The Great Scenes: “Why Mommy Left” from KRAMER VS. KRAMER
Movie: Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Spoiler Level: None
The Setup: Winner of five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Kramer vs. Kramer chronicles the emotionally brutal battle between the recently divorced Ted and Joanna (Dustin Hoffman & Meryl Streep) for custody of their young son. The movie fearlessly examines the realities of the contemporary dysfunctional family. Much of its success can be attributed to Hoffman, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a career-obsessed New York ad-executive who becomes a single father when his disgruntled wife (Streep) spontaneously leaves him.
In this scene, Billy (Justin Henry) tells Ted that he thinks his mom left because of his own bad behavior. Hoffman’s breathless explanation exists – in my opinion – as one of the many great scenes in the picture – one that could definitely be considered as Hoffman’s Oscar clip.
Why It’s Great: Many could argue that the scene that precedes this one should indeed be considered as Hoffman’s Oscar clip. Just prior to this clip, Ted (Hoffman) and Billy have an angry confrontation that evolves from Billy’s defiance of Ted’s command that he not touch the newly-bought Chocolate Chip-flavored ice cream until he finishes his Salisbury steak dinner.
Ted lets things cool down. He has a drink and does the dishes before deciding to look in on Billy, who has fallen asleep. Billy wakes up and suggests that the reason his mom left was because of his own bad behavior. Ted must then come up – on the spot – with a way to alter this child’s potentially damaging line of thought… and do it in a way that an eight-year old can clearly understand.
In fact, Ted prefaces his speech by saying “I don’t know whether this is going to make any sense.”
However, what he says makes perfect sense; not only to Billy, but – more importantly – to himself. Ted uses this opportunity both to help his son cope with their difficult situation, and to personally confront the reality of why his marriage fell apart. Ted becomes so moved by his own revelation that he hides his tears by burying his face in Billy’s pillow when he hugs him, and subsequently turns off the light.
Hoffman delivers his heartfelt monologue at a volume that’s just above the level of a whisper, which makes the scene wholly unique and that much more powerful. You also have to credit the young actor Justin Henry, whose delivery of the line “I love you” at the end of the scene, provides a touching bookend that nearly transcends the preceding exchange itself.
In a long and illustrious career filled with myriad great scenes, this definitely ranks as one of Hoffman’s best, and absolutely validates his Oscar win.