The Disability in Film Blogathon
On May 1, 2016, Marlee Matlin appeared at the TCM Classic Film Festival before a screening of Children of a Lesser God (1986). Film historian and author Cari Beauchamp interviewed her at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre.
Through ASL interpreter Jack Jason, Matlin explained how she was cast at age nineteen. Matlin had a supporting role in the Mark Medoff play during its run in Chicago. A casting agent from Paramount wanted to test her for the lead in the film version which Matlin thought a mistake. She impressed the film’s director Randa Haines and William Hurt who’d already been cast. In an aside, Beauchamp said of Haines’ reaction seeing Matlin on tape, “She just popped!” At the time, she was young for the part of Sarah Norman, written as mid-twenties. “It was my absolute first film,” said Matlin. “First director, first everything . . . I had an acting coach during the film when we started the rehearsal process. We had three weeks of rehearsal and it was extremely intense. I also worked with Randa one-on-one . . . We had these little short hands between the two of us which would help me with my work during the film. It was like a baseball player, it was between us. She was, to this day, a director who really got me. She worked with me, she wasn’t afraid to try.” Beauchamp noted Matlin’s groundbreaking Best Actress Academy Award but expressed dismay that director Haines, who learned to sign for the film, wasn’t nominated since the main actors were [Medoff and Hesper Anderson were nominated for the screenplay]. “They didn’t nominate women for director then, okay?” said Beauchamp. [Haines was nominated for a DGA award that year.]
The actress was candid about her offscreen relationship with Hurt, though she hesitated, joking, “my kids are here.” Beachamp reminded her, “it’s in your book . . . It led to a complication to the filming that you were having this intimate relationship.”
“You put it aptly,” said Matlin. “William was thirty-five, I was nineteen and I was naive. I knew who he was, from a film called Altered States. I was a fan of his. We met for the first time at the Sherry Netherland Hotel and we hit off, really hit off . . . Really hit off . . . You should read my book if you want more details!”
She also spoke of her addiction, saying she checked into the Betty Ford Clinic shortly after winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress. “Nobody wanted me to go. They were worried about my career but I was worried about me . . . And what actor can say they were nominated for an Academy Award while they were in rehab? I’m now twenty-nine years sober.”
She then joked about the nude scenes in the water. “I was fine with it. I had a nice body then. I was nineteen years old. In all seriousness, it was three days of 90 degree water indoors . . . There were only four people allowed in the pool area during shooting. The entire time of those three days, the entire time, Bill and I were fighting tremendously. We fought so much during the shooting of the film that the crew began to make bets when we would show on how quickly we would get into a fight. And I don’t know who got rich on that betting but I should have put myself in that process, too. I should have bet on myself. In any case, I learned a great deal about filming, about how a camera works. Being nude I was fine with.”
She closed by saying, “The audience realized for the first time, to be able to see American Sign Language onscreen, it shocked them . . . And also realized that we’re just people like anyone else, using a different form of communication. [It was] a love story about a man and a woman who are trying to bridge this barrier, of sorts. Trying to communicate. All those issues in the film, while you’re watching it, are so fascinating. The sad. The happy. I loved working with every single person in that film. I mean, Piper Laurie, God loves her, she was magnificent, who played my mother. There were deaf actors in the film, as well. And nowadays we’re dealing with this issue. We understand. There are so many, thousands of actors who happen to be deaf, who are so talented. We need to see more of them on the screen. We really do. To use American Sign Language. Authentic actors playing authentic roles.”
In the film, James Leeds (Hurt) is a new teacher at a rustic boarding school for the deaf in New Brunswick, Canada. James is hearing and has to prove himself to his deaf and hearing impaired students. He can sign but slowly. Hurt learned to sign and to interpret for the role and he’s perfectly cast as a teacher. The students appreciate music through vibration and prove as much in a madcap dance recital.
James eventually develops an intimate rapport with his students. Sarah, a graduate of the school now working as the janitor, is the one he can’t get through to. He’s awestruck by her beauty but frustrated when she refuses his offer to teach her to speak. As some in the deaf community believe, signing is part of their distinct culture and to refuse to speak or lip read is an act of defiance against the hearing society that looks down on them.
When James visits Sarah’s mother (Piper Laurie), he discovers more about her past that’s made her like she is. As a child, Sarah was misdiagnosed as retarded and was later traumatized at the attempts to force her to speak. Both Laurie and Hurt were nominated for Academy Awards.
James has the added conflict that he’s falling in love with Sarah. There’s the issue of propriety though she’s of age and not formally his student. Their chemistry is undeniable, however.
Thanks to Robin Franson Pruter of Pop Culture Reverie for hosting the Disability in Film Blogathon. For the complete listing click on the image below.