In a Vanity Fair article, director Robert Benton and producer Richard Fischoff discuss the intense struggle between the two actors, where Hoffman would also taunt Streep about John Cazale, the actor whom she was dating for nearly two years before he died of advanced lung cancer.
Streep wasn’t even considered for the role of Joanna, originally. But everyone was “dumbfounded” after her audition, and Hoffman credited her pain of losing Cazale for playing the role of Joanna perfectly: “That’s what would fix the Joanna problem: an actress who could draw on still-fresh pain, who was herself in the thick of emotional turmoil. It was Meryl’s weakness, not her strength, that convinced him.”
And Hoffman would use that to his advantage during shooting. On the second day of filming, the duo filmed the scene in which Ted follows Joanna into the hallway. But 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 … Instead, Meryl went on and acted the scene.”
However, that wasn’t the last of Hoffman’s extreme acting techniques. For a different scene, Hoffman improvised his lines and started taunting Streep about Cazale.
“He was goading her and provoking her,” 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.”
However, Streep went “absolutely white,” and left the studio. Hoffman even used his methods on little Justin Henry, saying he should imagine he just lost a dog before the scene in which Billy falls from the monkey bars.
The battle between Streep and Hoffman continued, with him changing up scenes without letting her know to get a candid reaction, and taunting her with the name of “John Cazale” when he was out of the director’s earshot. He thought this would be the way to get Streep to implode on camera when she delivered Joanna’s speech on the stand.
“Were you a failure at the one most important relationship in your life?” Hoffman said to Streep before the courtroom scene. Her eyes watered and her lips tensed, but Benton saw what had happened and turned on the cameras.
“This picture started out belonging to Ted Kramer, and by the end it belonged to both of them,” Benton said. “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.” When she told Hoffman she planned on going back to the theater, he said, “You’re never going back.”
Now, 37 years later, Streep has several Academy Awards under her belt (even one for Best Supporting Actress for “Kramer vs. Kramer”) and is called the “best actress of her generation.” Streep went on to film movies like “Sophie’s Choice,” “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” and “The Iron Lady.”