Two scenes making french toast provide signposts to measure the nature of a father-son relationship.
A just divorced man must learn to care for his son on his own, and then must fight in court to keep custody of him.
There are two scenes in the movie that have always stuck with me, a classic example of a set-up & payoff. This first is the morning after Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) has left her husband Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) and their son Billy (Justin Henry). Ted, who has been a working father and knows very little about housework, perhaps even less about his son, tries to keep things upbeat as he and Billy wake up:
Ted struggles to his feet and THE CAMERA TRACKS WITH
THEM as they start toward the kitchen. BILLY
When is mommy coming back? TED
Soon. Very soon. By now they are inside the kitchen, Ted looks around. HIS POV There, on the kitchen cabinet is a box of "natural
grain" cereal, a jar of honey, some wheat germ, and a
banana, with carefully written instructions from
Joanna underneath. ON TED He takes one look at the note, crumples it up and
tosses it in the wastebasket. TED
(the camp counselor)
I'll tell you what, kiddo – why don't
I fix us some French toast? BILLY
Wow! French toast, really? TED
(the camp counselor)
Sure. Didn't I ever tell you French
toast was my specialty? I'll bet I
never told you that. Now then, the
first thing we need is...
...eggs! Right? Billy nods. Ted opens the refrigerator and takes some
This is terrific... isn't this
terrific? As Ted begins the process of making French toast, it
soon becomes obvious that he has no idea of what he
is doing. What follows is a symphony in incompetence
on Ted's part. He breaks the eggs into a bowl and
ends up with most of the shell mixed up with the egg. Then he takes a piece of bread and drops it into
(saying it will make
I'm having a good time... Are you
having a good time? ON BILLY Watching all of this with increasing apprehension. BILLY
You forgot the milk. TED
(still the camp
That's right. You're absolutely
right... It's been a long time since
I made French toast. Ted takes a container of milk, pours it into the bowl
so that it is filled to the brim. Then he sloshes the
bread around until it is half-dissolved. TED
Look at this, isn't this something?! He lops off a huge hunk of butter, drops it into an
omelet pan and turns up the flame. ON BILLY Watching. He looks as though he is about to throw up. BILLY
What about my orange juice? TED
Right. One O.J. coming up. He opens the refrigerator and starts to get the
orange juice. As he does, black smoke begins to
billow ominously from the frying pan. BILLY
Daddy!!! Ted turns, spots the smoke. TED
Don't worry... Everything's fine... He lunges for the handle of the frying pan, which by
now is very hot. He grabs it, lets out a howl of pain
and the whole mess, frying pan, butter, bread, goes
crashing to the floor. CLOSE ON TED Suddenly all the rage comes pouring out. TED
Goddam! Son of a bitch! REACTION – BILLY Terrified. WIDE SHOT As Ted kneels down and begins to clean up the mess. TED
(to himself as much
as to Billy)
It's okay. It's gonna be okay...
There is a second french toast scene which is toward the very end of the movie, the morning when Billy is going to live with his mother:
INT. KRAMER KITCHEN – MORNING ON TED AND BILLY They stand side by side, like a surgeon and his
assistant. Spread out on the counter in front of them
are the makings of French toast. The following is
done with great efficiency, in contrast to the first
time we saw them go through the same ritual. They
work in silence except for an occasional command.
Each concentrating on this last moment of closeness,
each doing his best to avoid thinking about Billy's
departure. Finally: ON BILLY Looking at his father, trying to memorize the older
man's face. Ted turns, sees his son watching him. TED
(with false gaiety)
Hey? What's doin' with that bread?
Let's see a little hustle around
Here are the two scenes as they appear in the movie:
The second french toast scene is at the 1:55 mark in the clip:
A good set-up and payoff can serve as a measuring stick of a character’s metamorphosis. In this case, these two little scenes show at first how little Ted knows about parenting, then by the second scene, how well he’s evolved into becoming a real parent.
Also, note this terrific little change in the dialogue: In the first scene, instead of Ted swearing a generic “Goddam,” as in the script, Ted blurts out, “God damn her.” It’s a fantastic way to show Ted projecting his anger and hurt over what Joanna has done — leaving him — onto the pain and frustration of burning his hand with the skillet. Her shadow has loomed over the entire scene. That one little change brings Joanna — and her absence — to the forefront of the moment.
To read all of the entries in the Great Scene archive, go here.