Great Scene: “Kramer vs. Kramer”

Two scenes making french toast provide signposts to measure the nature of a father-son relationship.

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Here is an IMDB plot summary of the 1979 movie Kramer vs. Kramer, screenplay by Robert Benton, based on a novel by Avery Corman:

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:

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:

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.

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