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Jean Hansen (Judy Garland), a recently hired employee at the Crawthorne State Mental Hospital, finds a new purpose in her life when she begins working with problem children at the facility. Lacking a medical degree, her approach to therapy is constantly challenged by the resident psychiatrist, Dr. Matthew Clark (Burt Lancaster), who feels her interaction with one child in particular, Reuben Widdicombe (Bruce Ritchey), could result in more problems instead of a cure.
Combining a cinema verite approach popular with emerging independent filmmakers of the early sixties and the production values of a major studio film complete with name stars, A Child is Waiting (1963) was a unique attempt by producer Stanley Kramer to create an impacting social drama about the plight of mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed children. His good intentions, however, were complicated by his choice of director, John Cassavetes, and his lead actors, Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland, all of whom had their own creative approach to the material.
Kramer modeled the film's school on the Vineland Training School in New Jersey, an internationally renown institution for their treatment of mentally retarded children, though the movie was actually shot on location at the Pacific State Hospital in Pomona, California. In Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster by Gary Fishgall, Kramer stated that one of the reasons he wanted to make A Child is Waiting was "to throw a spotlight on a dark-ages type of social thinking which has tried to relegate the subject of retardation to a place under the rocks." As for soliciting Lancaster's involvement in the film, the producer had an ulterior motive. He knew Lancaster had a troubled child of his own and a personal interest in the subject matter. Lancaster had also worked well with Judy Garland in Kramer's previous film, Judgment at Nuremberg  and the actress, who was going through a difficult period in her life, needed a supportive work environment. Unfortunately, "Judy was drinking a great deal," Lancaster recalled, "and it was a big effort to get herself together and get in shape to work...I had to kind of nurse her along with it. And because of her mental condition at the time, she wasn't terribly involved with the part."
Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor had all been considered for the part of Jean Hansen before Garland was cast. Likewise, the original choice for director had been Jack Clayton who had to drop out of the project due to scheduling conflicts; his replacement, John Cassavetes, was suggested to Kramer by screenwriter Abby Mann, a friend to both men. But Cassavetes's improvisational style turned out to be completely at odds with Kramer's working methods and didn't endear him to Garland and Lancaster who weren't comfortable with his often unconventional approach either.
One of the big gambles in the film was the casting of real mentally retarded children throughout the picture which some critics took issue with when the film was released. Kramer, however, felt their involvement was crucial to the film, adding, "it was exciting. They surprised us every day in reaction and what they did." Lancaster voiced a similar opinion in an off-the-set interview at the time, saying, "We have to ad-lib around the periphery of a scene and I have to attune and adjust myself to the unexpected things they do. But they are much better than child actors for the parts. They have certain gestures that are characteristic, very difficult for even an experienced actor."
In the end, the tense relationship between Kramer and Cassavetes came to a head during the final editing of A Child is Waiting. According to the picture's editor, Gene Fowler, Jr., in the aforementioned Gary Fishgall biography, "It was a fight of technique. Stanley is a more traditional picture-maker, and Cassavetes was, I guess, called Nouvelle Vague. He was trying some things, which frankly I disagreed with, and I thought he was hurting the picture by blunting the so-called message with technique." Fowler cited one instance where a scene was jumpy because the camera ran over a cable during filming so he replaced it with a smoother take, only to have Cassavetes complain, "My God, you damn Hollywood people. All you can think of is smoothness of camera. What we want is to get some rough edges in here." Subsequently, Kramer fired Cassavetes and finished the editing himself with Fowler's assistance, prompting the director to disown it. After the film's release, however, Cassavetes remarked, "I didn't think his film - and that's what I consider it to be, his film - was so bad, just a lot more sentimental than mine." For his own part, Kramer admitted, "My dream was to jump the barrier of ordinary objection to the subject matter into an area in which the treatment of it and the performance of it would be so exquisite that it would transcend all that. Somewhere we failed." Yet, many critics found things to praise in A Child is Waiting, such as Time magazine's assessment that "Lancaster has never been better" and Time Out's opinion that "Cassavetes elicits magnificent performances from his cast, making especially fine use of Garland's tremulous emotionalism."
Producer: Stanley Kramer
Director: John Cassavetes
Screenplay: Abby Mann
Production Designer: Rudolph Sternad
Cinematography: Joseph La Shelle
Editing: Gene Fowler, Jr.
Music: Ernest Gold
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Dr. Matthew Clark), Judy Garland (Jean Hansen), Gena Rowlands (Sophie Widdicombe), Steven Hill (Ted Widdicombe), Bruce Ritchey (Reuben Widdicombe), Paul Stewart (Goodman), Lawrence Tierney (Douglas Benham), Elizabeth Wilson (Miss Fogarty), John Marley (Holland).
by Jeff Stafford