Dustin Hoffman may have taken his method acting to another level when working with Meryl Streep on their award-winning 1979 film, Kramer vs. Kramer.
In an excerpt from Michael Schulman's unauthorized biography, Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep
, in Vanity Fair
, Kramer vs. Kramer
director Robert Benton and producer Richard Fischoff recall a tense relationship between Streep and Hoffman during the filming of the movie. Both actors earned their first Oscars for taking on the roles of husband and wife, Ted and Joanna Kramer, who find themselves in a heated custody battle over their son, Billy Kramer (Justin Henry), after getting a divorce.
The book alleges that on the second day of shooting the opening scene of the film -- when Ted follows a crying Joanna into the hallway -- Hoffman "shocked" everyone on set when he "slapped [Streep] hard across the cheek, leaving a red mark."
Benton told Schulman that he immediately thought the movie was "dead," and that Streep would "bring us up with the Screen Actors Guild." According to the book, the actress continued to act out the scene, but Hoffman started to taunt his co-star off camera.
In March 1978, Streep's boyfriend of two years, actor John Cazale, died, and Hoffman allegedly used that information to evoke emotion from the actress. "He was goading her and provoking her," Fischoff claims, adding that the actor was "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."
Fischoff alleges that Streep went "absolutely white" when this occurred and, according to the book, she "left the studio in a rage" once they had wrapped that day. Benton also claims hearing Hoffman whispering Cazale's name within earshot of Streep before an emotional courtroom scene.
However, the director says Hoffman's alleged tactics did not faze Streep. "This picture started out belonging to Ted Kramer, and by the end it belonged to both of them," Benton notes. "And there was no way Hoffman could shake her. No way he could do anything to shake her. She was just there, and she was an incredible force."
The book also claims a number of other high-profile actresses almost landed the role of Joanna Kramer over Streep. Charlie's Angels star Kate Jackson was first offered the part, according to Schulman, but when she was unable to take on the role, Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway and Katherine Ross -- Hoffman's co-star in The Graduate -- were considered.
Fischoff says it was an uphill battle with the studio to get Streep cast in the movie. "They didn’t think that she was a movie star
," he explains. "They thought that she was a character actress."
Benton says he knew she was perfect for the part. "There was a fragile quality she had that made us think that this was Joanna, without making her neurotic," he recalls. "Meryl's Joanna wasn't neurotic, but she was vulnerable, frail."