Director: John Cassavetes
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I saw a rather strange film the other day, a part of John Cassavetes’ oeuvre with which I was unfamiliar. The film, A Child Is Waiting, combines Hollywood’s Golden Age star Judy Garland with modern golden boy Burt Lancaster and several of Cassavetes’ stock players from his independent work (his wife Gena Rowlands, John Marley, and Paul Stewart) to tell a gloves-off story about the place of the mentally retarded in mainstream American society. The film’s producer, Stanley Kramer, certainly was no stranger to “issues” films, having previously helmed On the Beach, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremburg, and The Men. Cassavetes liked to make pictures about families and the emotionally damaged. The picture they made together has a schizophrenic tone and point of view, and casting Judy Garland in the role of a failed pianist looking for meaning in her life by becoming a teacher of mentally retarded children was a bit of a stretch. Ultimately, however, Garland would be less of a problem in telling this tale than the differing philosophies of its producer and director.
The film opens on Jean Hansen (Garland) entering a large building. A high longshot of her in a hallway emphasizes her smallness; we will learn that she is “drifting,” unable to find herself, and that the task she is trying to undertake may be too big for her. Her friend Mattie (Gloria McGehee), who has invited her to apply for a teaching position at the institution, meets her in the hallway and begins to show her around. Jean is accosted by curious students with every stripe and severity of mental disability, including a fair number of children with Down’s Syndrome. Her discomfort is obvious, one that was said to be the genuine reaction of Garland herself that she never quite shakes.
Jean meets Dr. Ben Clark (Burt Lancaster), a psychologist and head of the institution. He learns from interviewing her that she has no experience or special connection to the community she wants to serve. Mattie’s recommendation is the only thing Dr. Clark can go on, but it’s enough. She is hired and assigned to work as a music teacher and monitor for one of the cottages in which the children live. We don’t actually see her do any teaching or other work until near the end of the film. Instead, we watch her grow attached to a mildly retarded boy named Reuben Widdicombe (Bruce Richey) who won’t speak or follow the instructions of the teachers and Dr. Clark.
Wednesdays are family days, and Jean helps Reuben get into his best suit. All the children go outside to meet their parents. One by one, the children go off for the day. Only Reuben, sitting forlornly on the curb, has no visitors. Jean tries to comfort him, saying that his mother must have gotten lost or been delayed. Another teacher named Miss Fogarty (Elizabeth Wilson) comes by and says Reuben’s mother never comes. “He’s been waiting for her like that for two years.”
Jean asks Dr. Clark about Reuben. He says Reuben is very special, “one of our most notable failures.” Jean asks him to call Reuben’s mother; he flatly refuses. And he doesn’t believe that teachers should form bonds with the children. Garland’s attachment to this boy (one of only three children in the cast—Billy Mumy and Butch Patrick are the others—who is not mentally challenged) is convincing, as she no doubt identified with his loneliness and apparent mistreatment by Dr. Clark.
Jean steals Reuben’s file and starts to read it. In an awkward voiceover by an official-sounding man, we learn that Reuben was the first child of Sophie and Ted Widdicombe (Gena Rowlands and Steven Hill). The film flashes back to the Widdicombes enjoying baby Reuben in his crib. The voice tells us his birth was normal and he had chicken pox and measles before his second birthday. The only thing notable was that Sophie took a medication for a thyroid condition when she was pregnant. The cause of his retardation is a mystery.
In full flashback mode, the Widdicombes are becoming concerned that he doesn’t appear to be as mentally aware as other children. Sophie wonders why her two-year-old isn’t walking when a younger child down the hall is running. Ted brushes her off, saying his brother didn’t walk until he was three and is now running a big company. Unfortunately, the facts can’t be ignored forever. Ted takes Reuben to specialist after specialist looking for a different diagnosis. When he doesn’t get one, he drives Reuben, wildly, recklessly, to the state institution run by Dr. Clark. He looks as though he wants to kill them both—and indeed, he does.
Back in the present, when Dr. Clark finds out that Jean has Reuben’s file, he is livid. She asks Dr. Clark angrily why he wants to take the comfort she provides to Reuben away from him. He states his belief that these children are served best by being taught to be self-reliant. She begs him to call Mrs. Widdicombe, now divorced from Ted and remarried. He tells her he will let Reuben’s parents see him when he thinks it is right.
Jean disobeys him and calls Sophie. She lies that Reuben is very ill to get Sophie to come. Sophie shows up with her second husband (Laurence Tierney). When she finds out about Jean’s deception, she refuses to see Reuben, saying that she loves him too much, that she couldn’t bear to see his pain at being different and rejected all over again. Rowlands always plays instability and vulnerability very well, and this performance is no exception. Reuben spies her as she returns to her car and runs after her. Later that night, he runs away. We get some signature Cassavetes shots of Reuben hiding in a bush as a blur of headlights and a blare of horns bring the moment viscerally to life. Unfortunately, we also are treated to the polemical sight of what Reuben faces in the outside world, when some boys include him in a football game and then kick him out when he shows he doesn’t know what they’re doing.
After Reuben is found and returned to the institution, Dr. Clark takes Jean to a part of the institution she has never seen—the men’s ward of the hopeless cases. It looks like Bedlam, perhaps a bit of a cliche but effective. He says these men were loved too much, kept at home and had their every want fulfilled. “Their parents didn’t bring them to us until it was too late”—too late to be trained to stand on their own two feet and create some kind of a life for themselves. Jean is converted to Dr. Clark’s way of thinking and becomes cool toward Reuben, who still clings to her as a surrogate mother. She prepares her music class for a Thanksgiving pageant. Ted shows up after talking with an administrator at the institution, the symbolically named Goodman (Paul Stewart), and is moved that Reuben can recite a poem in front of an audience. Father and son are reconciled.
Many of society’s attitudes in the 1960s are on display in this film. Dr. Clark argues with state inspectors about their desire to divert funding from the institution to other programs. The pragmatic Dr. Lombardi (Mario Gallo) cold-bloodedly reasons that the state’s money is better spent on people who can become productive, not those for whom folding laundry may be the epitome of their ambition.
Burt Lancaster shows Dr. Clark’s compassion for his charges even as he espouses a tough-love approach to their development. He believes all mentally challenged children should be institutionalized so they can get the proper help and avoid smother love. The philosophy is a bit of a muddle that would become more refined with progress in society. Indeed, I hardly knew what to think listening to him combine a strange Freudianism (blaming mothering) with the more modern approach of helping these children achieve their potential, and then advocate institutionalization, highly idealized in this film as being compassionate and rehabilitative.
This confusion was no accident, as Stanley Kramer recut the film behind Cassavetes’ back. In Cassavetes on Cassavetes, the director discusses the two versions of the film:
The difference in the two versions is that Stanley’s picture said that retarded children belong in institutions, and the picture I shot said retarded children are better in their own way than supposedly healthy adults. The philosophy of his film was that retarded children are separate and alone and therefore should be in institutions with others of their kind. My film said that retarded children could be anywhere, any time, and that the problem is that we’re a bunch of dopes, that it’s our problem more than the kids’. The point of the original picture that we made was that there was no fault, that there was nothing wrong with these children except that their mentality was lower.
The single best scene in this film is the one between Steven Hill and Paul Stewart I mentioned above. Below is the clip:
While this film is dated because of changing attitudes toward the mentally challenged—we even have professional actors with Down’s Syndrome now—it still provides a jolt to the system for people who don’t interact daily with the disabled. The look is unflinching and almost completely free of preachiness. Lancaster fights for his charges, but not in a way that makes us feel we’re being scolded or taught. We’re all the better for seeing he has a genuine passion for his work, that it is possible to love working with children most of us never see and some of us would rather not see. A brave film that in its very making became a battleground over the rights of the mentally disabled, A Child Is Waiting is a unique and worthy work in the Cassavetes canon.