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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. Only months after she moved into his Tribeca loft, Cazale was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.When he was cast in the Vietnam epic Meryl joined the film, in part, just to be with him. A few weeks after he died, Meryl’s brother helped her pack up her belongings.In preparation, Meryl flipped through magazines such as the kind Joanna might read.(Meryl hadn’t bothered with beauty magazines since high school.) They all featured profiles of working mothers, brilliant judges who were raising five adorable children. Suddenly she just felt incapable of caring for herself.” In other words, she was nothing like Meryl Streep, who had always felt supremely capable.But she delivered it with “the same sense of richness” each time, even when the cameras turned on Dustin for his reaction. Unwittingly, Dustin had created a new moment, one that Benton wanted in the scene.“Part of the pleasure she must have taken is showing to Dustin she didn’t need to be slapped,” the director said. As Joanna begins to falter, he goes in for the kill. So, hadn’t she failed at the most important relationship in her life? Dustin had instructed her to look at him when she heard that line. He turned the cameras around and had Meryl act the cross-examination again, and this time he recorded Dustin’s reactions. It was Ted Kramer telling Joanna Kramer, “No, you didn’t fail as a wife.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 in the summer of 1976.
Then something happened that shocked not just Meryl but everyone on set.The blond, cherubic Justin Henry hadn’t seemed right to Dustin, who wanted a “funny-looking kid” who looked like him.But Justin’s tender, familial way with Dustin in screen tests changed his mind, along with the realization that Billy Kramer shouldn’t look like Dustin.As she soaked in the atmosphere—muted traffic noises, chirping birds—she thought about the “dilemma of how to be a woman,” she said later, “how to be a mother, all the gobbledygook about ‘finding yourself.’ ” Most of her friends were actors in their late 20s who didn’t have children, women at their peak career potential, which, paradoxically, was the height of their baby-making potential. To make the story real to Justin, they would tell him only what was happening that day, so he could it, which would inevitably come off as phony.His direction would be communicated solely through Dustin, as a way of bonding on-screen father and son.
In the early chapters, their marriage is portrayed as superficially content, with wells of ennui underneath.