Kramer vs. Kramer
was the movie that put Meryl Streep in the limelight of Hollywood. She had been around for years, done extensive theatre work and even landed an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actress for The Deer Hunter
(1978) but it was Kramer vs. Kramer
that truly made her a star. After this movie, she would get lead roles and she wouldn't have to audition for them anymore. It might not have turned out that way if she hadn't felt confident enough to fight for changes in the script with regards to her character.
She was confident, though, because she believed the producers and director, Robert Benton, had confidence in her. She was grateful for the opportunity provided with the role but couldn't get excited about the part until it changed. She said, "I couldn't have been interested in the role if they hadn't changed the script!" She felt that the story was relying on the audience to understand why Joanna left without letting Joanna express it for herself. It was her belief that the character as written, in both the screenplay and the book, was too one-dimensional, an obvious villain for Ted and Billy to react to and change their lives accordingly. Her objections were strong but didn't fall on deaf ears. Robert Benton said, "She was elucidating concerns that we all had but she gave them words." As to her complaint that Joanna's departure was vague and undefended, he said, "It was true. So we listened. And she became the real Mrs. Kramer." Specifically, Streep liked the idea of her character leaving, the other characters discussing why she left and then, once they were sure they had the answer, she returns and tells them herself. A lot of how that return was portrayed came from Streep's input.
On the set, this sometimes caused tensions to flare up between Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. Hoffman was hearing lots of advance publicity about newcomer Streep and how she was mastering the role and Hoffman felt he was being upstaged. When Streep wanted to change around the dialogue in the restaurant meeting scene, Hoffman became furious. As Hoffman recalled, "I hated her guts. Yes, I hated her guts. But I respected her." He accepted that Streep wasn't arguing for what was best for her character but what was best for the movie.
This didn't stop the two of them from poking fun at each other on the set. Hoffman and Streep would often, jokingly, try to get Justin Henry to pick one of them over the other. One day on the set, Hoffman asked Henry who he'd rather be with. Henry said, "Her. She's nicer," to which Hoffman replied, "Oh yeah? Work with her five weeks then see what you say."
The final courtroom scene had one more important rewrite: Joanna's explanation of why she left. Benton feared major delays but, in fact, Streep had in mind what she wanted and quickly rewrote the monologue. Benton said, "Well, the scene is brilliant. I cut only two lines. What you see there is hers."
Despite Streep's considerable input, Kramer vs. Kramer
belongs to Dustin Hoffman. He made sure throughout the production to work with Justin Henry in a way unrestricted by too much adherence to every single written word and for several scenes, Hoffman and Henry would work through rehearsals until what they were talking about became the lines of the characters. Hoffman joked around with Henry and talked to him on the set before the shoot so the two could form a real relationship they could work off of on the screen. The results were spectacular. The ice cream scene, in which Billy defies his father, was almost entirely improvised by the two, working through it in rehearsals until Benton decided it should be honed for inclusion in the film.
The performance itself surprised a lot of industry insiders for its restraint. Hoffman had become known for going to great lengths to mold a character and his performances in movies like Midnight Cowboy
(1969) and Lenny
(1974) spoke to that but his performance of Ted Kramer was a restrained one. His interpretation of the character, an egocentric ad executive, was to play him as non-descript as possible, letting the circumstances turn him from an inattentive provider to a caring father. It's an interpretation that worked and it's considered one of Hoffman's finest performances.
Still, Robert Benton didn't just accept input from Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman. Even cinematographer Nestor Almendros made a few suggestions. When he found out they were planning on decorating Billy's room with Disney figures, he objected. Not because of anything having to do with lighting and camerawork, rather, he felt it would be intrusive. He said, "I thought that would be like inviting a third character into the intimate scenes between the child and mother and father." He suggested painting clouds on the walls instead and Benton liked and approved the idea.
Almendros also scouted locations in and around New York and chose to shoot Kramer vs. Kramer
in an unassuming style, focusing not on New York's familiar sites but the characters and their drab office and living interiors. As he later said, "My idea was to do a film where the style of photography would be non-apparent to the audience. Only my peers would notice." It was that type of sacrifice of personal glory to the good of the film that happened throughout the shoot. The actors, producer, director, cinematographer and everyone on the crew felt a sense of community and closeness that contributed to a set that, excepting for tensions between Hoffman and Streep that worked well towards their characterizations, worked smoothly and cleanly to produce one of the best films of the year.
by Greg Ferrara