John Cassavetes’s “A Child is Waiting,” his Hollywood commercial effort at a more mainstream cinema is artistically one of his weakest film, a result of a series of compromises.
Produced by Stanley Kramer, “A Child is Waiting” is ideologically a liberal film, like all of Kramer’s works, with its heart in the right place, but it’s also sentimental and does not fully use the talents of its two major stars, Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland in a comeback performance, and one of her last on screen roles before her 1969 death of drug overdose.
Released after Cassavetes’s “Shadows” and “Faces,” which announced the arrival of a new, visionary director, “A Child is Waiting” is particularly disappointing.
Set in an institution for the mentally handicapped (in the film they are described as retarded), the cast includes actual residents playing supporting and bit roles.
The melodrama revolves about the differing philosophies and treatment methods of the psychologist, Dr. Matthew Clark (Burt Lancaster) and the new instructor, Jean Hansen (Judy Garland), who often find themselves at odds over teaching strategies.
Garland, a sensitive woman who studied music and wanted to be a concert pianist, favors personal and intimate one-on-one approach with her students.
Bruce Ritchey, a non-developmentally challenged youth, plays Reuben Widdimock, the retarded son of Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes’ real wife, who would assume major roles in his future work) and Steven Hill. Ruben’s intellectual and social progress is the film’s dramatic focus (and battlefield). There’s strong rapport between the child, who keeps waiting every Wednesday for his absent mother to visit, and Judy Garland, who becomes his supporter and surrogate mother.
One of the uplifting sequences takes place during a play staged by the handicapped children for their parents, who are earnest, engaging, and devoid of self-pity.
But director Cassavetes, hampered by demands for a schmaltzy commercial, can’t elevate the material above the routine.
According to producer Kramer, Garland’s most emotional scenes were excised in the editing room.
Burt Lancaster as Dr. Matthew Clark
Judy Garland as Jean Hansen
Gena Rowland as Sophie Widdicombe
Steven Hil as Ted Widdicombe
Bruce Ritche as Reuben Widdicombe
Gloria McGehee as Mattie.
Running time: 105 Minutes.
Directed by John Cassavetes.