Meryl Streep in ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ (Everett)
Onscreen, the 1979 drama, Kramer vs. Kramer, is about the battle between a divorced couple as they both fought for custody of their young son. Behind the scenes, however, an even more vicious battle raged between the film’s stars, Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman. Vanity Fair has published a juicy excerpt from Michael Schulman’s soon-to-be-released biography, Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, that dives into the clash of personalities that resulted in a hit film that also earned both Hoffman and Streep their first Oscars, as well as a Best Picture statue.
According to Schulman’s account, Streep was initially the least-likely person to win the part of Joanna Kramer, who leaves her husband Ted (Hoffman) and son Billy (Justin Henry), only to return and reassert her maternal claim. The producers were pursuing more “glamorous” actresses, including Charlie’s Angels star Kate Jackson, while Streep, then 29 years old, was recovering from the tragic death of her boyfriend, Godfather star John Cazale in 1978. She also expressed profound dissatisfaction with the way the character was written in Avery Corman’s original novel, dismissing her as “an ogre, a princess, an ass.” But Hoffman felt that Streep’s private tragedy would provide excellent dramatic fuel and pushed for her casting.
Dustin and Hoffman and Justin Henry in ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ (Everett)
When filming began, the Method-trained actor reportedly wasted little time picking at still-fresh wounds. Schulman’s book alleges that Hoffman slapped Streep on the second day of production, and then started needling her about Cazale’s passing. As the author writes: “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,’ [Richard] Fischoff [the film’s producer] 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.’”
And Hoffman’s extreme behavior didn’t stop there. While shooting a scene in a restaurant, he smacked a wineglass so hard it smashed into the wall and shattered, with shards winding up in Streep’s hair. But she kept her cool, saying “Next time you do that, I’d appreciate you letting me know.”
Watch the scene in the restaurant:
Make sure to read the full article for the other twists and turns the stars’ relationship took when cameras were rolling. Believe it or not, though, this story does have a happy ending: Hoffman was the first person Streep thanked during her Oscar night acceptance speech, and she even rose to his defense when he was confronted by the press corps after his own victory.