Long before “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice,” battles on the big screen didn’t require hundreds of millions of dollars and men in tights. In 1979, “Kramer vs. Kramer” hit theatres presenting the cinematic battle between two spouses over the custody of their child, after the mother abruptly leaves the relationship and home. It was a hit, and took home an armload of Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, and Meryl Streep had a hand in her winning turn as Joanna Kramer that went beyond her performance.
In a fascinating excerpt from the upcoming book “Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep” published in Vanity Fair about the making of the movie, it details the tough road “Kramer vs Kramer” went down which included Streep battling co-star Dustin Hoffman (who slapped her in the face during shooting to prepare her for a scene and preyed on her still raw feelings over the recent loss of her partner John Cazale). But more importantly, it was Streep who demanded that Joanna, as written in the novel by Avery Corman, have more dimension in the movie, and more complex reasons for leaving her marriage and son.
Meryl marched into the hotel suite where [Dustin] Hoffman, [director Robert] Benton, and [producer Stanley R.] Jaffe sat side by side. She had read Corman’s novel and found Joanna to be “an ogre, a princess, an ass,” as she put it soon after to American Film. When Dustin asked her what she thought of the story, she told him in no uncertain terms. They had the character all wrong, she insisted. Her reasons for leaving Ted are too hazy. We should understand why she comes back for custody. When she gives up Billy in the final scene, it should be for the boy’s sake, not hers. Joanna isn’t a villain; she’s a reflection of a real struggle that women are going through across the country, and the audience should feel some sympathy for her. If they wanted Meryl, they’d need to do re-writes, she later told Ms. magazine.
Streep had a deeply perceptive take on the character and why Joanna needed to be more fully realized. And when it came to a vital courtroom scene, Benton asked Streep to write a key speech that Joanna delivers when she’s put on the stand.
Benton wasn’t happy with it. At the end of the second day of shooting—right after Dustin slapped her and goaded her in the elevator—the director had taken Meryl aside. “There’s a speech you give in the courtroom,” he told her, “but I don’t think it’s a woman’s speech. I think it’s a man trying to write a woman’s speech.” Would she take a crack at it? Meryl said yes. Then Benton walked home and promptly forgot he’d asked her…
…then he read the speech, and exhaled. It was wonderful—though about a quarter too long. Working fast, he and Meryl crossed out a few redundant lines, then had it typed up….As the cameras rolled, Meryl spoke the words she had written herself:
Tearily, she repeated, “I’m his mother.” But the word that slayed Benton was “mommy.” “I could have never imagined writing that,” he said. No longer the aloof tennis addict of Corman’s novel, Joanna now had a vivid inner life, full of yearning and tenderness and regret.
It’s one of the key moments of the film, and Streep knocks it out of the park. Watch the full speech below, written and performed by Streep, and be sure to check out the full piece about “Kramer vs. Kramer” at Vanity Fair.