Saturday, November 9, 2013


“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted." -- D.H. Lawrence

A Child is Waiting (1963) is, sadly, best known for its violent on-set conflict between director John Cassavetes and producer Stanley Kramer -- a conflict which ended with Cassavetes storming off set during late production and returning only to punch Stanley Kramer (who had taken over as director) in the chops. Yet the finished product -- dramatically unlike anything Cassavetes created before or after -- is extraordinarily moving and as representative of its time as any movie made during those very human years.

Set in an upstate New York hospital called Crawthorne (interiors actually filmed at Pacific State Hospital in California, with all street shots surrounding Crawthorne amazingly filmed on the same street sets used in Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, and Leave It To Beaver), the story follows a boy named Reuben (Bruce Ritchey), mildly retarded yet abandoned by his arriviste parents (Steven Hill and Gena Rowlands); the woman who falls in love with him, a newly arrived caretaker at Crawthorne (Judy Garland); and the man who runs the place, Dr. Matthew Clark (Burt Lancaster). Every moment of the movie drips with sorrow. And we wonder: Where are these children now? Where are the retarded? Why do we never see them anymore in movies or on television? Why are they never mentioned? Are there so much fewer of them? (In this toxic culture?) Or are they, like everything else not part of Happy Apple iSland or Fox Hee-Haw, made to be invisible?

The children, aside from Reuben, are the only happy people we see. Everyone else, especially the beautiful Miss Garland who performs here with an incomparable emotional nakedness, moves through the work wearing a crown of thorns. Everyone here is broken and wounded. Reuben's abandoning parents are paralyzed by their own sufferings -- in their love for each other, in their love for the boy. (And oh does this couple deserve a movie of their own. And I suppose, in a much different key, they were given that many times over in Cassavetes's 70s masterpieces and in particular his Love Streams [1984], perhaps the greatest American movie of the 80s.) Lancaster -- one of the true naturals of screen history; and who among our current Leading Men can compare with this man? -- clearly plays a Kennedy figure -- struggling with his own need to dominate, struggling with his own helplessness in the face of causes and creations which may be as immovable as God's will. And Garland. She was near the end of her strange and perhaps insane ride in the early 60s (she would die before the end of the decade and this would be her penultimate work); here she makes clear that all she needed to be great was something (someone) to believe in, and who would believe in her. A Child is Waiting does both.

As did an adoring past husband.

It is a project not destined for JC. And it is not hard to imagine why he prickishly demanded his name be taken off it. His contribution (and intentions) can be felt in the more out of control scenes between Hill and Rowland, and in the scenes with the children where we are made to feel uncomfortable, even made to feel a loathing toward their faces and voices. It can most deeply be felt in the horrific sequence where Lancaster takes Garland to experience the retarded in middle-age. (Dr. Clark does this to stop her from coddling Reuben.) Perhaps Cassavetes wanted to turn the story into his version of Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor, also from '63. Perhaps he did, since he made the bizarre choice of casting himself -- unrecognizable -- as the freakiest of the adult retarded. If so, let us congratulate Stanley Kramer on stopping him. One Shock Corridor -- 'though a masterpiece -- is enough.

There is no argument to be made against the monumental greatness of John Cassavetes, director -- a body of work artistically dwarfing Kramer's. But perhaps his loner cinema was inappropriate for an era of mainstream earnestness and the embrace of communal action.