Warning: This story contains spoilers for Marriage Story and Kramer vs. Kramer.
On December 2, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story kicked off awards season with a bang, sweeping four big-name category awards at the IFC Gotham Awards, including Best Director (Baumbach), Best Actor (Adam Driver), Best Screenplay (Baumbach) and the Film Audience Award (aka Best Feature). It’s early days yet, and the Oscars are still months away, but Marriage Story’s acclaim undoubtedly echoes that of another powerful film — also about two New Yorkers fighting over custody of their son after one of them moves to California — that dominated the coveted awards show nearly forty years ago.
When Kramer vs. Kramer hit theaters in 1979, it was a surprise box-office hit. Two years after Star Wars’ massive success, executives at Twentieth Century Fox weren’t sure audiences would respond to a quiet movie about a couple going through a fraught divorce. (Yes, the debate over blockbuster superhero vs. prestige filmmaking long predates the Marvel/Scorsese discourse.) The Robert Benton-directed movie grossed more than $106 million, beating out movies like Alien, Star Trek, and Rocky II, and won five out of the nine Academy Awards it was nominated for, including Best Picture; Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman); Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep); Best Adapted Screenplay (Benton, who adapted Avery Corman’s novel); Best Director (Benton).
At the time of its release, the film was controversial. Conservatives pointed to it as an example of the breakdown of American family values, while many women were outraged at the way a man simply parenting his own child was portrayed as a superhuman accomplishment. In other words, forty years later, Kramer vs. Kramer stands as a shockingly prescient film, and one whose legacy is very much a part of Marriage Story. (And not just because their posters are eerily similar.)
In a weird twist for a movie about a fraught and sometimes vicious separation, Baumbach’s film begins with a declaration of love. Protagonists Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) take turns summing up character traits they hold dear about each other. It’s an incredibly specific list, injecting the audience right into the middle of this marriage, which, as we find out in the next scene, is ending.
Sitting in their mediator’s office in New York City, the tenderness that characterized Nicole and Charlie’s recitation of charming idiosyncrasies suddenly evaporates, leaving behind a tense void. Resentment between the couple grows as we then follow them not only out of that room, but across the country in a dramatic coast-to-coast journey to end their marriage while retaining a semblance of normal life for their young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson).
Likewise, Kramer vs. Kramer also centered over a couple’s battle over their young son, but with far more emphasis placed on Ted Kramer’s (Hoffman) realization that he hasn’t been playing a real role in his son’s upbringing. When his wife, Joanna (Streep) leaves them both in order to care for her own mental state, he’s suddenly thrust into the role of a single parent. And though he chafes at first, he and Billy (Justin Henry) eventually find a comfortable, endearing routine. So, when Joanna returns, demanding custody of Billy, Ted feels compelled to fight for the new life he has formed with his son. In Marriage Story, Charlie doesn’t need to learn to be a parent on equal footing with his ex. He’s a committed and present father from the outset, a reflection of shifting norms when it comes to mens’ involvement in their kids’ lives.
What’s not so very different, however, is the struggle for women to retain a sense of identity — both in marriage, and in motherhood — and the double standard that continues to exist in parenting roles. (Although it’s worth noting that as white women of certain financial means, both Joanna and Nicole face easier circumstances than women of color, or poor women.)
In the book version of Kramer vs. Kramer, the character of Joanna was painted as callously indifferent to her husband, and her child. She leaves them both in pursuit of a more interesting life for herself, before realizing that she can’t face down the judgment of others’ once they realize what she’s done. According to Vanity Fair, It was written as a kind of “not all men” plea by Corman, who wanted to counter what he called the “toxic rhetoric” of feminists who were painting men in a harsh light.
The film plays out differently, mostly thanks to Streep’s involvement in shaping her character’s arc. The actress, then barely known in Hollywood, was famously asked to re-write Joanna’s meatiest scene so it would sound more authentic. Asked by her lawyer why she felt compelled to leave her child behind for over a year, she delivers a deeply moving monologue that includes this crucial point: “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 I was incapable of functioning in that home, and I didn’t know what the alternative was going to be. So, I thought it was not best that I take him with me. However, I’ve since gotten some help, and I have worked very, very hard to become a whole human being.”
Those lines make the movie as indelible as it is, giving depth and complexity to a character that could have easily come off as the villain. In Streep’s hands, Joanna is transformed from a bored, vain woman to someone acting as a stand-in for so many mothers. As she tells Ted in a famous scene, all her life she’s felt like “somebody’s wife or somebody’s mother or somebody’s daughter.” She’s never been allowed to be her own person.
Unlike Joanna, Nicole never left her son. Actually, quite the opposite, she takes him to California with her. But as she and Charlie start fighting for custody, we learn that the two women share similar reasons for wanting out of their marriage. Asked by her lawyer Nora (a fearsome Laura Dern) why she decided to leave her husband and move to the West Coast with their son, Nicole says that she it’s because she was starting to feel diminished as a person.
When they married, she, like Joanna, made compromises. She left a successful career in Hollywood to join Charlie’s New York-based theater company, lending her marquee name to his fledgling plays. They built a successful partnership, both personal and professional. But as his career took off, hers started to stagnate. Rather than feeling like they were making equal contributions, she started to believe that she was there to further his ambitions, his career, his life. Moving to Los Angeles to star in a pilot was a way for her to reclaim her own identity, as well as explore new career possibilities. She too, wants to direct. Why should she have to play the muse?
Joanna and Nicole’s dilemmas are in dialogue with each other through four decades of women’s fight to have it all. And just like Joanna, Nicole faces a vicious cross-examination from Charlie’s attorney (Ray Liotta), who paints her as a negligent, alcoholic caretaker.
In Kramer vs. Kramer, Ted gets off pretty easily in court. Even if he loses custody, he never has to justify his past neglect because society never expected him to act any differently. It’s a refreshing twist that Charlie has to answer to Nora, who’s even more aggressive in making sure Nicole gets her fair share than her client is. The fact that Nicole has a woman fighting for her at all, in fact, represents another step forward. Add to that Charlie’s eventual decision to move to California for a residency at at a local theater, so as to be closer to his son, signaling a willingness to compromise, would have seemed unthinkable not so long ago.
Still, the fact that these two films, nearly half a century apart, so closely echo each other at all should be reason for pause. In a compelling piece for the New York Times, Jourdain Searles points out that the notorious stories about Hoffman’s on-set harassment of his co-stars during the making of Kramer vs. Kramer (he once slapped Streep in the face without warning to elicit the vulnerable reaction he wanted), and Streep’s personal burden to rewrite a stagnant book character and make her feel real, are also echoed in Marriage Story. Nicole, Sales writes, is “a woman fighting for autonomy under the watchful eye of a celebrated male artist in an industry that his volatility,” she writes.
But there’s another layer to that meta analysis. In the final moments of Marriage Story, after losing custody, Charlie comes for a visit and learns that Nicole has been nominated for an Emmy. “She’s a great actress,” he says. “No, for directing,” Nicole corrects him. It’s a chastening moment, which forces him to reassess his preconceived notions about his ex. But in a larger sense, it’s also a bittersweet reminder that, if Baumbach’s film does sweep the 2020 Oscars as its predecessor did, we’ll be clocking in an entire decade since the last — and only — woman won Best Director.