I recently watched a movie on Netflix called A Child is Waiting. The movie was made in 1963 by Director, John Cassavetes and Producer, Stanley Kramer and provides an interesting view of the debates about the education of children with special needs at the time. What was fascinating to me was how many of these same debates are still relevant today.
Burt Lancaster plays the director of the Crawthorne State Mental Hospital, a residential facility for children and young adults with special needs. Lancaster’s character, Dr. Clark, has strict and rigid views about how the children should be taught, yet, he also fights valiantly against the state system’s representatives who want to cut his funding (sound familiar?). Dr. Clark believes that emotionalism has no place in teaching children with special needs. He is not harsh or mean, just intent on being consistent in his methods.
His foil is Judy Garland, who plays Jean Hanson, a Julliard graduate with an uncertain past, who applies to be a music teacher at the hospital. Hanson disagrees with Clark’s methods and feels that emotion does have a place in teaching her students. She becomes very attached to 12 year old Reuben, a boy who appears to have high-functioning autism (although diagnoses of the children in the film is never stated, and remembering this was the 1960’s before “people first” language, the word “retarded” is often used as a medical descriptor).
Jean notices that every week on visiting day Reuben dresses up and waits for his mother to come. She never does. Jean learns that his parents are divorced and that Dr. Clark feels that it would be better for Reuben if he did not see his parents. Jean sends for the mother, to make her case, but the mother agrees with Dr. Clark. As she leaves, Reuben sees her get into her car and chases her. Later, he runs away (again, sound familiar?). Dr. Clark is able to find him, and Jean offers to resign but Clark asks her to stay to complete the Thanksgiving pageant rehearsals and preparations.
Reuben’s father hears of the incident at decides to enroll Reuben in a private school. When he arrives to pick him up, he attends the Thanksgiving rehearsal and is touched as his son recites a poem, with some help from the other students. Reuben’s father decides his child is doing well and should stay at Crawthorne under Jean’s care. The film began with Dr. Clark coaxing Reuben from his father’s car to go into the facility. It ends with Jean assuming this role and coaxing a new student to enter Crawthorne.
To me, the stars of this film are the students, who with the exception of the actor who plays Reuben, are children with special needs from Pacific State Hospital in California. The Thanksgiving pageant will touch the heart of any special needs parent who has watched their child participate in a holiday production. The movie is worth watching, in my opinion, for that scene alone.
I did not care for the portrayal of Reuben’s mother as somewhat neurotic, “sensitive” and in need of Valium, although again, I have to remember this was the early 1960’s. The “refrigerator mother” theory was still in the air, no doubt. I did appreciate actor Stephen Hill’s performance as Reuben’s architect father, however, who is tortured and conflicted about his son’s condition and the toll on his marriage; another detail that sadly will ring true to so many parents whose children have autism today.
If you are a Cassavetes fan, as I am, this movie will surprise you. It is not, in my opinion, representative of his work. Nevertheless, it is fascinating. Apparently Cassavetes and Kramer fought over the interpretation of the film. Cassavetes said “"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." (From Cassavetes on Cassavetes, Ray Carney, editor).
This film shows the conflict between Kramer and Cassavetes, as it alternates between both perspectives. Although the movie is not the one that Cassavetes was hoping to make, the conflict between him and Kramer is the same one prevalent in society at the time and seeing those two perspectives presented is revealing. I think the film is actually more powerful to have both opinions represented. I wonder how special needs parents viewed this movie when it was originally released?
As an autism parent living in the 21st century, however, all you have to do is look in the faces of the beautiful children in the film, all of whom have special needs, to see that Cassavetes, not Kramer, was right.