Thursday, May 21, 2009
A CHILD IS WAITING
A CHILD IS WAITING (1963). Director: John Cassavetes.
Jean Hansen (Judy Garland) gets a job as music teacher at an institution for mentally-disabled youngsters, hoping to find some meaning in her life. Dr. Ben Clark (Burt Lancaster), the head of the school, clashes with her, warning her that if she gets too close to one child the other children will get jealous. Lancaster feels the children shouldn't be coddled too much if they are to be helped. Still, when Jean learns that one small boy, Reuben (Bruce Ritchie, pictured), waits every Wednesday in his best clothes for his parents to come -- and they never do -- she decides to take it upon herself to get in touch with them, leading to complications. This is a beautiful -- and absolutely heart-breaking -- movie that tugs at your emotions practically from the first frame to the last. While attitudes toward the mentally-disabled and teaching methods for same may have changed since the film was made -- it doesn't seem as if every child, especially the mildly-retarded, must be institutionalized, for one thing -- and despite the fact that producer Stanley Kramer and director John Cassavetes reportedly clashed while filming and during post-production, A Child is Waiting does get across that these young people [most of the children are mentally-disabled in real life] are just people deserving of love and support and a fighting chance to make a place in society, or at least to come to peace with themselves. So while the movie is undeniably a powerful tearjerker -- I'm not ashamed to confess that I blubbered all the way through it -- it also has a message of hope and is therefore uplifting. Call it manipulative at times if you will, but it is certainly effective and poignant.
Burt Lancaster gives one of his best performances as Dr. Clark. He is not lacking in compassion but you also suspect he thinks of his little charges in part as experiments. Judy Garland gives an excellent, restrained performance (and if ever there were a movie where she could have been forgiven for going over the top, this is it) and is so loving and kind to a new little boy at the ending that it's readily apparent that she was deeply moved to be among these children. She also has a nice scene leading the children in a singalong where it's clear -- that while she's supposed to be reacting to the disappointment in the little boy sitting beside her -- that she's holding back tears because of her general feelings for the children. This is more Lancaster's film than Garland's, however, as she's given no big scenes (just well-done smaller moments) and her character is never explored in any depth. Gena Rowlands and Steven Hill score as the confused and tortured parents of young Reuben -- Hill is certainly much better than he was in The Goddess. There are also fine supporting performances from Elizabeth Wilson, Paul Stewart, and others. Child actor Bruce Ritchie certainly makes an impression as the lonely little Reuben. He appeared in one other movie, The Silencers, in 1966.
Verdict: If this one doesn't give you a lump in the throat, check your pulse -- you're dead! ****.