Why Was Kramer vs. Kramer the Top-Grossing Movie of 1979?

Photo: Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

Pop quiz: What was the highest-grossing film of 1979? Remember, this is several years after Jaws (the highest-grossing film of 1975), Rocky (highest-grossing of ‘76) and Star Wars (highest-grossing ‘77) had, according to the common wisdom, doomed us all forever to a cinematic junk-food diet of robot sharks, alien spaceships, and unending sequels. By 1979, Hollywood had, presumably, stopped making movies for grown-ups — you know, real, thoughtful, sophisticated stories of love, anguish, heartbreak, and personal growth. Looking ahead, in 1980, the biggest hit was The Empire Strikes Back. (Spaceships! Sequels!) In 1981, it was Raiders of the Lost Ark. (A reboot of cliff-hanger serials! For kids!) In 1982, it was E.T. (Aliens! Kids again!) In 1983, Return of the Jedi (Sequels! Aliens! Spaceships!) … But what about 1979?

The highest-grossing film of 1979, with a total box-office take of just over $106 million, was Kramer vs. Kramer, a movie about two New Yorkers getting a divorce and fighting over custody of their son.

Wait, you might say — there must be a mistake. Sure, Kramer vs. Kramer was the big Oscar movie of 1979, winning five Academy Awards (out of nine nominations), including a sweep of the major categories: Best Picture; Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman); Best Supporting Actress* (Meryl Streep); Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Benton, from a novel by Avery Corman); and Best Director (Robert Benton again). Yes, that’s true — it was both. It was the most critically acclaimed film of the year and the biggest box-office hit. The only other film since 1979 to achieve that — both the biggest box-office hit of the year and the Best Picture winner — is Titanic, in 1997. Though you could definitely argue that Titanic is not a movie for grown-ups in quite the same way that Kramer vs. Kramer was.

This means that Kramer vs. Kramer, which came out 35 years ago — and, as of this month, is available for streaming on Netflix — is either a fascinating anomaly in recent movie history, or a last Alamo-like stand against the impending economic forces that turned blockbuster movies into an annual visit to the comic-book store and Toys 'R' Us. (Recent highest-grossing films of the year: Harry Potter, Spider-Man, The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Toy Story 3, etc.) It also makes Kramer a handy go-to example for anyone who wants to make the argument that our culture is getting more juvenile. In 35 years, we’ve gone from Kramer vs. Kramer to Batman v Superman, am I right? (Or, as it’s officially known, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, which raises the possibility of an enticing alternate history in which people flocked to see Kramer V Kramer II: Dawn of Justice, followed a few years later by Kram3r vs. Kram3r: Final Judgment.)

I’ve seen Kramer vs. Kramer three times now. Once, in the movie theaters, when I was 8 years old  — just old enough, I’m guessing, that my parents felt that the risk of me seeing JoBeth Williams naked was worth saving a babysitter’s fee. (I did see her naked, in a very famous scene, in which she runs into Justin Henry, the Kramers’ 5-year-old son, in a hallway. I remember all this very clearly.) At that time, the movie, to my young mind, could have been called “Why Are All the Grown-Ups Crying?”

I rewatched it again, a few years back, on DVD, when I stumbled on the whole highest-grossing-film-of-the-year factoid. Here, I thought, was a fascinating artifact: the Last American Film Made for Adults! When I rewatched it, however, I realized the characters aren’t really adults at all, at least not in the way you might remember.

The Kramers, Ted and Joanna, are a young New York couple (the current Netflix blurb describes Ted as “a career-driven yuppie,” though Yuppie wasn’t coined until 1983) — he’s an ambitious advertising executive on the rise; she’s a restless and unhappy stay-at-home mom. Joanna leaves Ted in the opening scenes  — along with their 5-year-old, Billy — trailing tears and a lot of now-musty-sounding platitudes about needing to find herself. Ted struggles — in a way that also now seems anachronistic, in a Mr. Mom kind of way — to become a loving parent while juggling his career. Then Joanna reappears, intent on getting custody of Billy, which, given she’s the mother, seems like a lock. As she tells Ted, “In California, I think I found myself. I got myself a job. I got myself a therapist,” which now sounds like a slogan for a T-shirt called, simply, the '70s.

My third viewing of Kramer vs. Kramer came last night, streaming on Netflix. (Once in the theater, once on DVD, once streaming — it’s like the cinematic evolution of humankind.) Let’s get this out of the way — the film is great. It’s an absolute acting clinic — not just Hoffman (duh) and Streep (double-duh), but Oscar-nominated Jane Alexander, who plays Joanna’s best friend (she may be known to you, decades later, as the elderly sex therapist from HBO’s ill-fated drama Tell Me You Love Me), and, of course, Justin Henry, who, at age 8, became the youngest person to be nominated for an Academy Award for acting, a record that still stands.

But the other takeaway from re-rewatching Kramer vs. Kramer is that adult stories like this haven’t disappeared, they’ve simply migrated to another medium. It’s true you’re unlikely to see a big Hollywood studio picture — let alone a box-office-topping smash — about squabbling divorcées any time soon. But Kramer vs. Kramer, with its New York adman trying to learn to be a parent (and a human) while his chilly blonde wife strives to find a place for herself in the world, plays out exactly like Mad Men might, if Matthew Weiner extended the show to the late 1970s. (A shag for Don; a therapist for Betty; wide lapels for everyone.)

To put it in context, the Emmy winner for best drama in 1979, while Kramer vs. Kramer was conquering theaters, was Lou Grant — a fine show, but not something we’d consider of the same artistic caliber, or even ambition, as, say, Mad Men, or this year’s Emmy winner, Breaking Bad. The other nominees in 1979 were The Paper Chase and The Rockford Files. In 1980, Lou Grant won again and was joined by nominees like Dallas, The White Shadow, and Family. This was at a time when the primetime TV landscape included shows like The Waltons, Buck Rogers, The Love Boat, Hart to Hart, and CHiPs.

Back then, complex adult tales were being told at the multiplex; they were nowhere to be seen in your living room. If you wanted grown-up problems (and nudity!), you went to the movie theater, and you watched Buck Rogers or Wonder Woman on the TV at home. Now it’s the other way around. We’ve got no end of quality adult stories (and nudity!) on TV, and the multiplexes are full of spaceships and superheroes and movies for kids (or, at least, based on toys and comic books).

Which maybe makes total sense! I’d much rather watch Guardians of the Galaxy on the big screen, in 3-D and surround-sound, and save my “Why Are All the Grown-Ups Crying?” for Sunday nights on cable. Tracing the legacy of Kramer vs. Kramer to today, it turns out not to be a story of a culture dumbing down. It’s a story of the culture experimenting, expanding, and sorting itself admirably. After all, in 35 years, we’ve gone from Kramer vs. Kramer to Draper vs. Draper, am I right?

* This piece has been changed to reflect that Meryl Streep won Best Supporting Actress (and not Best Actress) for Kramer vs. Kramer.