‘Kramer vs. Kramer’: Meryl Streep Perfectly Wrote and Performed a Scene That ‘Scared’ the Director

Audiences and actors around the world continue to hold Meryl Streep to a very high standard. She has an impressive filmography that only continues to deliver intriguing and diverse performances. However, she had to earn that respect over time. Streep displayed this talent while working on Kramer vs. Kramer, which actually scared writer/director Robert Benton.

Meryl Streep played Joanna Kramer in ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’

'Kramer vs. Kramer' Dustin Hoffman as Ted Kramer, Justin Henry as Billy Kramer, and Meryl Streep as Joanna Kramer sitting closely on grass with Ted and Joanna kissing
L-R: Dustin Hoffman as Ted Kramer, Justin Henry as Billy Kramer, and Meryl Streep as Joanna Kramer | Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

Ted (Dustin Hoffman) is a work-obsessed Manhattan advertising executive. He soon learns that his wife, Joanna (Streep), plans on leaving him and their son, Billy (Justin Henry). She wants to find herself in the world and pursue her own career aspirations, but that forces Ted to quickly adjust to being a single parent.

Kramer vs. Kramer finds Streep’s Joanna returning for Billy after some time. However, she plans to fight for full custody of him, which Ted doesn’t plan on letting her win. This launches them into a nasty court battle that only deepens the wounds for each member of the family.

Meryl Streep wrote and performed in a scene that ‘scared’ writer/director Robert Benton

Erin Carlson’s Queen Meryl presents an intriguing look into Streep’s work in Kramer vs. Kramer. When it came to the courtroom scene, Benton gave Streep the opportunity to rewrite Joanna’s monologue because he felt that he wrote it like a man and wanted her to implement “a woman’s voice.” She brought in a handwritten monologue, which Benton thought was perfect. However, that’s only the beginning of this impressive impression.

Benton explained that Streep delivered a perfect performance in the very first take, which resulted in the entire cast and crew in the room going silent. However, he worried that she would exhaust herself from how much she was putting into her performance. As a result, Benton told her to reserve some of her energy for the reaction shots.

“Meryl, please don’t,” Benton said. “You’re new to this. Please don’t blow this early because there’s a lot. Save it for the close-up.”

However, Streep totally ignored him and never lost any energy while filming Kramer vs. Kramer. She delivered each take as if it was the first time she spoke the dialogue.

“It was never mechanical,” Benton said. “After maybe the third or fourth time that she did it, I suddenly realized I was scared s***less of her. That control, and the depth, was unbelievable.”

The actor showed her writing talents

Benton said in Queen Meryl that Streep doesn’t get enough credit for her talent as a writer in addition to her acting skills. He explained that Streep tuned down the theatrics of Kramer vs. Kramer and instilled a great sense of raw emotion with her choice of words. Joanna transformed into a whole new character.

Here’s a look at some of the dialogue that Streep wrote:

“I was incapable of functioning in that home, and I didn’t know what the alternative was going to be. So I thought it was not best that I take [Billy] with me. I was his mommy for 5 ½ years. And Ted took over that role for 18 months. But I don’t know how anybody can possibly believe that I have less of a stake in mothering that little boy than Mr. Kramer does. I’m his mother.”

The inclusion of the word “mommy” truly impacted Benton. It’s clear that her work paid off, as Streep won an Oscar for her work on Kramer vs. Kramer. The movie also won for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

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