When Ted arrives home, he is not even aware of Joanna’s luggage, showing how he has not paid attention to her in the marriage. He is on the phone checking about a work activity, and just keeps talking, with no attempt to see how his wife is doing. He says to her, as a bit of gossip, that a fellow employee committed suicide. This line is significant as it shows how Ted sees it as a bit of surprising news that doesn’t really affect him, but which indicates how the collateral damage that the rat race capitalism in which he is engaged has also impacted his own life. Joanna must interrupt Ted, nervously telling him that she is leaving him. Her short list of facts also carries meaning. She is leaving him her credit cards, which tell us that she has not established credit of her own. She has withdrawn two thousand dollars from their joint account, the amount she had when entering the marriage, illustrating that she has little economic independence. She gives him the receipts to pick up the laundry and dry cleaning, emphasizing that he must now pick up the clothes, and she has paid the bills. These are all domestic responsibilities that he has absented himself from.
Ted’s response is condescending, insensitive, and self-centered. He is not thinking of her pain. He only sees how she has ruined his big work news. He reveals his attitude when he says to her that he is sorry that he was late but he was busy making a living. He seems to think that her extreme act is just because he is coming home late this night. He flashes her a charming smile that shows how he thinks he can easily smooth out what he considers to be a simple bump in their relationship road. Joanna again performs an almost missed act that carries significance. She tugs at her wedding ring, as if wanting to free herself of this torment. But, she does not take it off, symbolizing how difficult it is to end her ties to this life to which she has committed herself, no matter how much distress she is in. Ted then asks, “Tell me what I did?” Men and women can connect with this statement, because men many times do not seem to be able to figure out what they have done wrong, and having to ask shows their lack of insight into their partner’s complaint. Also, it points to the male disposition to fix things quickly, as if they equate relationship repair with using a wrench to tighten a loose bolt.
The movie many times is able to use humor despite the unsettling nature of its topic. One instance occurs the morning after Joanna’s departure. Ted tries to make Billy think nothing is wrong as he tries to prepare French toast. Even though he acts like men are superior cooks, he has no kitchen skills, and his attempt at making breakfast is a disaster. He lets part of the eggshell fall into the bowl and tells Billy it’s okay because it just makes the food crunchy. He uses a coffee mug for the egg mixture, and can’t fit the bread slices in it. He lies to cover up his inadequacies. He says that all restaurants fold the bread. He puts way too much coffee in the French press to the point he can’t even push down on the grounds. His son knows more about making the meal than dad does. Billy warns his father about his mistakes, which Ted won’t acknowledge, which is what he did with wife. When the bread is burning, Billy alerts him, and Ted carelessly grabs the hot pan handle and burns himself. He then yells out, “Goddamn her!” His phony positive facade crumbles even after a little testing, and he again places fault elsewhere for his situation.
A shortcoming in the film is that it does not show how Ted bonds with Margaret. We are made to accept that they are now close friends hanging out together at the playground with their children, with Margaret sharing her feelings about her divorce. Her comments that she still feels that there is a link to her ex-husband, who left her, because there was love between them once and they share their offspring are feelings many who are divorced would share. Also relatable is her belief that her ex failed the love test, since if he truly cared, he would never have left.
Eight months have passed since Joanna left, and Ted’s boss is now angry that Ted missed an important meeting involving the big money client. It is because Ted now puts more of his time and energy into taking care of Billy. The boss’ anger is aggravated as Billy calls during the meeting to ask a question about the amount of TV time he is allowed. The stress leads up to the improvised “Salisbury steak” confrontation between Ted and Billy. (Hoffman, although refusing screenwriting credit, contributed to making the script authentic by adding his perspectives based on the divorce he was currently going through). This scene rings true for all parents and children, as Billy, like most kids, acts rebellious, testing parental limits. Ted says he should eat all of his Salisbury steak dinner or he will not get ice cream. Billy goes for the dessert first. Audiences will nod their heads in recognition when Ted says Billy will be “in big trouble” if he eats the ice cream, and when Ted adds, “you’ll be very, very sorry,” if he doesn’t eat his meal first.
They say nasty things to each other, as most parents and children do, and then they apologize, which is also a familiar occurrence. Billy voices his concern that he is afraid that Ted will leave, too. The boy feels, as do most children of divorced couples, that it’s the child’s fault when a parent leaves the marriage. Ted makes sure that Billy knows that his mother didn’t leave because of him. He expresses his epiphany to his son. “I think the reason why Mommy left was because for a long time,” Ted says, “I kept trying to make her be a certain kind of person. A certain kind of wife that I thought she was supposed to be. And she just wasn’t like that … I think that she tried for so long to make me happy, and when she couldn’t, she tried to talk to me about it. But I wasn’t listening. I was too busy, too wrapped up just thinking about myself. And I thought that anytime I was happy, she was happy. But I think underneath she was very sad. Mommy stayed here longer than she wanted because she loves you so much … She didn’t leave because of you. She left because of me.” After many months, Ted finally understands how he undermined Joanna’s individuality and thus her happiness.
The film offers the possibility that a working father that separated himself from his family to focus only on his work can become a nurturing parent. Ted now shows up at Billy’s Halloween pageant at the boy’s school, prompting him on his lines. Ted teaches Billy how to ride a bike and now Ted takes the time to listen to his son’s stories about school and other classmates. He also is trying to leave behind the hurt inflicted by the divorce on his romantic life by becoming intimate with a fellow worker, Phyllis Bernard (JoBeth Williams). In a funny scene, Phyllis gets up naked out of Ted’s bed to use the bathroom and unexpectedly encounters Billy. She is only wearing her large eyeglasses, and she calls Ted “Kramer,” which contrasts her professional demeanor with her nudity. She tries to cover her private parts while Billy, seemingly oblivious to her unclothed appearance, asks her if she likes fried chicken. It’s almost as if the boy is interviewing her to see if she will be an acceptable playmate for his dad. When Phyllis goes back into the bedroom she tells Ted, “I met your son.” Awkward! Maybe not such a good idea to bring the strange woman home for sex, Ted.
It is now fifteen months that Ted and Billy have been on their own, and we see that Joanna is back, spying on them from a coffee shop as Ted drops his son off at school. She contacts Ted and they meet at a restaurant. Joanna has been living in California, and had been in therapy. She says that she was a mess when she left, but now she found herself, is back in New York, and has a job. She says she has learned that she loves Billy and wants him to live with her. Ted is enraged, says with finality that she can’t have him, slaps a wine glass against the wall, and leaves. It is here where lawyers become involved, and the Kramer vs. Kramer conflict becomes legally ugly, as both legal representatives exaggerate the other party’s failings. This battle is also something that resonates with audience members.
Here is where the film questions the traditional idea that the mother is always the best person to raise a child. When Ted takes the stand, he argues that a woman just by the nature of gender should not automatically be considered a better parent. He says that he and Billy have built a life together and asks Joanna not to destroy that bond because the damage may be “irreparable.” Even Margaret takes the stand and tries to directly address Joanna to convince her that Ted has changed and that he and Billy are “beautiful” together. Joanna’s lawyer attacks Ted by saying he is working “down the ladder of success” because he was let go by his former employer and took a substantial pay cut in his new job. But, his change in employment was due to putting Billy first, missing an important deadline because his son was sick. It shows that in a money-driven environment, one must be able to do everything, excel at work and family caring, or else punishment in one form or another results. Ted had told Joanna about Billy’s injury, and now the lawyer brings it up to make Ted look like a negligent father. After the session is over, Joanna goes to Ted to apologize, saying she did not know the lawyer would use that event against him. Ted, shaking his head in disillusionment at Joanna, says nothing. He is now the one taking the elevator, leaving her alone because of her actions. The situation has flipped.
Ted meets with his lawyer who tells him that the judge went with “motherhood all the way.” Ted gets some visitation rights. He wants to appeal, but Shaunessy tells him that it will cost a lot more in money, and Billy will now “pay” because he will have to put the boy on the stand. Billy will be put in the position of exposing the faults of his parents and the guilt that goes along with that, and asked to choose between Ted and Joanna, a devastating situation for such a youngster. Ted, again caring more about his child then himself at this point, decides not to appeal. He tries to prepare a tearful Billy for his living with his mother, making it look like he’ll be happy being with Joanna. But, the boy cries because his father won’t be there to read to him each night, and tuck him in bed.
On the day Billy is supposed to get picked up by Joanna, the French toast breakfast scene is recreated. Only this time, it proceeds like clockwork, as Billy helps his dad prepare the meal flawlessly. They have come a long way. Ted gets a call from Joanna who wants to meet him in the lobby alone. She tells him that she felt bad that she didn’t paint those pretty clouds on the walls of the bedroom at her place so that Billy would feel like he was home. She says that she now realizes that he is “already home.” She tells Ted that she won’t take him away. She now rides the elevator again, but this time it is under more pleasant, inclusive circumstances, to tell her son she will be in her boy’s life, and that he can also be in his father’s.
Hoffman told a story about how he wanted a real court reporter for the film. He asked the woman who was in the movie if she primarily worked divorce proceedings. She said she used to, but it was so disturbing, she burned out. When Hoffman asked what she did now, she said she covered homicides. She said it was less upsetting. Her story shows how devastating divorce can be, and why audiences identified so much with this story they made the film the highest grossing movie of the year.
The next film is The Candidate.