Marlee Matlin: The Rise and Journey of the Oscar-winning Deaf Actress and Activist

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Photo: Marlee Matlin

Youngest Oscar winner to date: Marlee Matlin

Many may know the actress Marlee matlin due to the academy’s record-breaking prize she won for Best Leading Actress at the age of 21 in her very first film role, “Children of a Lesser God”. To date, she is the youngest winner in this category in addition to the only deaf person never win an Oscar. Grow in Chicago along with her parents and two older brothers, she is the only deaf person in her family. She lost her hearing completely at just 18 months old due to illness and high fevers. Growing up, she never experienced life differently since her hearing loss started at only one and a half years old.

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As a child Matlin loved bringing stories to life and at the age of seven she made her stage debut playing the famous role of Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz‘in an ICODA (International Center for Deafness and the Arts) production. She took part in several of their shows where she was eventually spotted by the actor Henri winkler during one of his performances. Winkler calls Matlin a “second daughter” in an interview he did with PEOPLE magazine and recalled their initial interaction: “Stacey and I went to a talent show at this location. A 12 year old girl came out, couldn’t hear, and danced to a song from The Pajama Game. And Stacey and I cried, not because it was a dancing little girl who couldn’t hear, but because her spirit sprang from her body and into everyone’s hearts. You couldn’t miss it if you had a pulse.

Matlin had the honor of meeting the actor after his show where she told him that she too wanted to be an actress in Hollywood. He told her to persist and make sure no one ever said “no” to her. She didn’t know only eight years later that she would accept it Oscar.

From actress to activist

As mentioned earlier, Matlin’s landmark role as Sarah in “Children of a Lesser God” is what put her on the map. The film is based on a screenplay of the same name written by Mark Medoff and follows the character of Matlin Sarah, a deaf (and quite rebellious) warden and former student of a school for the deaf / hard of hearing with James, (William Hurt, ‘Lost in Space’) the school’s newest speech therapist. Over the course of the film, these two characters from opposing worlds begin to fall in love despite their conflicting beliefs regarding deafness and the use of speech. The film has won multiple awards and grossed over $ 25 million in the United States and received high praise from both hearing and deaf communities.

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Obviously she wide recognition has been a huge breakthrough within the deaf community and over time Matlin has worked in television and film, won impressive awards and became more and more comfortable speaking, she became not only an actress but a activist. She put her activism to the test when she was first approached by the writer and producer Sian Heder (‘Orange Is the New Black’, ‘Tallulah’) for the film, and the actress’ latest project, ‘CODA’. The film is based on Ruby, a CODA, or child of deaf adults, who is the only hearing person in her deaf family. After joining the school choir and discovering her passion for music, she struggles to want to pursue her new love for fear of abandoning her family in which she has always served as a performer for her parents and worked on troubled family affairs.

Deaf is not a suit

Heder recalls in an interview with IndyStar that when she first met Matlin to discuss the project over coffee, Matlin shared that she hadn’t wanted to make a movie so badly since “Children of a Lesser God.” However, Matlin was forced to speak out when she was struck by the proposition that the studio behind the film wanted to recruit a well-known hearing actor to play the role of Matlin’s husband in the film. She recalled, “I put my foot down and said, ‘If you do, I’m just outside, that’s it. I don’t see any actor in the deaf costume. We’re not pull-on suits anymore, ”says Matlin. “I’ve seen so many times in this industry where hearing actors play the role of deaf characters.

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We have had enough of this. It’s time for me and the other deaf actors to talk and say enough. We are here. Our talents are valid. In order to receive the exact representation in Hollywood that the deaf community is looking for, Matlin isn’t afraid to shake things up. As Hollywood is refining its portrayal of inclusion of disability / impairment in the entertainment industry, Matlin takes the opportunity as an actress to speak out. She spoke to CBS News in an interview for ‘CODA’ where she shared her enthusiasm for future opportunities, “And not just me, but for deaf actors, writers, directors, people who work behind the camera. We have a history, we have a culture, we are part of the diverse continuum. So what do I do? I talk about it, I make noise about it.

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What will happen to Matlin

“CODA” was this year’s blackout hit Sundance Film Festival. He’s won several awards, including the Audience Award, Grand Jury Prize, Ensemble Cast and Heder even won the Best Director award. It also won the highest purchase price in Sundance history, sold to Apple for $ 25 million. Her constant stream of impressive work and meaningful projects excites viewers to the project she could embark on next. Working in both film and television, she has proven herself to be one of the most versatile actresses of our time while also managing to speak out on topics close to her heart in the hopes of making the difference. For those who haven’t given ‘CODA’ a chance yet, I highly recommend the film which is now streaming on Apple +.

By Alexa Sutherland

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