“Silence is the last thing the world will ever hear from me.” – Marlee Matlin
Marlee Matlin is an American actress who is the youngest and only deaf performer to have received an Academy Award for Best Actress due to her brilliant performance in the 1986 film Children of a Lesser God. An author of her autobiography I’ll Scream Later and dedicated deaf activist, Matlin paved the way for performers who had the same condition and has repeatedly lashed out against discrimination and ableism to create a safer space for her community. She refuses to be treated with pity or sympathy or considered handicapped and communicates via the American Sign Language, aided by her longtime collaborator and interpreter, Jack Jason.
Matlin was born on August 24, 1965, in a middle-class suburban family in Illinois with perfect hearing capacity. However, she would go on to lose most of the hearing in her left year at the nascent age of 18 months. She later found out that her hearing loss was the result of a genetic condition. Matlin expressed how frustrated she would feel as a child when she could not communicate with her family over the phone. But soon, with the realisation and acceptance of her identity, she realised that she “had bigger fish to fry”.
“I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and in spite of what most people might have expected from a young girl growing up deaf, life for me was like one long episode of The Brady Bunch,“ she said. “Despite whatever barriers were in my way, I imagined myself as Marcia Brady skating down the street saying ‘hi’ to everyone, whether they knew me or not.”
Matlin went to a mixed hearing and deaf school and took up acting at the age of seven. Her stage debut arrived with the role of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, a production by the International Center on Deafness and the Arts and soon garnered a lot of praise for her soulful performances. She was mentored by Henry Winkler and had a wonderful relationship with his family. While being Winkler’s mentee, she bagged the role in Children of a Lesser God opposite William Hurt and, shortly after, Matlin reprised the role of Sarah Norman, an ex-pupil-turned-janitor who is discovered by William Hurt’s James Leeds. Hurt’s character served as a somewhat saviour for the deaf people in the film, which according to Matlin, would have been portrayed completely differently in the contemporary context.
Despite not communicating via dialogues, Matlin’s expressive eyes and gestures moved the audience and her rise to fame was like that of the silent era actress. She won the Golden Globe, followed by the Oscar and was applauded by many. However, Matlin was not above criticism as critic Rex Reed menacingly stated that she had won “out of pity” and that she was “a deaf person playing a deaf role, how is that acting?”. In an interview with The Guardian, Matlin destroyed Reed by questioning how “hearing people play playing hearing roles” are any different. She criticised Reed and the ones who thought like him as ableists.
Following her epic win, she, however, tried to battle her inner demons and checked into rehab to rid herself of cocaine and marijuana addiction. The night of her Oscar win was both memorable and devastating for Matlin as she faced abuse from her then-boyfriend, Hurt, who did not win that night. In her autobiography, Matlin detailed her struggle with Hurt over the years that were a culmination of severe physical, mental and sexual abuse. Her experiences with him, as well as various childhood experiences of assault, made her an ally of the #MeToo movement.
Matlin has since released her debut film, appeared in various roles in films and series, including Bridge of Silence, Reasonable Doubts, Picket Fences, Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story, It’s My Party, Blue’s Clues, Seinfeld, Law & Order and more. With four Emmy nominations to her name, the actress has constantly rebelled against the closeted ableists in the industry and advocated for the correct representation where deaf actors, instead of mainstream, well-known names, get to portray themselves in deaf roles as none, but they would be aware of their experiences and struggles.
In 2021, Matlin appeared as the deaf mother Jackie in the heartwarming dramedy CODA, which stands for Children of Deaf Adults, where her daughter Ruby – played by Emilia Jones – is the only hearing person in the family with an affinity towards singing. Matlin stated that the film was a brilliant experience, and it was on her insistence that the financial backers of the film agreed to cast deaf actors.
Audacious and bold with a funny sense of humour, Matlin’s indomitable spirit and courage are what helped her assert herself in such a megalomanic industry. She constantly raises her voice against prejudice and stands for the rights of the deaf community, voicing their concerns regarding representation. She emphasises that deaf characters must be portrayed by deaf actors who have “lived it” and “know” what it is like to have a hearing impairment. She recalls all the harsh criticism that sailed towards her while she was at the pinnacle of her success and questions the temerity that prompted them to doubt her.
Matlin’s unyielding fight also prompted her to say, “At some point we have to stop and say, there’s Marlee, not, there’s the deaf actress.”
Matlin is a fighter and an inspiration. Intense, intimidating and well-versed in the ways of the world, this brilliant woman turns 56 today, and we pay tribute to her by taking a look at the scathing interview she talks about making noise, and how “playing deaf is not a costume”.