Tag Archives: Steven Hill

A Child Is Waiting (1963, John Cassavetes)

A Child Is Waiting had all kinds of production clashes between producer Stanley Kramer and director Cassavetes. And, apparently, between stars Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland and director Cassavetes. Kramer even fired Cassavetes during editing; none of those problems come through in the finished product. In fact, the lead actors not liking Cassavetes’s style doesn’t just not come through, it seems counter intiutive. Both Lancaster and Garland are exceptional, often because Cassavetes holds on so long with the shots. He never cuts away from the hard thoughts and realizations the actors need to convey.

The actors always convey them perfectly too.

Lancaster is the director of a state institution for developmentally disabled children. Garland is his newest employee. Lancaster is dedicated and determined, ever consistent in his pedagogical and treatment techniques. Garland just needs a job–and some kind of purpose.

The film doesn’t open with Garland arriving though. It opens with dad Steven Hill abandoning son Bruce Ritchey in the institution driveway. Ritchey latches on to Garland (and Garland to Ritchey) with Lancaster disapproving for multiple reasons. Of course, he’s often too busy to address it. And he’s also a bit of a jerk. He’s caring and even empathetic–watching Lancaster convey that empathy, especially in a terse scene, is glorious–but he’s always on task.

Abby Mann’s script does most of the ground situation exposition during Garland’s weeklong orientation. Child doesn’t do a lot with passage of time, which is sometimes to its benefit, sometimes not. The exposition isn’t just about Ritchey or Lancaster or the film’s institution, it’s about the actual reality of such institutions. A Child Is Waiting is never visually graphic, so Cassavetes has to do a lot with implication. Lancaster later gets to confirm some of those implications in dialogue, but it takes a while before even the dialogue gets graphic. It’s a gradual process, which is both good and bad.

A Child Is Waiting coddles. It coddles the viewer, it coddles Garland. Part of the film is dismantling that coddling, disassembling it, examining it, learning from its mistakes. But it isn’t Garland or Lancaster who benefit from the increasing granularity. It’s Arthur Hill.

Because Arthur Hill is a bad dad. There’s a flashback sequence, neatly tied to Garland learning about Ritchey’s case, showing what lead up to Hill abandoning Ritchey in the first scene. Not everything; a lot gets revealed in dialogue later, but enough. Gena Rowlands plays Ritchey’s mother. The flashback starts in toddler years. Rowlands has the film’s hardest part, but partially because it’s so contrived. She does well in it; it’s just, if the role were better, the film would be much improved.

But the film’s already pretty good. With some great moments. Cassavetes’s direction is excellent. He establishes two extremes, tight one shots of actors in the process of laying themselves bare, intentionally and not, and then sometimes extremely cinematic establishing and closing shots. Cassavetes loves a good crane.

Usually he keeps these two extremes separate. If it’s a big conversation scene, where Lancaster and Garland are trying to figure out if they’re going to respect one another, there’s not a swooping crane shot. But there’s still a perceptable tightening of the narrative distance. Cassavetes moves in to examine truth beyond the artifice. It’s exquisite.

And if the film went entirely in that examination direction, it’d be one thing. If it went entirely in a narrative direction, it’d be another. It’s sort of in the middle. Presumably the Cassavetes filmmaking sensibilities clashing with the Kramer editing ones. But kind of not because there’s still a script.

Hill’s the most important character arc in the film. Rowland should be, but Mann cops out entirely on her. Garland and Lancaster get more time than they should but it’s never wasted. Their performances are always developing, even when the film finally reveals Paul Stewart’s importance. Stewart is the answer man, which is great, because Paul Stewart is great. But it’d have been nice for his importance not to have been a reveal.

Outstanding acting from everyone. Garland’s excellent but Lancaster wins because his part is better. Hill’s good; Cassavetes treats him and Rowland different as far as narrative distance. They’re dulled; Garland and Lancaster are sharp. Rowlands has some strong moments. Ritchey’s really good too. The kids have the hardest parts in the film, obviously.

Lawrence Tierney has a small part as Rowlands’s new husband, which is a trip.

Great music from Ernest Gold, great photography from Joseph LaShelle. Okay production design from Rudolph Sternad–the institution is either in a residential neighborhood or occupies an entire cul-de-sac. It’s frequently confusing but never actually important.

A Child Is Waiting never comprises its cynicism for its hopefulness. Or vice versa. It oscelliates between the two as the characters navigate the same waters. Such good acting, such good directing.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Cassavetes; written by Abby Mann; director of photography, Joseph LaShelle; edited by Gene Fowler Jr. and Robert C. Jones; music by Ernest Gold; production designer, Rudolph Sternad; produced by Stanley Kramer; released by United Artists.

Starring Judy Garland (Jean Hansen), Burt Lancaster (Dr. Matthew Clark), Bruce Ritchey (Reuben Widdicombe), Steven Hill (Ted Widdicombe), Paul Stewart (Goodman), Gloria McGehee (Mattie), Lawrence Tierney (Douglas Benham), and Gena Rowlands (Sophie Widdicombe).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE JUDY GARLAND BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Teachers (1984, Arthur Hiller)

It must have been Bette Midler’s former manager, Aaron Russo (Teachers‘s producer), who somehow confused Arthur Hiller as the creative force behind The Hospital. Teachers is very much like The Hospital, but in its stoic protagonist, the stoic protagonist’s ultimate choice in the end, and the strange hijinks. However, as is clearly evidenced by JoBeth Williams’s strange, too flat to be absurdist nudist jaunt, Hiller is not a social commentator. He’s the guy who’d go on to direct Carpool and National Lampoon’s Pucked.

Hiller isn’t the biggest problem with Teachers. The film could survive his competent and unimaginative direction–Hiller seems to have influenced not just every modern sitcom director, but also Jon Favreau, who’s a similarly torpid director. The problem is the script. I don’t know if W.R. McKinney used to be a teacher (it seems likely for press purposes, regardless of uncredited script doctors), but he’s a terrible writer. He’s got severe problems with dialogue and his plotting is awkward. Some of his details are good–he’s got some funny stuff. But mostly he’s awful.

What makes Teachers work is the acting. Nick Nolte runs the whole thing. He’s got a big monologue–poorly written–and Nolte, even with Hiller’s lame direction and Don Zimmerman’s incapable editing, makes it work. He makes it superior.

Much of the supporting cast is good–Judd Hirsch is good as the sellout (rebel teacher turned assistant principal), Allen Garfield as the befuddled but well-meaning teacher, Richard Mulligan (in one of McKinney’s stupidest moves), Morgan Freeman, William Schallert. Williams is okay in her inessential and unlikely role. Ralph Macchio–idiotic costume aside–runs hot and cold. Lee Grant and Laura Dern are terrible, particularly Grant, who has no excuse (Teachers was one of Dern’s first films and her character is, to be fair, atrociously written).

But the Aaron Russo-produced white guy soundtrack–Bob Seger, Joe Cocker, ZZ Top–takes center stage, big shock (the advertisement for the soundtrack is the second end credits card, right after Russo’s credit for producing it too). The soundtrack’s poorly handled, like no one told Hiller it’d be there; not to mention the sound levels being confusing (is the music playing for the characters during Nolte and Williams’s date, or just for the moviegoer).

Teachers has–until the very end–a certain optimism going for it. It loses it then, when the script–shock of shocks–crumbles under its own ridiculousness. A better director could have helped, but not without an artistically-minded (versus soundtrack album sales minded) producer and a great rewrite. Still, seeing Hirsch in a film makes it worthwhile to some degree. And Nolte does have some fantastic moments.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Arthur Hiller; screenplay by W.R. McKinney; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by Don Zimmerman; production designer, Richard Macdonald; produced by Aaron Russo; released by United Artists.

Starring Nick Nolte (Alex Jurel), JoBeth Williams (Lisa Hammond), Judd Hirsch (Roger Rubell), Ralph Macchio (Eddie Pilikian), Allen Garfield (Carl Rosenberg), Lee Grant (Dr. Donna Burke), Richard Mulligan (Herbert Gower), Royal Dano (Ditto Stiles), William Schallert (Horn), Art Metrano (Troy), Laura Dern (Diane), Crispin Glover (Danny), Morgan Freeman (Lewis), Madeleine Sherwood (Grace) and Steven Hill (Sloan).


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Eyewitness (1981, Peter Yates)

Eyewitness gets a lot of abuse.

Peter Yates has become a punch-line to many a film joke, usually by people who love Breaking Away and don’t remember he did it. Eyewitness is an incredibly odd film–and not entirely successful, the protagonist (William Hurt) tends to talk to Sigourney Weaver straight from the id, no filtering. Her character is the film’s most complex (since the whole situation deals in a gray area of morality) and Weaver doesn’t always get it. There are a few scenes where she does, and it’s beautiful.

This film is incredibly gentle. It’s all about the character relationships. Writer Steve Tesich (also Breaking Away) even gives the cops personal conflicts, which is a little too much. But there’s a lot to appreciate in Eyewitness‘s indulgences. It makes for an odd experience–though Hurt’s character is so unbelievably straight-forward, it’s one of his best performances. Hurt tends not to play the identifiable character and, seeing him do it, is a special experience.

As for the mystery/thriller aspect of the film… it’s not really there, which may be why there’s such a hostility to the film. There’s a contract between artist and reader (or viewer) and Eyewitness does not deliver what the title (or the poster) promise. The score, or lack thereof, lets the viewer know the contract’s broken in the opening titles. I’m not much a stickler about the title contract when it comes to film (Pearl Harbor, for example, broke the shit out of it too, and so did Star Wars for that matter).

I’ve recommended Eyewitness in the past and had people look at me funny after watching it. Not every film needs to break your heart (like The Missouri Breaks). Hell, films don’t even have to engage your intelligence (Animal Crackers). But films do need to make your invested time worthwhile–and Eyewitness does. Just not if you’re looking for a mystery/thriller, rather a story about people.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Peter Yates; written by Steve Tesich; director of photography, Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by Cynthia Scheider; music by Stanley Silverman; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring William Hurt (Daryll Deever), Sigourney Weaver (Tony Sokolow), Christopher Plummer (Joseph), James Woods (Aldo), Irene Worth (Mrs. Sokolow), Kenneth McMillan (Mr. Deever), Pamela Reed (Linda), Albert Paulsen (Mr. Sokolow), Steven Hill (Lieutenant Jacobs), Morgan Freeman (Lieutenant Black) and Alice Drummond (Mrs. Deever).