It might have been the movie that launched her into the acting stratosphere and won her an Academy Award, but it seems like Meryl Streep had a very difficult time on the set of Kramer Vs. Kramer thanks to co-star Dustin Hoffman's method acting.
A new biography by Michael Schulman, entitled Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, claims that Hoffman took his role so seriously that he pushed the boundaries of method acting for his performance and, in doing so, pushed Streep's boundaries to encourage her to dig up raw emotions to throw into the tense scenes.
According to Schulman, this involved Hoffman taunting Streep over her boyfriend, actor John Cazale, who died of lung cancer aged just 42, right before filming started. Hoffman reportedly believed that forcing Meryl to relive these agonizing memories would result in a more believable and powerful performance. Schulman wrote:
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, 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.
”Meryl went "absolutely white." She had done her work and thought through the part. And if Dustin wanted to use Method techniques like emotional recall, he should use them on himself. Not her.
While the ethics of drawing another performer into your own acting method is questionable, Hoffman also reportedly slapped Streep to supercharge a scene with realism. The book states:
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.
Streep herself has never spoken out about her experiences with Hoffman during filming, but her publicists want to make it clear that the book was not authorized by the 66-year-old actress. This statement was released on her behalf:
Ms. Streep has no comment on this book. It was unauthorized. She made no contribution to it, nor has she read it.
Schulman has not revealed who slipped him the insider secrets from the Kramer Vs. Kramer set, but it seems difficult to believe they would be fabricated, especially since Streep and Hoffman haven't worked together in the 40 years since the movie was released.
Hoffman is known for being a dedicated method actor and for some of his past efforts to get into the mindset of his characters. These included staying up for days at a time in order to make his appearance disheveled and unhealthy for Marathon Man and befriending groups of autistic people over the period of two years for Rain Man.
Considering the subject matter of Kramer Vs. Kramer (a bitter divorce and custody battle), it only seems natural that Hoffman would have tried to generate some off-screen tension and hostility between Streep and himself, but maybe he should have thought about his co-star's feelings as much as the artistry of the movie.
While Hoffman's style might seem extreme to a lot of readers, it should be noted that Streep still thanked him at the Oscars and clearly had some appreciation for his efforts:
Do you think Dustin Hoffman's acting methods are too extreme?
(Source: Vanity Fair)