Most directors that made their feature debut with a film nominated for five Oscars could likely safely expect to then enjoy a fairly long career with an extensive list of credits. Like so many filmmakers featured in the Unsung Auteurs column (and particularly female ones), that wasn’t the case for Randa Haines, who made an epic splash in 1986 with her powerhouse against-the-grain drama Children Of A Lesser God, which introduced the world to deaf actress Marlee Matlin and featured one of the late William Hurt’s best performances. Sadly, Haines only made three more feature films (along with a couple of TV movies) until what would appear to be her retirement from the director’s chair in 2006. A truly humanist filmmaker interested in fringe and unlikely characters, it’s a profound disappointment that we haven’t seen a lot more of Randa Haines.
Randa Haines was born in 1945 in Los Angeles, and initially studied to be an actress under Lee Strasberg at The Actors Studio. She eventually broke into the industry, however, through her work as a scrip supervisor on a host of low budget indies, including 1970’s Joe, 1971’s Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (directed by Unsung Auteur John D. Hancock) and 1972’s The Stoolie. This led Haines into the world of television, where she helmed episodes for series like Knots Landing and Hill Street Blues, as well as a clutch of telemovies. Haines’ first major work came on the small screen with the highly controversial 1984 drama Something About Amelia, which tackled the issue of familial child abuse head-on, and boasted a brave and bravura performance from Ted Danson as a father who sexually molests his daughter, and an equally powerful one from Roxanna Zal as the brave but damaged child. A huge talking point upon airing, and a very strong film in itself, Something About Amelia is one of many. many, many fine examples of how truly underrated the modest form of the telemovie can be.
It was likely the tough, uncompromising nature of Something About Amelia that scored Haines the plum job of directing 1986’s Children Of A Lesser God, an adaptation of Mark Medoff’s acclaimed stage play. Dealing with issues never before seen on the screen before, the film stars the great William Hurt as James, a new teacher at a school for the deaf. While his unconventional teaching methods are effective, James meets much opposition in the form of Sarah (deaf actress Marlee Matlin in her first, Oscar-winning role), a deaf janitor at the school who chooses to sign rather than speak. The two eventually embark on a hot, volatile relationship, and the chemistry between Hurt and Matlin is combustible.
Beautifully performed and opening up discussions on deafness and disability that had not really been broached publicly previously, the reputation of Children Of A Lesser God has sadly diminished in the intervening years, but it remains a brave, forward-thinking cinematic feat deserving of considerably more contemporary recognition. Rather than blasting out of the gate with more features, it took Randa Haines five years to venture back onto the big screen. “I seem to have this need to feel really emotionally connected in a deep way to the material that I work on,” Haines told The Morning Call in 1991. “I’ve turned down a lot of movies in the last few years.”
Haines’ sophomore big screen effort finally came with The Doctor in 1991, in which the director reunited with William Hurt, who utilised his famed intelligence and air of aloofness to great effect as an arrogant, uncaring doctor who experiences a major shift in character and perspective when he is diagnosed with cancer. Another strong, emotionally focused film from Haines, The Doctor deals with the issue of appropriate patient care and medical responsibility in an interesting, compelling way, and was a rock-solid showcase for the director’s storytelling gifts and skill with actors.
For her next film, Haines moved into the decidedly non-box office friendly world of senior citizens with 1993’s excellent Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, a buddy pic about the unlikely friendship that develops between two disparate septuagenarians: Richard Harris’ hard drinking former ship’s captain and Robert Duvall’s fastidious Cuban barber. Also starring Shirley MacLaine and a pre-Speed Sandra Bullock, the funny and deeply moving Wrestling Ernest Hemingway is a true delight, and charms from beginning to end. It’s another terrific effort from Randa Haines, who disappointingly followed it up with 1998’s Dance With Me, a US vehicle for Puerto Rican pop sensation Chayanne, which co-starred Vanessa Williams and Kris Kristofferson. Though not without its charms, Dance With Me is not at the impressive level of Haines’ other films.
After two more telemovies (2002’s western The Outsider and the 2006 Matthew Perry starrer The Ron Clark Story), Haines’ credits stopped, with the director now apparently retired from making films. Haines’ sadly slim resume may in fact be due to the director’s own admitted highly selective tastes. “I have to really, really care about something,” Haines told Movieline in 1991. “To really understand it, it has to be about me in some way. I have to identify with it. I hope that changes for me. I hope that I expand the base of themes that interest me. And I probably will as I get older. Also, the more films you make, I suppose, the easier the process becomes.”
Whatever the reasons for her slim resume, the outcome remains the same: it would simply be a better cinematic world if there were more movies directed by Randa Haines in it.
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Leslie H. Martinson, Nancy Kelly, Paul Newman, Brett Haley, Lynne Ramsay, Vernon Zimmerman, Lisa Cholodenko, Robert Greenwald, Phyllida Lloyd, Milton Katselas, Karyn Kusama, Seijun Suzuki, Albert Pyun, Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher, Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.