This weekend we flew to Malaysia for our annual visit. This was the first time we'd flown from O'Hare, and the first leg of the trip was a 16 hour flight to Hong Kong. On that flight I watched two classic films I'd seen when much younger, "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Roman Holiday." This time they both resomated with me more than they had before. Life experience will do that for you.
Here are quick takes on both films.
Kramer vs. Kramer: As a child of divorced parents I knew about "Kramer vs. Kramer" from a young age. Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep have a custody battle for their seven year old Billy. This occurs after Streep leaves her home to reclaim her own identity after several years in a suffocating marriage. For 18 months Hoffman is a single father.
One thing all children of divorced parents learn is that it is not their fault, and that is a pivotal scene in the film. Other vital scenes occur during the custody trial that occurs at the end of the film. Because of his care for Billy Hoffman becomes less focused at work, and is eventually fired. He ends us taking a lower-payong job, one he is overqualified for, so that he will be gainfully employed when the court hearing occurs.
During that hearing Streep's attorney presses the point that Hoffman had been fired and is now working for less. Indeed, he is making less than Streep while his previous salary was higher than hers. The clear connection between his increased parental role--which shows that he is a capable parent--and his changed employment fortunes is not made. Instead, for the purpose of the hearing Hoffman is made out to be an incompetent loser. This strategy works, as Streep gets custodial rights. (In the Hollywood ending, she relinquishes those to Hoffman.)
Of course, Hoffman's challenges to balance work and personal responsibilities are more often borne by women. This is as true today as it was when "Kramer vs. Kramer" premiered in 1979. Hoffman is a much more enlightened man by the end of the film, after blithely dismissing all that "women's lib" earlier on. But I was most struck by the casual cruelty of the adversarial legal system, which atomizes and reduces the interconnections of life for the purpose of legal victory. Hoffman's attorney is just as rough on Streep, badgering her about sexual partners and claiming that in all significant undertakings she had been a failure. Just as Hoffman's loss of his job was because he was a good parent, Streep's lack of professional credentials is because she was not permitted to pursue these possibilities and not a lack of capability. Cruelty on the witness stand, all the way around. It renews my gratitude that, when my own divorce occurred, no attorneys were involved.
Roman Holiday: In this 1953 film Audrey Hepburn plays a princess who escapes the palace and finally gets a day to explore on her own. Gregory Peck plays the newsman who comes upon her in the street late one night, and through a series of events takes her to his small apartment to rest for the evening. At the time Peck does not know he's sheltering a princess, but he figures this out the next morning. So he and a photographer friend escort her around Rome for the day, for the purely mercenary reason of filing a blockbuster news story. Of course, Peck and Hepburn fall in love on that fateful day. No news story is filed, no photos published. In fact, the princess eventually gets the photos herself as a keepsake of her getaway day. The romance cannot bloom. The princess resumes her duties and the newsman pursues other stories.
I first saw "Roman Holiday" when I was 19. I had barely traveled abroad at that point, so it was enjoyable to watch the iconic Roman scenes. This time I focused on the trappings of social convention. Just like Streep in "Kramer vs. Kramer," the princess cannot do anything beyond what has already been scripted for her. At least she has one day of freedom, but it looks like she wants more of them.