On March 12, 1978, the man Meryl Streep had been dating for nearly two years died as she sat at his hospital bed. She had met John Cazale, the crane-like character actor best known for playing Fredo Corleone in the Godfather films, when they starred together in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Measure for Measure in the summer of 1976. From the beginning, they were an unusual pair: a pellucid 27-year-old beauty just a year out of the Yale School of Drama and a 41-year-old oddball with a forehead as high as a boulder and a penchant for Cuban cigars.
But the romance was tragically short-lived. Only months after she moved into his Tribeca loft, Cazale was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. When he was cast in the Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter, Meryl joined the film, in part, just to be with him. Cazale didn’t live to see the completed work. A few weeks after he died, Meryl’s brother helped her pack up her belongings. He brought along a friend she had met once or twice—a sculptor named Don Gummer, who lived a few blocks away, in SoHo. Only weeks after losing the love of her life, she had found the second love of her life, the man who would become her husband.
It was this Meryl Streep—simultaneously grieving and infatuated, a theater actress new to movies—who got word from her agent, Sam Cohn, about a possible role in Kramer vs. Kramer, based on a novel by Avery Corman. Corman wanted to counteract the “toxic rhetoric” he had been hearing from feminists, who he felt lumped all men together as “a whole bunch of bad guys,” he says now. His protagonist was Ted Kramer, a thirtysomething workaholic New Yorker who sells ad space for men’s magazines. He has a wife, Joanna, and a little boy named Billy. In the early chapters, their marriage is portrayed as superficially content, with wells of ennui underneath.
The problem is Joanna Kramer, who finds motherhood, by and large, “boring.” She starts taking tennis lessons. Sex with Ted is mechanical. About 50 pages in, Joanna informs Ted that she’s “suffocating.” She’s leaving him, and she’s leaving Billy. (“Feminists will applaud me,” she says.) Ted overcomes his shock and gets back into the swing of single life. More important, he learns how to be a good father. It is then that Joanna does the unthinkable: she returns from California and tells Ted she wants Billy back. The ensuing custody battle, which gives the novel its title, lays bare the ugliness of divorce proceedings and the wounds they allow people to inflict on each other.
Before Kramer vs. Kramer even hit the bookstores, the manuscript fell into the hands of Richard Fischoff, a young film executive who had just accepted a job with the producer Stanley Jaffe. Ted and Joanna Kramer, Fischoff thought, were like Benjamin and Elaine in The Graduate 10 years later, after their impulsive union has collapsed from the inside. The movie would be a kind of generational marker, tracking the baby-boomers from the heedlessness of young adulthood to the angst of middle adulthood. No one was yet calling people like the Kramers “yuppies,” but their defining neuroses were already in place.
(Excerpt) Read more in: Vanity Fair