The cover story of April’s Vanity Fair, adapted from Michael Schulman’s upcoming biography of Meryl Streep, recounts the tumultuous production of Kramer vs. Kramer, the 1979 film that made Streep a star. The journey from casting to the Oscar stage was quite a ride, and Schulman’s piece details her struggles with the character of Joanna Kramer, as well as the ones with the actor who played Joanna’s husband, Dustin Hoffman.
Streep was still grieving the death of her lover, The Godfather’s John Cazale, when the casting for Kramer vs. Kramer began, but found the strength to battle bigger names like Kate Jackson, Faye Dunaway, and Jane Fonda for the part. During her first meeting with Hoffman, producer Stanley Jaffe, and writer/director Robert Benton, Schulman writes:
When Dustin asked her what she thought of the story, she told him in no uncertain terms. They had the character all wrong, she insisted. Her reasons for leaving Ted are too hazy. We should understand why she comes back for custody. When she gives up Billy in the final scene, it should be for the boy’s sake, not hers. Joanna isn’t a villain; she’s a reflection of a real struggle that women are going through across the country, and the audience should feel some sympathy for her. If they wanted Meryl, they’d need to do re-writes, she later told Ms. magazine.
Not long after that meeting (after which Jaffe referred to her as “Merle”), Streep was offered the part. But just days into production, Kramer vs. Kramer started “turning into Streep vs. Hoffman.”
On the second day, they continued shooting the opening scene, when Ted follows the hysterical Joanna into the hallway. They shot the bulk of it in the morning and, after lunch, set up for some reaction shots. Dustin and Meryl took their positions on the other side of the apartment door. Then something happened that shocked not just Meryl but everyone on set. Right before their entrance, Dustin slapped her hard across the cheek, leaving a red mark.
Benton heard the slap and saw Meryl charge into the hallway. We’re dead, he thought. The picture’s dead. She’s going to bring us up with the Screen Actors Guild. Instead, Meryl went on and acted the scene.
And Hoffman’s Method acting had only just begun.
Improvising his lines, Dustin delivered a slap of a different sort: outside the elevator, he started taunting Meryl about John Cazale, jabbing her with remarks about his cancer and his death. “He was goading her and provoking her,” [film executive Richard] Fischoff recalled, “using stuff that he knew about her personal life and about John to get the response that he thought she should be giving in the performance.”
Meryl, Fischoff said, went “absolutely white.” She had done her work and thought through the part.
But tension between the two didn’t subside when the cameras weren’t rolling. After suggesting a few changes to the script that would make her character less defensive—a change the screenwriter ultimately agreed to make—Hoffman chimed in:
“Meryl, why don’t you stop carrying the flag for feminism and just act the scene,” he said. Just like Joanna, she was butting in and mucking everything up, he felt. Reality and fiction had become blurry. When Dustin looked across the table, he saw not just an actress making a scene suggestion but shades of Anne Byrne, his soon-to-be ex-wife. In Joanna Kramer, and by extension Meryl Streep, he saw the woman making his life hell.
For more on that super fun work environment—and the surprise blockbuster it wrought—I suggest reading the rest of Schulman’s piece. Her Again, the biography from which it was adapted, comes out next month.