A Child Is Waiting had all kinds of production clashes between producer Stanley Kramer and director Cassavetes. And, apparently, between stars Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland and director Cassavetes. Kramer even fired Cassavetes during editing; none of those problems come through in the finished product. In fact, the lead actors not liking Cassavetes’s style doesn’t just not come through, it seems counter intiutive. Both Lancaster and Garland are exceptional, often because Cassavetes holds on so long with the shots. He never cuts away from the hard thoughts and realizations the actors need to convey.
The actors always convey them perfectly too.
Lancaster is the director of a state institution for developmentally disabled children. Garland is his newest employee. Lancaster is dedicated and determined, ever consistent in his pedagogical and treatment techniques. Garland just needs a job–and some kind of purpose.
The film doesn’t open with Garland arriving though. It opens with dad Steven Hill abandoning son Bruce Ritchey in the institution driveway. Ritchey latches on to Garland (and Garland to Ritchey) with Lancaster disapproving for multiple reasons. Of course, he’s often too busy to address it. And he’s also a bit of a jerk. He’s caring and even empathetic–watching Lancaster convey that empathy, especially in a terse scene, is glorious–but he’s always on task.
Abby Mann’s script does most of the ground situation exposition during Garland’s weeklong orientation. Child doesn’t do a lot with passage of time, which is sometimes to its benefit, sometimes not. The exposition isn’t just about Ritchey or Lancaster or the film’s institution, it’s about the actual reality of such institutions. A Child Is Waiting is never visually graphic, so Cassavetes has to do a lot with implication. Lancaster later gets to confirm some of those implications in dialogue, but it takes a while before even the dialogue gets graphic. It’s a gradual process, which is both good and bad.
A Child Is Waiting coddles. It coddles the viewer, it coddles Garland. Part of the film is dismantling that coddling, disassembling it, examining it, learning from its mistakes. But it isn’t Garland or Lancaster who benefit from the increasing granularity. It’s Arthur Hill.
Because Arthur Hill is a bad dad. There’s a flashback sequence, neatly tied to Garland learning about Ritchey’s case, showing what lead up to Hill abandoning Ritchey in the first scene. Not everything; a lot gets revealed in dialogue later, but enough. Gena Rowlands plays Ritchey’s mother. The flashback starts in toddler years. Rowlands has the film’s hardest part, but partially because it’s so contrived. She does well in it; it’s just, if the role were better, the film would be much improved.
But the film’s already pretty good. With some great moments. Cassavetes’s direction is excellent. He establishes two extremes, tight one shots of actors in the process of laying themselves bare, intentionally and not, and then sometimes extremely cinematic establishing and closing shots. Cassavetes loves a good crane.
Usually he keeps these two extremes separate. If it’s a big conversation scene, where Lancaster and Garland are trying to figure out if they’re going to respect one another, there’s not a swooping crane shot. But there’s still a perceptable tightening of the narrative distance. Cassavetes moves in to examine truth beyond the artifice. It’s exquisite.
And if the film went entirely in that examination direction, it’d be one thing. If it went entirely in a narrative direction, it’d be another. It’s sort of in the middle. Presumably the Cassavetes filmmaking sensibilities clashing with the Kramer editing ones. But kind of not because there’s still a script.
Hill’s the most important character arc in the film. Rowland should be, but Mann cops out entirely on her. Garland and Lancaster get more time than they should but it’s never wasted. Their performances are always developing, even when the film finally reveals Paul Stewart’s importance. Stewart is the answer man, which is great, because Paul Stewart is great. But it’d have been nice for his importance not to have been a reveal.
Outstanding acting from everyone. Garland’s excellent but Lancaster wins because his part is better. Hill’s good; Cassavetes treats him and Rowland different as far as narrative distance. They’re dulled; Garland and Lancaster are sharp. Rowlands has some strong moments. Ritchey’s really good too. The kids have the hardest parts in the film, obviously.
Lawrence Tierney has a small part as Rowlands’s new husband, which is a trip.
Great music from Ernest Gold, great photography from Joseph LaShelle. Okay production design from Rudolph Sternad–the institution is either in a residential neighborhood or occupies an entire cul-de-sac. It’s frequently confusing but never actually important.
A Child Is Waiting never comprises its cynicism for its hopefulness. Or vice versa. It oscelliates between the two as the characters navigate the same waters. Such good acting, such good directing.
Directed by John Cassavetes; written by Abby Mann; director of photography, Joseph LaShelle; edited by Gene Fowler Jr. and Robert C. Jones; music by Ernest Gold; production designer, Rudolph Sternad; produced by Stanley Kramer; released by United Artists.
Starring Judy Garland (Jean Hansen), Burt Lancaster (Dr. Matthew Clark), Bruce Ritchey (Reuben Widdicombe), Steven Hill (Ted Widdicombe), Paul Stewart (Goodman), Gloria McGehee (Mattie), Lawrence Tierney (Douglas Benham), and Gena Rowlands (Sophie Widdicombe).