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Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) - Plot Summary Poster

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Summaries

  • Ted Kramer is a career man for whom his work comes before his family. His wife Joanna cannot take this anymore, so she decides to leave him. Ted is now faced with the tasks of housekeeping and taking care of himself and their young son Billy. When he has learned to adjust his life to these new responsibilities, Joanna resurfaces and wants Billy back. Ted, however, refuses to give him up, so they go to court to fight for the custody of their son.

  • Up and coming New York advertising executive Ted Kramer believes that his role and responsibility to his family is to be the household breadwinner, which means a focus on career. Joanna Kramer, his wife of eight years, is relegated to role of housewife and mother to their five and a half year old son, Billy Kramer, as Ted doesn't want her to work outside the house. As such, Joanna, on the encouragement of Margaret Phelps, a recent divorcée in their apartment building and one of Joanna's primary confidantes, decides to abandon the marriage, and leave Billy with Ted, as she feels she can't properly take care of Billy in her current fragile mental state. Ted believes that Joanna is solely going through a phase, and that she will return home in a day or two, which she doesn't. So, Ted has to make some major adjustments in his life. Beyond the time of fitting in Joanna's duties into his work schedule, Ted is ill equipped to take care of the household chores and be Billy's sole caregiver, which is made more difficult as Billy has his own ill feelings about the entire situation. Ted and Billy go through a difficult period in learning how to deal with each other as father and son, but the relationship eventually blossoms into a truly loving one, with Margaret being one of their biggest supporters. Two issues threaten Ted and Billy's new-found familial happiness: the negative effect his new time priority with Billy has on maintaining a productive work life, and the arrival fifteen months later of a newly confidant Joanna, who wants custody of her son.

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  • On the same day Manhattan advertising executive Ted Kramer lands the biggest account of his career, he learns that his wife, Joanna, is leaving him and their young son, Billy. Forced to raise his son alone, Ted loses his job but gains a stronger relationship with the child with the help of another single parent, Margaret. When Joanna returns to claim custody of Billy, the ensuing court battle takes a toll on everyone concerned.

  • Ted Kramer's wife leaves her husband, allowing for a lost bond to be rediscovered between Ted and his son, Billy. But a heated custody battle ensues over the divorced couple's son, deepening the wounds left by the separation.


Spoilers

The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman), a workaholic advertising executive, is just given his agency's biggest new account. After spending the evening chatting with his boss about handling a new and very large account, he returns home to find his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) in the process of leaving him.

    Ted is left to raise their son Billy (Justin Henry) by himself. Ted and Billy begin to resent each other as Ted no longer has time to carry his increased workload, and Billy misses the love and attention he received from his mother. After many months of unrest, Ted and Billy begin to cope with the situation and eventually grow to love and care for one another.

    Ted befriends his neighbor Margaret (Jane Alexander), who initially had counseled Joanna to leave Ted. Margaret is a fellow single parent and the two become kindred spirits. One day as the two sit in the park watching their children play, Billy falls off the jungle gym and severely cuts his face. Picking him up, Ted sprints several blocks through oncoming traffic to the hospital, where he comforts his son tenderly, representing his increased emotional connection and sense of responsibility for the child since his wife left.

    Fifteen months after she walked out, Joanna returns to New York in order to claim Billy, and a custody battle ensues. During the custody hearing, both Ted and Joanna are unprepared for the brutal character assassinations that their lawyers unleash on the other. For instance, Margaret is forced to confess that she advised Joanna to leave Ted if she was as unhappy as she professed, although she also attempts to tell Joanna on the stand that her husband has profoundly changed. Eventually, the damaging facts that Ted was fired because of his conflicting responsibilities with his son, forcing him to take a lower-paid job, come out in court, as do the details of Billy's accident.

    Finally, the court awards custody to Joanna, not so much due to the evidence on both sides but due to the assumption that a child is best raised by their mother. Ted discusses appealing the case, but his lawyer warns that Billy himself would have to take the stand in the resulting trial and Ted cannot bear the thought of submitting his child to such an ordeal. He therefore decides not to contest custody.

    On the morning that Billy is to move in with Joanna, Ted and Billy make breakfast together, mirroring the meal that Ted tried to cook the first morning after Joanna left. They hug in a very tender moment as they both know this is their last breakfast together. Joanna calls from the ground floor, asking Ted to come down to talk. She tells Ted that, while she loves Billy and wants him with her, she knows that he is already home, and that his true home is with Ted. She will therefore not take him. As she enters the elevator, she asks her ex-husband "How do I look?". The movie ends with the elevator doors closing on the emotional Joanna, right after Ted answers, "You look terrific," as she heads upstairs to talk to Billy.

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