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And suddenly Meryl Streep appears on the scene.

The Deer Hunter (Best Picture, 1978)

First thing, minor detail – love the Russian choir on the soundtrack. Beautiful.

This is not a movie I would have watched had it not been on the Best Picture list.  It is relentless.  First in the swearing and drinking of the main characters, then in the violence of the war and its aftermath.  And maybe that’s how it really was – I don’t know.

I also don’t know if the editing is so choppy intentionally – it might be, to enhance the jarring shifts between locations and circumstances and show how your life can totally change in a single moment, like Mike’s “single shot” thing.  Problem is, it makes the film a little hard to follow, especially for someone like me who’s dealing with poor-quality library DVDs, little interest in the story or subject, and lots of external noise making the already mumbling speech styles of many of the characters harder to understand.  Thank goodness for Wikipedia plot summaries, huh?

This is one of those films I wish was shorter, and I feel it could be shorter (it clocks in at 3 hrs, 4 mins.), but I don’t know what would be edited out.  The flabbiest section, personally, is the first half when everything’s being set up with the wedding, the hunting, and the establishment of the relationship dynamics.  So maybe that could have been tightened up some.

The most interesting aspect of the film for me is the cast.  It’s a phenomenal lineup of young actors who have continued to have brilliant careers, from Robert De Niro to Christopher Walken to Meryl Streep.  Others included John Cazale and John Savage.  There’s a story that De Niro was the first cast, and he had many friends and acquaintances among the young actors in New York.  This is how Meryl Streep joined the film.  She was an unknown, and her part was so tiny that she was told the basic premise of her role and instructed to write her own lines.  Her career’s come a ways, hasn’t it?  Anyhow, that’s the story.  Whether or not it’s true is something I don’t know.

Furthermore, this film is more of an ensemble work than I’ve seen in a while in the Best Pictures.  Mike and Steven are nominally the main characters, but really it’s an ensemble effort focused on the young men.

I can’t say I like the film or have much interest in its subject matter.  But I don’t question its place in Best Picture history.  It confronts a topic on everyone’s mind in 1978 – the aftereffects of the Vietnam War on the young men of America.  THE DEER HUNTER is timely and doesn’t shy away from tough subjects.

Kramer Vs. Kramer (Best Picture, 1979)

I almost always have problems when I can’t like any of the characters in a story.  This movie might be an exception.  I’m not sure I like the movie itself, but it’s certainly very compelling.

Whatever the reviews might say, it is hard to feel sorry for Joanna after she leaves.  It’s obvious she’s unhappy in the marriage, and that her husband is an oblivious workaholic.  She says as she leaves that she’s “no good” for Billy, their son, and that he’s “better off” without her.  I don’t want to diminish her feelings or say that she should have stuck to the marriage in spite of being unhappy, because if she was that unhappy then yes, divorce was probably the right choice in the long run.  But to leave entirely, spending months without any contact with her son other than greeting cards, and then show up and demand custody as her right?  That doesn’t make me like her.  And when we first see her again after she leaves, she’s standing inside a building looking out through a large window as Ted walks by after dropping Billy off at school.  The way she stands there, watching through the window, she looks malevolent and sulky.  Not very sympathetic.  In the end of the court case, Joanna’s awarded custody mainly because she’s the mother, in spite of having walked out entirely for over a year.  Though she then decides that Billy should stay with Ted.  Apparently nobody thinks to ask the child what his opinion is.

The reception and reviews of KRAMER VS. KRAMER are almost more interesting than the film itself.  According to Wikipedia, “Kramer vs. Kramer reflected a cultural shift which occurred during the 1970s, when ideas about motherhood and fatherhood were changing. The film was widely praised for the way in which it gave equal weight and importance to both Joanna and Ted’s points of view.”

Roger Ebert’s 1979 review is even more fascinating.  He points out that Hollywood has told this story time and time again, but from the child’s point of view, neglected as the adults go to war above his head.  Ebert notes that the film tries to avoid taking sides.  Joanna’s an unsympathetic character, but Ted gets off to a rocky start as well – that first morning after Joanna leaves, Ted has to ask Billy what grade he’s in.  One of the fascinating aspects of the film is the child actor playing seven-year-old Billy.  It’s said that many of his lines and conversations with Hoffman especially were improvised, giving the interactions a sense of veracity that’s astonishing and raw.

Ebert writes, “Our sympathies do tend to be with the father — we’ve seen him change and grow — but now we are basically just acting as witnesses to the drama. The movie has encouraged us to realize that these people are deep enough and complex enough, as all people are, that we can’t assign moral labels to them.”

KRAMER VS. KRAMER is quite simply a viciously honest movie.

Next Up: Ordinary People (Best Picture, 1980) and Chariots of Fire (Best Picture, 1989)