Sunday, July 29, 2018

When Harry Met Sally ...

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
I have to admit that this 1989 film is one of my favorites. It is based on conversations between writer Nora Ephron and director Rob Reiner during the time when Reiner was going through his divorce and feeling confused as to how to deal with romance at that period in his life. The main two characters’ personalities in the movie are based on Ephron and Reiner.

The title, especially the three periods that follow it, suggest a sort of fairy tale, like “Once upon a time …” or “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …” However, the movie plays with this opening, since this film is an adult, romantic, comical/serious tale. Reiner and Ephron said that the film is all about meeting, because the characters encounter each other three different times after years in between. And, meeting develops into knowing, as Harry and Sally move toward understanding each other, and themselves. (If you want to see even more what happens to a couple after they become involved, catch Forget Paris, which Billy Crystal wrote, directed, and starred in. It’s a very funny, touching, overlooked romantic comedy).
The film starts with a couple on a couch talking about how they met, and how their relationship progressed. There are several of these scenes at various times in the story’s narrative. They show how strong relationships between couples survive over many years despite obstacles. The couples (actors who are telling stories based on real situations) are funny the way they deliver their tales, with overlapping speech, or with a woman being quiet, or a man silent except for one sentence. One particularly funny line comes from a wife who says she immediately felt she knew her future spouse, now sitting next to her with a large bald head, was the one, the way you know “about a good melon.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone compare love at first sight to purchasing fruit. All of the stories are unique because people are different, and they support the observation that it’s impossible to know why certain people click. Sometimes there is an initial spark, maybe ignited by the differences between the individuals, but there may be time lapses, divorces and remarriages, before things finally mesh.
The soundtrack uses song standards that comment on love. The movie opens with an up-tempo version of “It Had to be You,” which at this point could be ironic, meaning the main characters are not made for each other, or it could point to fate, that some people are destined to be together. It is 1977 at the University of Chicago following graduation, and Harry Burns, (Billy Crystal), is making out with his girlfriend, Amanda (Michelle Nicastro). Sally Albright (Meg Ryan), Amanda’s friend, pulls up in her car as she and Harry are going to share a ride to New York City together. Sally is very organized, a real control freak. She has the whole route marked out and how they will share driving. Even her eating patterns are rigid, as she refuses a snack offered by Harry because she won’t eat in between meals. Harry grabs some grapes and spits out the seeds but the window isn’t open. So, he’s a bit of a slob, the exact opposite of his car companion. He asks her to tell him the story of her life, and then spits, which undermines interest in his query. It’s more like he’s just trying to kill time. She says her life is just beginning, and is going to NYC to attend journalism school. He comments, sarcastically and with no tact, that’s so she can write about what happens to other people. Harry’s take on things initially is usually depressing. He asks Sally suppose nothing happens to her, and maybe she dies “a New York City death,” and it takes a while for people to smell her corpse and realize she’s gone. She was warned by Amanda that Harry had a dark side. He scoffs at Sally saying that she thinks about death only briefly as she happily goes through life. He sees her as eternally optimistic (Her last name is “Albright.” He, on the other hand, has the last name of “Burns” which is a volatile name, implying he is angry and not satisfied with the human condition). He reads the last page of a book first because he might die in the middle of the story. That, he says, is someone "with a dark side." He says he’s better prepared for bad stuff because he spends a lot of time thinking about death. But, she says that the price of that preparedness means he’ll ruin his life worrying about his demise. They argue at the extreme opposite ends of the scale.
Writer Ephron said there were two kinds of romantic comedies. One was Christian, where the impediments to the two people getting together were external. The other type was Jewish, where the blocking obstacles are the neuroses of the male. That type is the Woody Allen film, and this movie definitely fits into that category, although at least through a large part of the film Sally has her problems, too. As they drive to NYC, Harry and Sally argue about Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa in Casablanca leaving Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, and going with Paul Henreid’s Victor. She says Bergman gets on the plane because women are very logical and would rather be with a hero than a bar owner with no prospects or nobility (she makes this statement while she sprays her hair to keep it in place, emphasizing her drive for control). He argues that it’s better not to be in a passionless marriage but rather be with the guy she had the best sex in her life with. He says that she obviously has not had great sex - which is the preoccupation of the male. Later in the story, Harry comments that Ingrid Bergman is “low maintenance,” because she does not insist on so many requirements to carry out her way of life. Harry says Sally is high maintenance, but thinks she’s low maintenance. In the first time that they go into a restaurant on their road trip, Sally makes her order extremely complicated, while Harry, in contrast, orders “the Number 3.” In the later scene he says that “on the side” is very big with Sally, always altering what is on the menu. She says, “I want it like the way I want it,” Which for Harry is the very definition of high maintenance.

Ephron listened to Reiner and producer Andrew Scheinman and wanted to present those hidden aspects of the romantic experience between men and women that were not usually discussed. Meg Ryan said that Sally’s drive for control is her defense mechanism against the anarchy that can result from letting negativity enter her life. So, she even has bought “Days of the Week Underpants,” so as to put in order and organize by label her intimate clothing, giving credence to Harry’s accusation, in light of her Casablanca argument, that she is so uptight, she has not yet had great sex. Despite their differences (or maybe because of them because we want to win over what is difficult for us to conquer in order to sweeten our victories), Harry starts to hit on Sally. The thrust here is that men are always trying for a sexual conquest. Sally’s response is more typical of the traditional female reaction, which is that Amanda is her friend, and Harry ought to be ashamed of trying to betray her. She says they will just be friends, at which point Harry announces his major romantic premise: men and women can’t be friends because “the sex part always gets in the way.” So, he concludes, they can’t be friends because friendship between a man and a woman “is ultimately doomed and that is the end of the story.” In NYC, near Washington Square Park, they say goodbye for the first time, and the song we hear, appropriately, has the line “let’s call the whole thing off.” Of course, here at least, it’s not “the end of the story.” Ephron said that the point of the movie is not whether or not men and women can be friends, but rather what are the basic differences between the two sexes psychologically, and can they learn how to deal with those differences.
We encounter these two after five years, as they “meet” each other, once more, at the airport where Sally is making out with Joe (Steven Ford, son of President Gerald Ford), a lawyer, who admits his love for Sally, which thrills her. Harry passes by and has a bit of recognition, but it’s of Joe, (a nice bit of sabotaging our expectations), because they lived in the same building. Harry looks at Sally, and there is a moment where he stares at her, tries to place her, but can’t. After Harry moves on, she tells Joe she’s grateful Harry didn’t recognize her because of what a long drive it was being with him from Chicago. But, she does remember what he said about how there can’t be friendships between men and women. Joe first disagrees with Harry’s belief, but then confirms it by admitting that he has no female friends.
Harry does recognize her on the plane when she orders a drink in a complex manner. After arranging to sit next to Sally, Harry can’t even remember Amanda’s name (although Sally can’t either, at first with Joe, and then uses it against Harry - to make the man feel guilty about his more cavalier attitude toward romance). Harry also forgot Sally’s career goal of being a journalist, and he even has to ask if they had sex. Because they are not in a relationship they can admit to male-female feelings that lovers would be wary of talking about so as not to offend the other partner. Harry knows that she and Joe have been going together for only a month because one goes to the airport at the beginning of a relationship, and then the zeal to please the other person peters out. But, he surprises Sally by telling her he is getting married.  This development is so optimistic of him, showing Harry embracing life. He says falling madly in love will do that, but then he qualifies his romantic enthusiasm by saying men get tired of the whole dating ritual (which should not be the real reason one gets married). He also talks about how all men after sex want to get out of the place where they have had relations. They don’t want to cuddle, and they make up excuses to leave. He asks her if she likes to be held after sex, and then says that is her problem with men, since, as a typical woman, she doesn’t understand how men feel about intimacy. After disembarking the plane, Harry asks her if she wants to have dinner, just as friends. She reminds him of what he said about men and women not being friends. He first denies he said such a thing, but then admits that is what he still believes. But, there is an exception if both parties are in relationships, then they can be friends. Then he admits that’s not true, because then one of the partners will ask what is missing in the relationship that the other needs to seek out from another. And, there will be an accusation that the partner is secretly attracted to the other person, which is probably true. So, Harry concludes, as he did before, that men and women can’t be friends. They say goodbye again.
Another five years elapse. Sally is with friends, including Marie (Carrie Fisher). Marie found a receipt showing a guy, who she is having an affair with, and his wife, bought furniture. It’s repeated several times that the married men Marie is involved with will never leave their wives. When Sally says to her over and over the men will never get divorced for her, Marie says “You’re right, You’re right. I know you’re right.” Marie is an example of another truth that although intellectually some women know that they will not get commitments from married men, they delude themselves into thinking these fellows will leave their homes for them. Sally, at first silent, admits that she and Joe broke up. Marie asks immediately if Joe is available? There is no time for sympathy, making it look like the dating life can be cutthroat. Sally says that she’s okay, she and Joe were growing apart, she’s had a few days to get used to it, and she’s fine. She reassures herself that she is still too young for the clock to start ticking (a reference to having time to have a child). Sally first says she is in a mourning period, and is not ready to hear about possible dates. But, Marie has a file box containing information about men, which she carries with her, showing her underlying preoccupation with not wanting to be single. She comically folds down the end of a card on one man's entry when she finds out he is married. (The other friend says as a couple you have someone to do things with, and will have a date on national holidays. There is a desperate feel here shared by women who are not with a man. So, there is no celebrating the individual woman being free from men, which is a theme in other films which stress the empowerment of women). Marie says to Sally not to wait too long because there might be the right man out there and then she will have to live with the fact that another woman is married to her husband. Her statement stresses this feeling that there is a soul mate out there for every woman, which again lends itself to the female notion of a fairy-tale romance even in a modern world.
We then have a switch showing Harry’s relationship problems in a sad/funny scene that explains Harry’s anger and suspicion about the success of long term relationships. Whereas the women meet at a restaurant, Harry and his writer friend, Jess (Bruno Kirby), are at a male bonding event, a football game. Harry tells Jess that his wife, Helen (Harley Jane Kozak) told him that she doesn’t think she can be married anymore, like it’s the institution she has a problem with. After a day to think about it, she told him that they can try a trial separation and maybe could still go out on dates. But, as he told Sally, he wanted to get married so as not to date, and dating your own wife seems like moving backwards in the relationship. She then harshly told Harry that maybe she never loved him. Helen then said she can sublet another apartment, so she’s obviously thought about going away longer than she has let on. Which is confirmed when movers then showed up at their door. Helen said she didn’t want to ruin his recent birthday so she held off telling him about how she felt, somehow thinking being deceptive was taking the higher road. One of the movers has a T-shirt that says “Don’t f... with Mister Zero.” Harry sadly admits that this guy with the funny name knew about the end of his marriage before he did. The real pain comes from the fact that it’s really a lie, because Helen is now in love with a tax attorney and moved in with him. Harry reverts to his pessimism, saying that he knew that it was only a matter of time before she would “kick the shit” out of him.
After these parallel separate scenes, Harry and Sally again “meet,” this time at a bookstore. Marie is there and sees Harry in the “Personal Growth” section staring at Sally. Is this an ironic section for him to be in, implying he needs to grow emotionally? Or, is it a hint as to how he will be growing, especially at this point after getting battered by a woman as a sort of punishment for his irresponsible use of women for personal satisfaction all those years? Marie mirrors the main characters’ cynicism about relationships following their break ups, saying after five years, Harry may not be married anymore. In a country with a high divorce rate, one can see how the dream for enduring romantic love bumps up hard against reality.

Harry and Sally commiserate over the loss of their partners. Sally delivers a moving speech about the conflicting urges surrounding becoming a parent. She comments on what is not brought out into the open about how marriage seems to ruin the sex lives of couples. One mother said that caring for the offspring drained the parents’sexual impulses. She and Joe would say thay could fly off to Rome without a moment’s notice, and have sex on the kitchen floor. But then, Sally says, while babysitting the daughter of her friend, the two were playing “I Spy.” They saw a couple with a child riding on the father’s shoulders, and the girl said “I spy a family.” Sally said she began to cry. The fact is she and Joe never flew off to Rome, and never had sex on the cold ceramic tile kitchen floor. So, what they thought they had wasn’t real. She told Joe that she wanted children, he didn’t, and Sally says that was it, that was all “he could give.” She tells Harry she’s okay with what happened. (Her “Albright” personality does not want to admit to how devastated she feels). She agrees with Harry’s comment that she’s emotionally healthy, but Sally looks unsure, like she is trying to convince herself that she’s okay.
They joke as they walk, kidding about combining obituaries with apartment ads. She comes off strong in telling Harry he didn’t like her because she didn’t sleep with him, and blamed her refusal on her being uptight emotionally when it could have been a character flaw in him. He is more understanding, here, too, and apologizes for his attitude. She asks if he wants to have dinner, and he wants to know if they now were becoming friends. By the look on her face she might have been asking for a real date, but goes along with the friendship angle. He says that she may be the first attractive woman he didn’t want to sleep with. He labels his attempt at a friendship with a woman as “personal growth.” But, his comment to her is actually a left-handed compliment, because he says he himself isn’t desirous of her, even though he admits that she is attractive - “empirically” as he had once said.
We have Harry and Sally talking on the phone, but director Reiner keeps the narrative grounded in the cinematic by showing images of Harry, still reading the last pages of books, sitting in his sparsely furnished apartment (probably to stress his feelings of loss), and flipping cards into a hat so as to keep his mind off of Helen. He tells Sally he has been watching “Leave it to Beaver” reruns in Spanish at night because he can’t sleep, another example of mixing the funny and the sad. They are on the phones while watching the end of Casablanca in their separate apartments (which mimics how Crystal and Reiner would talk to each other while separately viewing the same film). Sally now says she never would have said Ilsa should go with Victor, showing how she is now more open to not being pragmatic as a buffer to life’s messiness. Reiner uses the split screen technique to show their simultaneous reactions to the movie, (appropriately a love story), and to each other’s words. She says she has been going to bed early, and Harry says that’s due to depression, which she refuses to admit she feels. Sandwiched in between their conversation is a montage, showing how they have been spending time together. Harry looks bored as she goes through one of her extended restaurant orderings, and later jams all of her letters at once into the mailbox, instead of waiting for her to double check that each one has slid down the chute. We see him with a thermometer in his mouth and he says he might be coming down with a 24 hour tumor - a definite Woody Allen line. Casablanca ends and Harry says the movie has the best last line ever in a film. He then says he will moan himself to sleep, which he begins to do, which is funny and pathetic at the same time.
In another scene, they share their sexual dreams, which reveal their personality traits. In a passage that could come right out of a Woody Allen script, Harry says he is making love and Olympic judges are watching (emphasizing the male preoccupation with sports and competition). But there is guilt, because his mother is watching him having sex, and she is an East German judge. She gives him only a 5.6, which Harry attributes to his dismount (a great line combining sex and sports, and the story fits in with Ephron’s Jewish romance category). Sally says her sex dream involves having a faceless man rip off her clothes, and the only thing that varies is what she is wearing. Even in her romantic fantasies, Sally is repressed.

In an improvised scene at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they talk with funny accents. He asks her to go to the movies with him, but she can’t because she has a date. The confusion over the nature of their relationship emerges when she says because they were spending so much time together, she felt weird telling him about seeing someone else. He says he thinks it’s great that she is dating, but she seems surprised and maybe a bit let down that he wouldn’t want to keep their growing closeness to themselves. Harry asks what she will be wearing and comments that he thinks she ought to wear skirts more, because she looks really good in them. His remark carries mixed signals, which can be taken as friendly advice, or his awareness of how attractive she is to him. She urges him to go out with someone, but he says he’s not ready. But he does, and as she helps him roll out a carpet in his place (they are domestic without living together), they then compare notes on how bad their dates went. She says her guy pulled a hair out of her head and flossed with it (which may be too exaggerated - I hope - an attempt to get a laugh in a non-stand-up routine). He says his date had no sense of humor, not responding to his ordering empty plates at an Ethiopian restaurant. But, he says he then went into a panic attack after learning that his date went to a Big Ten school, as did Helen. Sally, providing the feminine perspective, says it may be a while before they can feel comfortable enough to be intimate with someone. But Harry, being the typical male who won’t let incompatibility get in the way of having sex, says he slept with his date anyway.
We again have the guys in a sports setting, talking while in batting practice cages. Jess doesn’t understand Harry’s liking Sally, finding her attractive, but not sleeping with her. Jess makes an insightful comment, saying Harry is not allowing himself to be happy. Harry is holding back, not letting himself to become romantically involved with a person he connects with because of his past sexist ways with women, and then getting hurt when he did commit to a marriage. For some people, sometimes intimacy changes the relationship, puts higher expectations in play, and thus allows for larger disappointments. Harry argues the pluses of the current relationship, saying he can tell Sally stuff, like how he brought a woman to a high level of pleasure (comically saying he elicited meows from the lover). He says he can share with Sally what he never could with a woman before, and he gets the female perspective on things. He says he’s growing, then gets petty with a kid about monopolizing the batting cage, which undermines his “personal growth,” which is pointed out by Jess. Harry says he can be truthful with Sally no matter how selfish he sounds, because he isn’t trying to clean up his act in order to get her into bed.
We then have the famous deli scene. Sally, in female judgmental mode, wants to know how Harry runs out on these women, as he said on the airplane all men want to do, after he has used them for sex. He says that he tells them lies, such as he has to leave for a squash game, which he doesn’t play, but which they don’t know is not true because they just met him. Sally labels Harry an “affront to all women.” He says the women are having a good time, so it’s not a one-sided benefit. She brings up the possibility that some of the women he had sex with may have faked having orgasms. (Another one of Ephron’s secrets she wanted revealed). He says he knows they aren’t faking with him, which points to the ignorance inherent in the self-inflated male ego. She says that most women do it, even if men say never with them, so “do the math.” To drive home her point, Sally pretends, convincingly, to fake a climax, moaning, and saying “Oh God,” “Oh right there,” “Yes, Yes, Yes!” and banging the table, running her hands through her hair to the astonished reactions of the customers. At the end, Reiner’s mother gets the line, “I’ll have what she’s having.” (It was Ryan who suggested the fake orgasm scene, and Reiner had to act it out following Ryan’s restrained first take. But, the famous last line of the scene was provided by Crystal, which Reiner gave to his mom).
The story moves on to the Christmas holidays in NYC, with Macy’s windows decorated and the large tree erected in Rockefeller Center. How close and yet still separate they are is seen in a shot of Harry helping Sally bring home a Christmas tree to her place, but again, it is still just her place. We quickly shift to a New Year’s Eve party. Sally tells Harry thanks for being with her on this night, and he says that if they are not with anyone next year, she has a date. It’s comforting, in a strange way, because they are not intimately involved, but they are still there for each other. He no longer has his beard, and she says they can dance cheek - to - cheek now. This physical connection is also symbolic of how they are becoming closer emotionally. Their faces show that they are feeling more than friendship as they dance, and they are a bit surprised, and a little scared by it. The music fits the scene as we hear Harry Connick singing about how lovers are made from friends. They go out to get some air to cool off their arousal as the countdown to the new year (a new beginning?) occurs. Everyone kisses, they hesitate, not knowing what to do, but they smile, and play it safe with a little kiss and a hug.

There is a double date with Jess and Marie, with the hope that those two will pair up with Sally and Harry. There is no chemistry among those in the blind date situation, and, instead, Jess and Marie connect, run off in a cab together, and leave the other two to themselves. Four months later, Jess and Marie are moving in together, and Harry and Sally shop for a housewarming gift for the new couple. Harry finds a karaoke machine and starts singing “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” which is from the romantic musical, Oklahoma. His fun time is dashed (again the romantic idealism expressed in the song gets trashed by hurtful reality) as he sees Helen there with her new guy, Ira (Kevin Rooney). This encounter puts Harry into a tailspin, bringing out his negativity. The cowboy motif from the musical carries forward to Jess’ place, where he has a wagon wheel coffee table, a piece of furniture that is definitely associated with the macho male presence in the Old West. Marie argues it’s tacky, indicating that the traditional male ways are out of date. Their argument leads to Harry warning them of how relationships start out sweet, like his and Helen’s did, but then end in the inevitable break up. He says that there will be arguments over an eight dollar dish that will cost “a thousand dollars in phone calls to the legal firm of That’s mine, This is yours.” After he storms out of the apartment, Sally follows him and tells him that he has to not voice everything he feels at the moment he feels it. He scoffs at her control, saying how can she never have what happened with Joe resurface. He says her calm isn’t genuine, basically, because she hasn’t moved on, exemplified by the fact that she has not slept with anyone since Joe. Her response again shows the differences between men and women in viewing relationships. She tells him that when she is ready to make love it will be when she is in love. He’s been going through many women as if he’s out for revenge, and it hasn’t made Helen “into a faint memory.” He apologizes and they hug.
One evening, Sally, in tears, calls Harry, telling him Joe is getting married, and needs Harry to come over for support. Ryan is great in this scene, her face and voice really revealing her character. She always looked like she was okay with the break up, but her control freak exterior crumbles now when she finds out Joe is marrying somebody who he just met. She says “Kimberly” was supposed to be his “transitional person,” not “the One.” She wanted him to be going through the same slow moving forward, the same anguish she went through at the end of their romance. Her hair is frizzy, and she is throwing facial tissues all over, which shows her orderliness firewall is failing. The scene is also comical as she angrily interrupts her narration by saying “I need a tissue,” or says Kimberly is a “paralegal” with a sneer, as if the woman isn’t good enough for an ex of hers. Harry asks if she would take Joe back right now? She, sobbing, says “nooo,” as if that’s a given, but she is upset by asking why didn’t he love her enough, as if she is unlovable. It is a jolt to her self-esteem, because she concludes that it wasn’t that he didn’t want to get married, he just didn’t want to marry her.  She puts herself down with abrupt, guttural dismissals of herself - “I’m difficult. I’m too structured and completely closed off,” But he says comically, “But in a good way.” She complains she’s getting older - “I’m going to be forty.” But, he points out her exaggerated reaction by noting that won’t be for eight years. He makes her laugh when she says men can have kids when they are older, like Charlie Chaplin, and he says yeah, but he can’t pick them up. She abruptly reverts to crying, not allowing herself to feel better. They hold each other, but then kiss, as she finds solace in his arms, and he wants to comfort her. They then make love.
Afterwards, she looks happy, and he looks stunned, like a deer in the headlights, probably thinking he may have made a big mistake, because after his marriage broke up, he doesn’t trust being in a relationship. With Sally, he can’t just have a sexual release and escape because he has developed a friendship with her. There is a shot, as Sally goes for some water, of Harry with one leg out of the bed, resting on the floor, like he’s ready to dash out. He sees a box which contains alphabetized entries of her movies on cards. Sally’s super-organized ways point out to him how different they are. She asks if he is ready to go to sleep, hoping he is up for more lovemaking, but he says okay, and she gets her first dose of a letdown. He doesn’t leave, but he gets up before her in the morning. He says they have to get ready for work, but he would like to have dinner with her. It sounds artificial, distant, like an obligation, and he gives her an anemic peck on the forehead as a departing kiss.

We have a fun split-screen scene as Harry and Sally call Jess and Marie separately at the same time retelling what happened. They say the sex was good, but Sally says it went cold after that, and Harry says he felt suffocated. They actually seem to be telling one long narrative as the sentences seem sequential although four people are talking. Jess reassures Marie that she “will never have to be out there again,” after what happened to Harry and Sally reminds her of the anguish of dating.
Internal monologues occur as Harry and Sally say they must tell the other their lovemaking was a mistake. At dinner, Sally looks disappointed when she says it first and Harry so quickly agrees. She is doing it to lessen the embarrassment of being rejected, and he is doing it to escape emotional intimacy. Afterwards, Harry tells Jess that it was too late in their relationship to have sex, since they already told each other their stories, and then didn’t know what to do after sex. He seems to be reciting from the male game plan, which urges having sex before getting to even know the person. Marie is getting fitted for her wedding dress, which accentuates Sally’s sadness, although she is glad for Marie, the hope for a happy romantic ending still seeming to be possible. What makes the wedding ceremony awkward is that Harry is the best man and Sally is the maid of honor. Afterwards, Harry says to Sally the holidays are rough, and she says there are a lot of suicides, almost like she could empathize. Sally is angry, and Harry says why can’t they get past it, since it’s been three weeks since they made love. For him it’s been a sufficient amount of time. He says why does it have to mean having sex was everything, and she responds, as most women who prize intimacy would, by saying, “Because it does.” And, if it wasn’t important, he wouldn’t have wanted to run away from it so quickly. He then makes the mistake of acting like he gave her pity sex. She slaps him for that one. At the reception, Jess says that they want to thank Harry and Sally, because if either he or Marie would have found them at all attractive, the two of them wouldn’t have gotten together. What a tribute!
It’s the Christmas holidays again, and we hear Bing Crosby singing “Have yourself a merry little Christmas.” The song contains the ironic line, given Sally’s situation, about troubles being “out of sight,” as Sally must now drag her tree to her place alone, occasionally falling down in the process. Harry keeps leaving apologetic phone messages, saying he will do the traditional season’s “groveling” if Sally lets him. He says to Jess he’s tired of making a “schmuck” out of himself with his constant apologies, but then he continues to do so, leaving a song message accompanied by the karaoke machine. When she does answer, he says that he’s sorry, but doesn’t elaborate. He then says that if she doesn’t have a date for the New Year’s Eve party, they said they would be each other’s dates. She says, “I can’t be your consolation prize anymore.” She is now showing that she has gained self-respect, and won’t allow herself to be demeaned.
On New Year’s Eve, Harry is in his place, saying to himself that he’s great, eating Mallomars, watching Dick Clark. She is having a lousy time at the party. At the end of romantic comedies, one character has to run to the other to consummate the happy ending (See: Sleepless in Seattle; Love, Actually; Serendipity; The Family Man, etc.). Harry walks around, trying to say it’s great to catch up on window shopping, get some fresh air. But, he wanders by where they first arrived in New York. We have a montage of the images and words that represent his memories with Sally. Then we get Frank Sinatra singing a more romantic version of, “It Had to be You.” Harry talked about Casablanca having the best last line ever in a movie. Harry runs to the party to deliver, for my money, one of the best last speeches ever. He tells Sally that he loves her, but she just chalks it up to him being lonely on New Year’s Eve. He then says, “I love that you get cold when it’s 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” They kiss, and Auld Lang Syne begins to play. Harry says he doesn’t get the song, but Sally, appropriately, says it’s about old friends.
The final scene, also improvised, has the two of them joining the procession of other couples who sat on the couch. They talk about the three times they met, and how they were friends, then weren’t, and then fell in love. They say they had a great wedding ceremony, with a cake with the chocolate sauce on the side, which Harry was okay with. Being able to accept and find endearing those things that may drive you nuts. Now that’s love.

The next film is Dial M for Murder.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Candidate

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
“Politics is bullshit!” is the comment of one character, and that is pretty much the theme of this 1972 film about a man who has the same excremental opinion of the political process. But, he is seduced into running for the California U. S. Senate seat and winds up forfeiting his ethical center after getting caught up in the American campaign process.

The movie, which won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Jeremy Larner (a speechwriter for Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy), begins with the titles in red, white, and blue, and the soundtrack playing American Revolution fife and drum marching music. In the context of this story the thrust is satiric, since the colors of the flag, and the music, emphasize how politicians use national symbolism to stir the emotions of the citizens into a patriotic fervor absent of rational discussion of the pertinent issues. To produce a sense of realism, director Michael Ritchie, who once worked as a campaign technical adviser, gives the film a documentary feel by including background noise, overlapping conversations, and jerky camera movements. He includes real TV newsmen, including Mike Wallace, and actual candidates, such as George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey.
Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), a campaign manager, talks to his media expert, Klein (Allen Garfield) after their candidate loses an election. The concession speech is boiler plate, with the usual statements about how the loser will continue to fight for the issues that brought him into the race. Of course there is no mention of personal ambition, because even though everybody knows that element is present, everyone pretends that is not a motivation. The responses to the election by Lucas and Klein are rather cold. Klein says that at least they won two out of three elections in which they were involved. The losing candidate was a nice guy, and that is why Lucas says, “He never had a chance.” In politics, the cliche that “good guys finish last” is a given.
Lucas is looking to the next campaign. He holds up a newspaper picture of Bill McKay (Robert Redford) as a possible Democratic candidate for Senator from California. Klein points out the incumbent, Republican Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) is unbeatable. (Jarmon’s first name sounds like Davy Crockett, an American legend, but it also implies his words are “a crock of shit,” suggesting he is a phony). Lucas says that McKay is good looking and he is the son of an prior governor of the state. There is no mention here of whether he is qualified for the job or any discussion of his integrity. The major criteria seems to be physical attractiveness and name recognition. On his way to meet McKay, Lucas drives past workers, the people who politicians should care about, but who get lost in the speechifying, the political maneuvers, and the compromises to appease so many groups. McKay is in this place because he is an environmentalist, and is trying to cut through the impediments blocking the completion of a watershed project.

McKay is not some naive guy. He is cynical about the political process, because he witnessed its underhanded ways while his father was governor. He and his dad are not close, and he doesn’t want to have him involved in his activities. McKay says being governor was great for his dad, but the younger McKay is not sure his father did anything for others. When Lucas pitches the need for someone to run against Jarmon who has something he believes in, McKay says, “Whatever that means.” McKay accurately identifies Lucas’ statement as an insincere public relations line. Because he doesn’t trust the political process, McKay has been working outside of politics.

McKay tells Lucas he worked twenty hours on the weekend but was happy, so what does Lucas have to offer him? He was able to save some trees, and he opened up a clinic. Lucas says Jarmon sits on committees that carve up land, oil and taxes. Lucas plays to McKay’s views on these issues. McKay knows he has limited power, so Lucas exploits that angle, saying McKay can call his own shots as a senator. McKay’s wife, Nancy (Karen Carlson), thinks it’s a good idea to run, but her husband would have to register to vote. He’s not even affiliated with a party, which shows how alienated he is from the political process. For him, up to this point, the political parties haven’t offered enough for those outside of their organizations.
Lucas says McKay has credibility based on his work and he has his dad’s name for notoriety. McKay’s wife says he has the looks. Lucas works another angle. He says because Jarmon is unbeatable, McKay doesn’t have to compromise. He can say what he wants, and get publicity for his causes. When asked what he is getting for his efforts, Lucas says he receives some salary, but implies that he probably wants the connection to a U. S. senator for other perks. McKay points out that Lucas has a beard, which is forbidden in politicians because it makes them appear sneaky. Lucas, in a way, is like the Devil, luring the moral McKay into a fallen state.
McKay, trying to decide what he wants to do, goes to hear Jarmon give a speech. Jarmon offers the usual Republican line - we don’t need welfare or social workers. People have to take responsibility for themselves instead asking for government handouts. He says we don’t need more welfare, but instead we should put our trust in making businesses more successful. It’s the trickle down theory of economics which was championed by Ronald Reagan. To help corporations, Jarmon doesn’t want extreme regulations regarding conservation because they curb company profits. Jarmon, like most conservatives, demonizes the Federal government, likening it to 1984’s dictator, “Big Brother.” After his speech, Jarmon follows the usual political game plan, doing handshaking, holding up kids, and pretending he knows people. McKay approaches him, asks if he recognizes him, and Jarmon acts like he met him before.
McKay decides to run for office after witnessing Jarmon’s rally. At his announcement as a candidate, he acts differently than those who usually run for office. He doesn’t give some flowery speech. He just opens himself up to questions. He doesn’t equivocate about what he thinks, and does not shy away from controversial topics. When asked about welfare, he says the government subsidizes industries, so why not individual people? He is in favor of busing students to foster desegregation of schools. He doesn’t know enough about real estate taxes, so he says he doesn’t know what to do about them. He won’t do PR photos with his staff, saying they are not responsible for his actions, so he doesn’t want to implicate them if what he does is unpopular.
But Lucas and Klein are already ramping up the sales pitch for McKay. Klein pitches using slick TV commercials, and McKay is wary of him. He wants final say over what is released. They are already packaging him, telling him to cut his hair shorter and to get rid of his sideburns. They have McKay shows up at an auto parts factory. They try to make him look like he cares about the common man by showing up in situations outside of a studio. But, it’s still staged, with cameras running to show him shake hands with workers. He does try to get his message across despite the artificiality of the situation when he tells one guy that high interest rates and personal expenses outpace his salary. The worker is shy, and appears to want to escape, because the average person isn’t seeking the limelight, and just wants the simple joys life offers (this is the pre-YouTube age).

McKay looks like he is having doubts about his decision to run. At home, he tells his wife that he doesn’t want to go to a political banquet. He just wants to go with her for a walk on the beach, seeking the private pleasantries that he has left behind. She is upset with him, and seems more enthusiastic about being in the spotlight than he does. McKay rests on the bed and grabs the bed frame that looks like prison bars, symbolizing his sense of confinement. In his speech at the banquet he talks about how forces more and more overwhelm the individual, and it sounds like he may be thinking about his own situation. After his talk, in the reception line, we hear numerous empty platitudes, and superficial talk about his wife’s looks and her dress. Nothing substantive is discussed. One woman appears to be coming onto McKay, which is another seductive aspect of fame that can lure someone into compromising one’s morals.
There is a rehearsal for an interview. McKay doesn’t seem to have a precise answer as to where one takes a stand against communism. He just knows it’s not in Vietnam (which was still going on at the time the film was made, and was dividing the nation). The idea of a case-by-case basis seems weak to campaign runners. The thrust is that people like decisive, simple answers even though the questions may be complicated. But, conversely, when McKay gives the answer that he’s for a woman’s right to have an abortion, Lucas says McKay has to amplify his answer, so as not to alienate parts of the electorate. Lucas wants him to say the issue of abortion rights is worth studying. So, the result is that one’s views on controversial subjects become watered down.  

Appearances take priority when you are trying to win over the public (today we call it “optics”). McKay goes to a beach, and despite his apparent aversion to manipulating visuals, he is getting savvy, saying he doesn’t want to pitch environmental concerns while driving up in a gas guzzler car. He tells young people there that it used to be a clean beach, and now the water is polluted. He says maybe we don’t need more nuclear plants, or oil drilling that hurts the environment. But, while looking at the footage of the beach visit, Lucas, instead of allowing McKay’s message to get out, says to Klein that McKay has gone too far. Lucas says he already has union problems, and he’s worried McKay’s stance threatens some jobs when environmental concerns stop certain industrial projects. McKay said something about firing the Board of Regents, and Lucas says a senator can’t do that. Lucas says it’s meaningless, but Klein says it doesn’t matter, because “It sounds good.” That’s the bottom line: what is appealing is what matters, whether it’s true or not (“fake news” has been around for a while, it’s just getting more play now).

McKay visits the Watts ghetto. McKay says that there are not enough hospitals or birth control centers there, and no good transportation, housing programs, and generally not enough resources available. But the scene looks awkward when the all white staff and film crew seem out of place in the African American community. A local man says to one of them “give me five,” and a staff member doesn’t know what to do. McKay gets the message about how the locals feel toward them, because he knows something about the people in the area. When a youth flashes a three finger sign, the “V” formation signifies “peace,” but the third digit stands for “up yours.”

While looking at a commercial utilizing some of what was filmed, it looks slick, but McKay complains there is no footage from when he was at a ghetto health clinic. Klein shows him what was recorded. There is a baby crying and it’s distracting. The woman there slaps her kid, and the lady is cynical about McKay’s ability to change anything. McKay says, “What about what I’m saying?” Klein says, “What about it?” It’s as if content doesn’t matter. What has become important is how appealing the ad appears. We then see one of Jarmon’s commercials where he appears with pro football players. It’s a safe ad, associating him with a popular sport. When Jarmon says he saw men on their knees praying, McKay and Lucas satirize the statement, saying they were probably on their knees shooting craps. McKay, finding the humor in the staginess of the campaign, jokes about challenging Jarmon to a game of craps, because it made the country great (making things “great” has always been used as a political slogan). McKay continues to kid about the use of political rhetoric when he says God made the country great (because politicians always invoke God). He says God shoots crap, so basically they would be doing his work. With the right jargon (which sounds a bit like “Jarmon”), one can elevate anything, no matter how unsavory.
McKay’s run for senate starts to pick up momentum as the newspapers give him more coverage and larger crowds show up at campaign sites. These rallies are again more about being appealing and entertaining. There are pretty girls wearing hats to promote McKay while singing a campaign song. Actress Natalie Wood shows up to lend star power to a photo op. The emphasis is on presenting a show business spectacle instead of presenting plans to address social problems. Despite his appeal among Democrats, Lucas shows McKay some poll results while in a bathroom, (suggesting the campaign is going down the tubes? Implying that politics is dirty?) and tells him he will get wrecked in the election. McKay says they knew he would lose, but Lucas, who seduced him by saying losing would liberate McKay, now says he won’t just lose, he will be humiliated. So now, Lucas manipulates McKay by wanting him to play along so his causes, and McKay himself, are not demeaned. McKay says he wants to quit. Lucas says it’s too late, probably because McKay will appear pathetic. He also has has a duty to run now since he has become the Democratic candidate. McKay says Lucas makes that sound like a death sentence. (Many Democrats recently must have felt that way).

More problems start to occur. One staffer tells McKay to alter his itinerary and go to Malibu. There’s a fire there, which the staffer ironically labels as something “perfect,” as if a disaster is good for McKay’s image as a protector of the environment. Lucas and McKay want to emphasize the importance of having a watershed (which keeps water in the ground to prevent fires), and providing insurance to protect homeowners from such natural occurrences. But, a staffer says they don’t want to make it look like McKay is exploiting the fire for political reasons. But, that is the reason they are there. So, pretending to deny that self-promotion exists is a form of phoniness and illustrates the attempt to try to remove any negativity associated with the campaign. Jarmon shows up and grandstands the scene. He says he persuaded the President to declare Malibu a disaster area, and Jarmon will introduce a watershed bill that will include homeowners insurance coverage. He basically abandons his conservative stance for his own political advancement, and upstages his opponent.

At a mall McKay says that Jarmon says the economy is going well, but, there are people telling McKay about the need for jobs. He argues that industries must retool in order to make jobs available. These are pertinent points. But, the sound system at the mall creates bad feedback and ruins the event. This undermining of the communicating of McKay’s positions is symbolic of how his substantive words seem to be drowned out by other forces. At another site, McKay talks about how farm subsidies should be for individual farmers, not big combines that wipe smaller farm owners out. But, the event was not properly promoted, and only a couple of people show up. Again, his progressive message is not being heard.
Another problem involves gossip that McKay’s ex-governor father, who has not endorsed his son yet, is actually for Jarmon. While discussing the need for the elder McKay’s help, which angers the candidate, McKay can’t get a soda machine to dispense his drink. His inability to get the machine to work is symbolic of how McKay doesn’t mesh with the political machinery, and how politics in general doesn’t work for the country as a whole. McKay doesn’t want to use his father, but he eventually capitulates. Compromises keep falling like dominoes. McKay meets with his dad (Melvyn Douglas). There is talk about the younger McKay’s mother, who is divorced from his father, and which seems to be a sticking point between McKay and his dad. The ex-governor’s new wife is condescending about McKay’s senate run. She says, “That’s very good, Bud” (his nickname), sounding as if he joined the soccer team. As they walk, Dad shoots a rabbit on his grounds, which is distasteful to the conservationist McKay.

A journalist from Parade magazine shows up at McKay’s house without the candidate’s knowledge. His wife knows about it, and she is in a riding outfit, because that is what the Parade people want her to appear in when they take photos. The artificial staging is now even occurring in his house. McKay feels like he is experiencing a sort of home invasion. The journalists talk about how the books on the shelf won’t work for the photoshoot. The desire is to change everything into what looks more appealing, and not present what’s real.

Real TV journalist Howard K. Smith presents a commentary on the network news (again adding verisimilitude to the film). He says candidates are now selling themselves like products. They are just like underarm deodorant, which tries to cover up an unappealing smell. Politicians run commercials that are just long enough to “pound in some mindless slogan.” But, Smith says McKay was initially running an honest campaign unlike the party machine ones of his father. However, he says, issue specifics degenerated into generalities, and McKay has gone “Madison Avenue.” There is now just salesmanship with no moral considerations, and it seems that virtue does not endure in a long campaign. After seeing this TV report, McKay is angry and confronts Lucas, who deflects him with news that Jarmon has just agreed to a debate. Lucas continues to manage McKay, saying he wants a panel to prepare for the debate, and he worries about Jarmon coming off like he’s the dad and McKay is a kid. McKay says he just wants to say what he came to say, but Lucas says one can’t say too much on TV, and he must say it “the right way at the right time.” McKay yells he wants to know what this campaign is about. He says it’s supposed to be about the issues, not just winning. But Lucas avoids the answer by saying they came up 14 points in the polls, and argues that McKay is getting through to the people. He says that Jarmon is scared, and that is why he agreed to debate. McKay is again diverted from immediately fighting for causes, and allows the efforts to win the contest to take priority. Unfortunately, this action comes at a great ethical cost. After the conversation, staffers flood into the room, implying that once again McKay the person is overwhelmed by McKay, the political campaign.

The staff preps McKay for the debate. They tell him what to say about crime prevention, an issue he is isn’t strong on. But they just offer him vague talking points. As they land their plane to attend the debate, Lucas barges into the cockpit to do more prepping over the pilot’s objections, who says he doesn’t care who McKasy is, he shouldn’t be in there. (McKay and Lucas are continually invading places where they shouldn’t be. They try using a studio after being told it was not available. They use the wrong elevator, and the employee echoes the words of the pilot. Regular people are not impressed in their daily lives by politicians who don’t really make a difference in their lives, and who sometimes actually hinder, not help, the people they represent). At the debate site, the emphasis is again on appearance, as McKay must change his tie, has to wear makeup, needs to interlace his fingers, and should look properly into the camera. During a break, a camera test is conducted, but the image of McKay is superimposed onto that of Jarmon, suggesting that they become the same because of the nature of political campaigning which exacts character compromises in order to practice salesmanship. Toward the end of the debate, McKay goes rogue. He says that there were issues that were not discussed, such as those pertaining to poverty, race, and dilapidated cities. He says they better address these problems or there will be violence. Jarmom, like a seasoned political manipulator who jettisons integrity, twists McKay’s words to make it sound like McKay is advocating violence. After the debate one of McKay’s staffers says it was quite a show. Instead of substance, what sells is excitement and controversy, because serious discussion is just boring to the populace.
McKay’s father shows up after the debate to finally endorse him to counteract any negativity his son sustained at the debate concerning his reference to the threat of violence in the cities. McKay ponders if anyone knows what he was trying to do, but his dad says it won’t make any difference. Again, substance is secondary. McKay demands that he wants his makeup removed, saying he wants “this crap off.” But, after a while, the “crap” sticks, figuratively, if you use it enough, and all you are presenting to the public is a phony exterior.

There is a big shot union leader named Starkey (Kenneth Tobey), whose endorsement McKay’s father wants for his son. McKay doesn’t like being indebted to any powerful people who worked for his dad, and the union guy also tried to interfere with employment of farm workers. Starkey wants favors for his support. Starkey thinks McKay is going to get beaten but the ex-governor says no, because his son is “cute.” Looks are what counts, and that attractiveness will always beat ordinary is the ruling principle here. McKay is late for the meeting with Starkey because he is seen in the hotel hallway with the woman he met earlier who was coming onto him. He obviously is cheating on his wife, showing how he has become morally compromised. At the meeting, McKay disagrees with Starkey, saying they “don’t have shit in common.” But, McKay’s father turns it into a joke. The two really don’t have anything in common based on their backgrounds. But, working for those for whom you want favors makes strange allies in a political fight, and we see Starkey enthusiastically introducing McKay at a rally.

In his speech to union members, we see how far Mckay has fallen from his lofty ideals. He plays the crowd by capitulating to the use of vague emotional rhetoric. He says we must trust in our courage and compassion, and we’re all in the fight for a better world together, thus relying on the universal desire for unity by ignoring how to deal with the differences that must be overcome. He concludes with the cliche promise of saying, “ I’ll give it all I got.” While going from place to place, he repeats the same vapid speech about not wanting to play rich against poor, black against white, old against young. The speech patterns sound so inspiring it doesn’t matter what is said. McKay mocks the speech as he travels in a car with Lucas. He mixes up the words by saying we can’t play black against old. He makes fun of the vagueness of the words when he says the country can’t feed its foodless, house it’s homeless. The talking points sound good, but are devoid of substantive meaning.  He uses a line, “The basic indifference that made this country great,” which shows how anything can be made to sound good. He does a fake exhortation, saying on election day people should vote once, vote twice for McKay, “you middle class honkies,” satirizing his own demographic appeal. He then flashes the outdated victory sign that Nixon used to employ which was adopted and changed by the young at the time to mean peace, not war. The image shows how out of touch most politicians are with the citizenry they are supposed to be working for.
On election day, as the evening wears on, it is projected that McKay will win. His wife contemplates where they will live near Washington. But, McKay looks stunned because he was ready to lose, and at this point he wishes he didn’t win.  His father says to him with a smile, “You’re a politician.” Those words are frightening to McKay. It’s like he’s been cursed. McKay gets Lucas alone. The last words of the film are, “What do we do now?” Winning turned out to be everything instead of the issues, and McKay has compromised so much that he feels he not only has lost his way forward but also his moral identity.

The next film is When Harry Met Sally ...

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Kramer vs. Kramer

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
The title of this 1979 winner of the Best Picture Oscar pretty much gets to the heart of the story. And, hearts can be the casualties of the civil war that derives from the conflict that rips apart the emotional fabric shared by two people who married because of their love for each other. Although the movie might seem out of date now, it actually broke ground in presenting the fallout of divorce in a film, reassessing gender roles in a domestic union, and showing the predicament of a single parent in American society. What makes this motion picture resonate with audiences is how true it feels to so many people who have shared the experiences of the main characters.

The first shot is of Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep in her first Oscar-winning role, here for supporting actress). The image looks like a portrait of a sad and drained woman. Her hand rests near her face, her wedding ring prominently visible, immediately telling us that it is her marriage that the story will be focusing on. While tucking in her seven year old son, Billy (Justin Henry) for the night, we know from the sorrowful way she tells him that she loves him that this is not easy for her. There is a wrenching irony in her son’s statement when he says, “I’ll see you in the morning.” Added irony exists in the bright, fluffy clouds painted on the boy’s bedroom walls, implying the parent’s desire for Billy to always have pleasant days.
It is obviously late in the day, since the boy is going to sleep, and it is late in Joanna’s marriage. While she packs her bags, there are cuts to her husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman, also winning his first Oscar, for Best Actor), shooting the breeze with his boss at the advertising firm where he works. He is talking about buying an expensive coat as a symbol of his success when he was promoted, which emphasizes that he measures success by material gains, and not by the state of his family’s emotional health. He is oblivious to the late hour, and the fact that he is ignoring his family, until another worker walks in saying how he must get home. But, before he leaves, Ted’s boss, Jim O’Connor (George Coe), tells Ted that he will be handling a big money account. While walking on the street, Ted passes impoverished street musicians, playing the Vivaldi piece which opens the film. This quick shot stresses stresses how this society does not reward the beauty of their artistic achievement. (Director Robert Benton making an analogy to struggling filmmakers?).
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.

Joanna goes into the hall, pleading with Ted that if he makes her stay she will eventually jump out a window (echoing Ted’s co-worker’s suicide). She tells him that he married the wrong kind of person for the wife he wanted. At this point, she blames herself. She says she is no good for Billy, lacking patience, and emotionally not capable of being a good mother in her current state. As she is ready to leave him she admits that she doesn’t love him anymore, which emphasizes the finality of her connection to him. (Streep once said, because she creates backstories for her characters, that Jonna never really loved Ted). She departs in the elevator, and elevators are used two other times in the story to show the varying degrees of separation between these two people. Here it is used to demonstrate Joanna pulling away from Ted.
Ted seems incapable of dealing with the situation, and is in denial. He makes calls to find out where Joanna has gone. He feels that Joanna will come to her senses, as it were, and return, because she can’t get far without so much of her personal items. He doesn’t see that she wants to start over, leaving behind the refuse of her past life. Even in this family crisis, he says on the phone that he has a great deal of work to do, showing where he places his priorities. The couple’s friend who lives in the same building, Margaret (Jane Alexander) visits. Ted doesn’t want to take responsibility for what has happened to his marriage, showing the universal male response to lash out when a man’s pride is hurt. So, he wants to put the blame on Margaret. She has broken up with her husband, and he accuses her of putting the idea to leave in Joanna’s mind. Ted, again showing his selfishness, says, “Can’t you understand what she’s done to me?” Margaret says that Joanna was a very unhappy person, and it took courage to leave. Ted counters by saying, “How much courage does it take to walk out on your kid?” It is understandable to agree with Ted here, because many of us believe one puts a child first, no matter what the sacrifice. But, knowing the importance of putting her son’s happiness first, it is extremely difficult for Joanna to admit that she is actually a threat to Billy’s happiness, and therefore, must leave.
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.

There is a little more humor when Ted drops Billy at school on his way to work. Billy’s vulnerability starts to show as he asks if his mother will pick him up after school. Ted says she probably will and, if not, he will. Billy then asks what if his father gets killed. Ted says then Mommy will pick him up. A child’s desire for security is so strong, the actual death of the father is not really comprehended. Billy is just seeking protection for himself. And, Ted plays along with Billy’s concerns about his problem, as opposed to Billy not being worried about the supposed demise of his father.

Ted is still in denial as he calls home from work, thinking Joanna may have returned. At work, Ted shares what has happened concerning Joanna with his boss. Ted says he may have been wrong to not pay attention to his wife’s needs because he was so absorbed with his work lately. However, he sees it as an acute problem, not that there were fundamental flaws with the marriage. He exhibits a stereotypical sexist attitude by saying that Joanna and her friend Margaret started to “yap, yap, yap” about “women’s lib.” His boss shakes his head and smiles in agreement, joining Ted in the condescending belief that women’s liberation is just some fad and an annoyance, and a woman will calm down after a bit and return to her husband. Ted says it was just Joanna’s way of getting his attention to be more attentive, so he does not here understand the depth of the problem. His boss does say that currently Billy is a “problem.” He advises Ted to send Billy away to stay with relatives so that Ted can deal with the big account. His reaction reflects a cold, bottom line, business attitude by considering a young child as a hindrance to the job, as opposed to showing caring and understanding for Ted and Billy’s plight. Ted says he has not let his home life interfere with his job in the past, (that was because Joanna took care of everything at home, and is an ironic statement in light of what follows) and he will be totally committed to the job. But he reveals a chink in his reassuring armor as his voice stammers and he shows signs of sobbing. He says he is a survivor, and he demonstrates that fact later, but for his family instead of for his job.
At home, Ted’s neglect as to how to deal with Billy comes back to punish Ted. Billy spills liquid on his job materials on the coffee table as he plays while his father ignores him, engrossed in his work. Ted, of course, blames Billy, instead of realizing he should take responsibility for not taking precautions about how messy things can get when a child plays. Ted begins to realize his extreme domestic shortcomings to the point he must rely on Billy when they go shopping. Billy only knows items by design and color, so when he mentions to his dad that they need cereal, Ted asks, “What color?”

Ted does not use good judgment when a letter from Joanna for Billy arrives and he doesn’t read it ahead of time. He still assumes that she will say when she will return home. Instead, Joanna’s letter, although attempting to be kind, basically tells her young son that she will not be physically present. As Ted reads the letter, Billy turns up the volume on the TV so as to drown out the hurtful message. Ted can see the pain his child is undergoing, and he begins to place Billy at the top of his concerns. He goes through the apartment and starts to remove objects and pictures of Joanna in an attempt to lessen Billy’s being reminded of his loss. But, it is an act that makes Joanna the villain without Ted admitting his part in her absence.
Ted’s boss notices, as do we, that Ted is shifting his priority from work to his son. But, he is still late in picking Billy up from a party, and here again Billy’s response is a universal reaction to which an audience can identify. He is angry with Ted, because when a child is picked up last, and a parent is very late in arriving, it looks like the adults don’t care enough about their boy or girl to show up when the other parents appear. More relatable acts shown are Ted saving time by cooking TV dinners, telling his child not to eat with their hands, and putting away all the scattered toys at the end of the day. There is a wordless scene where the two wake up and Billy gets some donuts to eat, Ted gets the juice and glasses, and both do some reading while at the breakfast table, the father the newspaper, and the child a comic book. They fall into a routine that seems boring but really provides security, free from trauma. Ted is late for a meeting at work, carrying groceries that he took time to buy for later that day, and his secretary tells him about the PTA meeting that evening, which shows how he is becoming immersed in his son’s world. Ted takes a photo of Joanna that was in a drawer in Billy’s room, and places it in view. He seems to be starting to gain some compassion for Joanna, and realizes that Billy should not forget about his mother.
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.

While at the playground with Margaret, Billy falls while climbing on some bars and cuts his face badly near his eye. Ted, while carrying his son, runs Billy to the hospital emergency room. He has to have several stitches, but Ted stays with him, encouraging him to get through the ordeal, holding him to steady Billy. Ted is now a totally committed father. That he can now see the big picture involving the welfare of Billy is shown when he asks Margaret to take care of him in the event something happens to 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.

To add to Ted’s woes his boss fires him. At the restaurant where it takes place, Ted tells his now ex-boss, “Shame on you.” His employer has forsaken loyalty,
compassion, and respect of family for money, and it is shameful. Ted’s lawyer says that they have little chance of winning custody if he is unemployed. Ted shows his survivorship skills, but now he uses them for the sake of his son. While everyone is partying just before Christmas, he forcefully get a lead from an employment agency and goes for a job for which he is overqualified and which will make him take a drop in salary. The new boss wants to think about it, but Ted, knowing he is a bargain for the job he wants, gives an ultimatum that they have to make the decision right away. While the executives think it over, there is a shot of Ted, silent, serious, in a corner, as a raucous office party surrounds him. He has put aside self-indulgent entertainment during the most festive time of the year in order to insure that he can take care of his son. He gets the job, and later takes Billy to see his new office on a top floor where the thrilled boy can see the whole city from the windows. When once Ted excluded his family from his work, he now invites Billy into the world of his occupation. He asks Billy what's written on the outside of the office. Billy says Kramer, and follows it with, “That’s us.” The boy now has that sense of inclusion and security as he feels connected as a member of his family, again a universal desire we all seek.
In the courtroom, Ted’s Lawyer, John Shaunessy (Howard Duff), wants to make it look like Joanna is not a stable person, who was a failure at the longest relationship she ever had, with Ted. When she looks at Ted he shakes his head, but she nods “yes.” She does make her case saying that she was always somebody’s daughter, wife, or mother, but did not know who she was independent of others. She says that she was unhappy after two years of marriage and wanted to work, but Ted dismissed her desires by saying that she wouldn’t make enough money to pay a babysitter. He placed monetary circumstances over her emotional needs.  She had zero self-esteem, but after leaving and getting therapy she found who she was as an individual and discovered an outlet for her artistic and emotional needs. She now has a satisfying, well-paying job. Despite her actions which initially were contrary to the tradition maternal role, she now asserts that Billy needs her more than Ted because she is “his mother.”
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.