The set of Kramer vs. Kramer could have been described as Dustin Hoffman vs. Meryl Streep according to Michael Schulman’s cover story for Vanity Fair. Schulman’s biography entitled Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep will soon be released, and he wrote an adaptation for the magazine revealing the strained relationship between the then 29-year-old character actress and her costar, Hoffman, in what would go on to be a multi-Oscar winning film in 1980.

The movie deals with a divorcing couple, and the ensuing custody battle over their son, Billy. Hoffman was set to portray the husband, Ted Kramer, and casting decisions were being made as to who would play his wife, Joanna. When Streep became an option, she was grieving because she had just lost her boyfriend of two years, John Cazale, to lung cancer. Being a dedicated Method actor, Hoffman felt certain that Streep was indeed the best fit for Joanna. According to Schulman, Dustin saw her as “still shaken to the core,” and felt she could “draw on a still-fresh pain.” The film’s director, Robert Benton, also recognized Streep to be Joanna because of a “fragile quality.”

Schulman describes on the second day of shooting the film’s opening scene–a scene in which Joanna is trying to walk out on Ted–Hoffman “shocked” Meryl, the cast, and crew. Schulman writes:

“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. Clutching Joanna’s trench coat, she pleaded with Ted, ‘Don’t make me go in there!’ As far as she was concerned, she could conjure Joanna’s distress without taking a smack to the face, but Dustin had taken extra measures. And he wasn’t done.”

Schulman goes on to say that as cameras were set to cover Joanna entering an elevator in the subsequent scene, which was just as emotionally charged, an off-screen Dustin resorted to hurling personal attacks at Meryl.

“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.” Apparently, Hoffman was using Method techniques attempting to increase the intensity of her performance. At the end of the day’s shoot, Meryl left furious.

As the days on set continued, Hoffman is said to have been “driving everyone nuts. In his effort to fill every screen moment with tension, he would locate the particular vulnerability of his scene partner and exploit it.” This is to say, his emotional attacks on his other cast members included young Justin Henry playing Billy; attempting to make him cry for a scene, Dustin informed him that he may not see fellow members of the cast and crew again. This proved effective to the point where Justin couldn’t stop sobbing after the scene was completed.

And Hoffman secretly planned with the cameraman to catch a shot of him abruptly swiping a glass of wine, shattering it on the wall to punctuate his character’s anger. Streep was alarmed, and with shards of glass in her hair told Dustin, “Next time you do that, I’d appreciate you letting me know.”

Both Streep and Hoffman went on to earn their first Oscars for the film.

What do you think? Was Dustin’s behavior abusive and unacceptable? Should he have only used emotional recall techniques on himself, or was it worthwhile to target others with it? Do you believe it impacted the intensity of the performances?

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