Oscar flashback: In light of ‘Marriage Story,’ a look at its 1979 break-up predecessor ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’

Hollywood had handled the topic of divorce on the big screen before 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer,” from the 1934 musical “The Gay Divorce” with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire to 1967’s “Divorce American Style” with Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds.  The year previously brought a female-centric focus to a break-up caused by a husband’s extra-marital affair with a younger woman in 1978’s “An Unmarried Woman,” as Jill Clayburgh discovers life without a louse of a spouse is actually quite liberating and enriching.

But the fracturing of a family unit was rarely handled in fully realistic emotional terms until 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer,” in which the cause of the parting of ways was Meryl Streep‘s stay-at-home mother’s feelings of being smothered and unfulfilled by her matriarchal duties.  It was an era when gender roles began to shift as more women looked to pursue a career outside of the home and share the responsibilities of child-raising with their husband.

Dustin Hoffman‘s workaholic ad exec Ted arrives at his Manhattan home eager to announce that he has been given a big new account. Instead, he is soon gobsmacked by the news he is now the lone caretaker of their grade-school son, Billy, played by the adorable Justin Henry. Just as dad and child become accustomed to one another, Joanna, who now has a job as a sportswear designer in California as well as a therapist, walks back into their lives and demands custody.

Much like “Marriage Story,” the estranged spouses are appalled by the tactics that their lawyers stoop to as they make their cases for who should raise Billy. The court awards Joanna custody. When Ted hears that his child may have to testify if he appeals the decision, he prepares to let him him go. But at the last minute, Joanna changes her mind and decides to allow Ted to keep Billy.

It was one of those landmark films that spawn plenty of think pieces — including the criticism that the option of joint custody is never mentioned. Nonetheless, both parents conclude the film being by beinf fairly sympathetic in the end. More than Adam Driver’s ambitious and self-centered play director in “Marriage Story,” Hoffman’s Ted evolves to the point that he puts his son’s needs first and foremost before his job.

The drama would be nominated for eight Oscars and won five, including Best Picture, directing and adapted screenplay for Robert Benton, Best Actor for Hoffman and Best Supporting Actress for Streep. In 2018, when the #MeToo moment was in the air, Streep was asked by the New York Times about Hoffman — whose behavior towards women was being questioned at the time — and whether he actually slapped her in their first scene together.

Her response? “This was my first movie, and it was my first take in my first movie and he just slapped me. And you see it in the movie. It was overstepping.”

SEE Meryl Streep’s 25 greatest movies ranked worst to best

As a senior entertainment writer at USA Today, I spoke to Hoffman in New York in 2012 when he was promoting his directorial debut, “Quartet.” He had just attended the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony where he was one of the recipients. It just so happened Streep was there to introduce the honorees  during a dinner hosted by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

When I asked if she was mean to him,  he replies that she said, “I wanted to kill you,” referring to her time on the movie. I suggested that maybe he was a different person back then. He responded, “If you say that, that means you are believing her,”  Hoffman says before laughing. “I think we worked maybe eight days together.”

His explanation is that he didn’t hit her. Instead he hits a wine glass on the table that shatters on the wall of a restaurant without letting her know. “I set it up with the cameraman,” he says. “There was no danger. I go like that,” he says as he swipes his hand. “I just didn’t tell her that I was going to do it, which actors do with each other. So it mystifies me.” If you watch the scene, well, Hoffman is right.

His final word on the subject? “It worked — and she got an Academy Award.”

I also had the pleasure of speaking to a 35-year-old Henry on the phone while doing a 2007 cover story about how being nominated for an Oscar affects child stars, pegged to a 10-year-old Abigail Breslin being up for her supporting role as a beauty pageant contender in “Little Miss Sunshine.” Lord knows that the hoopla of awards season did Tatum O’Neal few favors later in life after she became the youngest Academy Award winner in any category at age 10 for 1973’s “Paper Moon.”

But Henry, who was 8 when he was nominated, got through the ordeal pretty much unscathed (see him handle his loss at the Oscars above) after becoming a pretend pawn in a custody battle. When I told him that he was still the youngest nominee ever, he exclaimed, “I think that’s dope. I think it’s funny that was nominated for two Golden Globes, too, and didn’t win either.” The acting novice was warned that he didn’t have much chance of bringing home a trophy. His main rival, Melvyn Douglas, 79, who was up for “Being There,” was kind enough to clue him in.

“At the nominees’ luncheon, he came over in his wheelchair and told me, ‘I think you were wonderful. But the way these things usually work out, they are going to give it to me. I’m too old. I’m not going to be around.” Sure enough, Douglas died the following year. As for the ceremony itself “mostly a blur,” what mattered most to Henry was the experience of making a film that still touched people and was still relevant. It helped that “Kramer vs. Kramer” was shot close to his suburban home near New York City. “We stayed away from the craziness of Hollywood.”

That is what Henry did while earning a B.A. in psychology in 1993 from Skidmore College. Not that he didn’t take a role or two. He would appear on a 1983 episode of “Fantasy Island,” showed up in the 1984 Brat Pack film “Sixteen Candles” as one of Molly Ringwald‘s siblings and was the son of Don Johnson and Susan Sarandon in the 1988 film “Sweet Hearts Dance.” After graduating, he did a two-episode role on “ER” in 1997. According to his Wikipedia page, he is currently a platform director for AOL.

SEE Alan Alda (‘Marriage Story’) on playing a divorce lawyer whose ‘heart is in the right place’ but may be out of his depth [INTERVIEW]

Back to “Marriage Story.” While Azhy Robertson is fine as 8-year-old Henry, son of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson).  I  just don’t recall much about him save for when he tries to adapt to living in his dad’s legally required West Coast abode. Instead, I remember Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta as lawyers all baring shark teeth in varying degrees of bite. As Alda’s attorney says, “Divorce is like a death without a body.”

That isn’t the case with Henry, whose expressions of anger, pain and worry are still etched into my cinematic memory bank. At the end of our chat, then L.A.-based Henry — who had done everything from painting houses to launching a film festival — assured that he still loved acting, something he did only occasionally back then. He then added: “Tell them to call me.”

Be sure to make your Oscar nominee predictions today so that Hollywood insiders can see how their films and performers are faring in our odds. You can keep changing your predictions as often as you like until just before nominees are announced on January 13. And join in the fun debate over the 2020 Academy Awards taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our film forums. Read more Gold Derby entertainment news.

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