. Felder’s insights were noteworthy seeing as he’s the nation’s preeminent divorce attorney (he’s practiced divorce law for over 40 years) and has represented such rather well-known personalities as Rudy Giuliani, Elizabeth Taylor, and Patrick Ewing. Mr. Felder admitted that he found plot holes in the courtroom scene, calling the on-screen divorce lawyers better actors than lawyers since they did something Mr. Felder said he would never do: cross-examine witnesses without referring to notes or writing anything down.
He also criticized the film’s application of the law. Even as long ago as the late 1970s, said Mr. Felder, a custody battle almost certainly would have included psychological evaluations of the parents and considered the wishes of the child. Mr. Felder also took exception to the Hollywood ending of the movie, in which (Spoiler Alert!) Joanna, after being awarded full custody, admits to her ex-husband that she believes the court’s decision was wrong and that he is better off with his father. In fact, said Mr. Felder, courts were and are able to craft custody arrangements that suit both parents, instead of only one or the other.
Mr. Felder discussed the “sea change”, as he called it, in divorce law brought about by the movie. “Suddenly I had fathers in my office asking for custody of their children,” he said. “Kramer vs. Kramer challenged the long-held notion that mothers should automatically be awarded full custody of their children. The film marked the beginning of the standard that’s become commonplace today, that the court places the child’s best interest over the presumption that mothers are automatically deserving of custody.”
The opportunity to interact with Mr. Felder and the creators of the film wasn’t wasted on members of the Centereach, NY-based Fathers’ Rights group Good Dads, who took advantage of the evening to have their voices heard. Members stood outside the auditorium and distributed fliers about their organization. They were on hand to encourage people to visit their Facebook group and educate themselves on the issues confronting divorced dads in child custody cases.
During the post-screening discussion, the audience learned that during filming, Dustin Hoffman was divorcing his real-life wife and Meryl Streep was mourning the loss of her boyfriend, actor John Cazale, who had recently died of cancer. Mr. Benton spoke about allowing his actors to rewrite their characters’ testimony to make it more personal and reflective of their individual situations. “Meryl gave her performance a more feminine voice than I was able to,” he said.
Ted Kramer asks in the famous courtroom scene, “What law is it that says a woman is a better parent simply by virtue of her sex?” He talks about constancy, the fact that he and Billy built a life together. Joanna’s closing words, “A boy needs his mother…a boy needs his mother” were emotional but Mr. Felder said judges were not as quick to accept this long-held notion as fact after the release of Kramer vs. Kramer.
Of course, everything is in the eye of the beholder. To legal eagle Raoul Felder, the film is important for its impact on the law. To writer/director Mr. Benton, though, Kramer vs. Kramer’s effect on law was secondary. “It’s about relationships,” he said, “and about love and loss.”