Meryl Streep’s story about what went on behind the scenes of Kramer vs. Kramer is detailed and shows a side of Dustin Hoffman that few have heard about and even fewer have seen. In her role of Joanna Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer, Streep won her first Oscar and was pushed around by Dustin Hoffman into giving a performance that won her the gold statue.
According to Vanity Fair, the experience of Meryl Streep with Dustin Hoffman on the set of Kramer vs. Kramer was part of the new biography on Streep, Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep. The excerpt of the book recounts where Streep was before getting cast in Kramer vs. Kramer and how she retooled the role that would get her the Oscar.
When Kramer vs. Kramer was being cast, Kate Jackson from Charlie’s Angels fame was going to be Joanna Kramer, but that fell through when Aaron Spelling would not let her out of Charlie’s Angels for the time needed for Kramer vs. Kramer. So the part of Joanna Kramer, the female lead, was open.
Meryl Streep was at a low point, having just lost her longtime boyfriend to cancer and looking for a role that she could believe in. Streep got her foot in the door to read for a part in Kramer vs. Kramer, but there was some miscommunication about the part she was reading for. Streep had read up and thought she was coming in to talk about Joanna, and she had some notes for changes, but the director and Dustin Hoffman thought Streep was coming in to read for Phyllis, a one-night stand for Hoffman’s character.
Meryl Streep thought the character of Joanna Kramer needed clarity and the relationship between the Kramers needed a better reason to be splitting up. Hoffman and the directors were taken aback, but it was Hoffman’s opinion that Streep was Joanna.
Hoffman had known Streep’s boyfriend and knew what she had gone through recently. He would use that information later to set her off and draw out an incredible performance.
Jezebel says that the movie could have been Streep vs. Hoffman instead of Kramer vs. Kramer. Between the casting meeting and the Oscars, Meryl Streep said that there needed to be script changes for her to take the role and make Joanna Kramer less neurotic, cold, and somewhat pathetic. Changes were made, and Streep signed on.
One of the first days on set, the director wanted to shoot mid-fight reaction shots in the hallway outside the Kramer apartment. Hoffman thought that Meryl Streep needed a stronger reaction, so right before the camera rolled, Hoffman slapped Streep hard across the face, leaving a mark. The director thought it was all over and they were all going to be sued, but Streep remained professional.
But Hoffman was not done, because he saw an in with Streep, and with the child actor, to go full method and “coax” a great performance out of everyone. Before the next scene where Hoffman wanted an intense reaction, he whispered things about her recently deceased boyfriend about his cancer and his death, goading her to react. Hoffman used a similar tactic with child actor Justin Henry, making him cry by threatening to take things away from him.
The New York Daily News also talked about the work relationship of Streep and Hoffman in advance of the upcoming Streep biography. Hoffman also gave Streep a lot of guff on the set of Kramer vs. Kramer about being a representative for feminism, while Hoffman was behaving rather anti-feminist.
In retrospect, Streep was able to understand where Hoffman was coming from with what she thought was boorish behavior onset, but he had certainly found a way to get Streep to react while filming.
What did you think of Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer?
[Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images]