Dustin Hoffman Slapped, Taunted Meryl Streep About Dead Boyfriend While Filming Kramer vs. Kramer in 1979

Drama on set! An adaptation of a new biography, Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep by Michael Schulman, published in Vanity Fair reveals the behind-the-scenes conflict between Meryl Streep and costar Dustin Hoffman while filming 1979’s Oscar-winning drama Kramer vs. Kramer.

Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep
Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep in ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

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Then a promising, up-and-coming star, Streep, now 66, wasn’t originally considered for the role of Joanna, the female protagonist in the film, who is locked in a bitter divorce and custody battle with her husband Ted (Hoffman). But Hoffman, now 78, convinced the director, Robert Benton, that she was perfect for the role. The reason for his decision: Hoffman knew Streep had just lost her boyfriend of two years, John Cazale, to lung cancer. The Graduate actor felt she could draw on her pain and grieving to give the character more depth. (Streep, however, has a totally different version of events, and told Ms. magazine that she impressed the directors by telling them exactly how to fix the script.)

Filming with Hoffman, who was in the midst of separating from his first wife, Anne Byrne, was a challenge for Streep because he employed such intense method acting techniques. Schulman writes in the biography: “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.”

Meryl Streep on the cover of Vanity Fair
Meryl Streep on the cover of ‘Vanity Fair.’

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Always a professional, Streep continued on with the scene without making a commotion, but Hoffman wasn’t done. In a later scene where Joanna tells Ted she’s leaving him, Hoffman took to extreme measures to get the emotion he wanted from Streep. “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,’ [producer 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.’”

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Hoffman brought up Cazale’s death again in a courtroom scene and made Streep’s eyes water when he whispered her late boyfriend’s name in her ear. The pair’s relationship was so tense that producers thought the movie would be a disaster, but the film made more than $106 million at the box office, even beating out Star Trek. Kramer vs. Kramer picked up nine Academy Award nominations at the 52nd Oscars and went on to win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, best actor for Hoffman and best supporting actress for Streep.

The full biography Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep is published by Harper and will be available in April. 

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