Hollywood Flashback: Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep First Won Oscars for 'Kramer vs. Kramer'

Kramer vs. Kramer Still - Photofest - H 2019
Columbia Pictures/Photofest

Decades before divorce drama 'Marriage Story' began streaming on Netflix (Dec. 6), 1980's best picture winner connected with critics and audiences alike thanks to the cast and crew's "commitment, belief in the project and bringing their own truths to the material," says producer Stanley Jaffe.

If there's such a genre as the marriage-dissolution movie, Netflix's Dec. 6 release Marriage Story can only hope to emulate the success writer-director Robert Benton had in 1979 with Kramer vs. Kramer. The Columbia release was the year's highest-grossing film, won four Golden Globes, five Oscars (including the firsts for Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep) and was named best picture at both ceremonies.

The film tells the story of a work-obsessed ad exec (Hoffman, then 42) who, on the same day he lands a huge account, is told by his wife (Streep, then 30) that she's leaving him and their son. The stress of being a single parent causes Ted to lose his job but also strengthens his relationship with his 6-year-old, played by Justin Henry, now 48 (Kramer gave him a supporting actor Oscar nom, after which his biggest role was in 1984's Sixteen Candles; he's now a partner at Washington Media Partners consulting). When Joanna returns and wants custody, a court battle ensues.

THR said Kramer had "wisdom, insight, compassion and an extraordinary sensitivity to present-day problems and pain." Producer Stanley Jaffe says what made the film work was "everyone's commitment, belief in the project and bringing their own truths to the material." 

The roles brought the best actor Oscar to Hoffman, who was nominated for 1968's The Graduate, 1970's Midnight Cowboy and 1975's Lenny; and a supporting actress win for Streep, who'd gotten a supporting nom for 1979's The Deer Hunter. Both actors were going through difficult times then, with Hoffman's marriage ending and Streep dealing with the 1978 death of her partner John Cazale. While Hoffman had been with the project from the start (and received a $1 million salary and a percentage of the profits), Streep wasn't the first choice. The role was offered to Kate Jackson, who was dating Hoffman but was contractually obligated to do the third season of ABC's Charlie's Angels.

In its Oscar coverage, THR said Streep was asked if she agreed that she should have been nominated for best actress (won by Sally Field for Norma Rae). Streep replied, "The supporting actress category seems to be the most terrific one to be nominated in. It means you truly support your fellow players, and that's what we want to do in this business."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.