Marlee Matlin (born 1965) won an Academy Award for her role as Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God in 1987. Just 21 years old, Matlin was the youngest performer ever to receive the "best actress" award, as well as the first hearing-impaired person to be given the honor. Since then, Matlin has performed regularly in films and television, and founded her own production company.
Matlin was born on August 4, 1965 in Morton Grove, a suburb of Chicago. She had normal hearing at birth, but contracted roseola (measles) at the age of 18 months. The illness produced a high fever and serious complications, including the loss of most of her hearing. Today, Matlin wears a hearing aid and communicates by reading lips and using sign language. Unlike some hearing-impaired people, Matlin can speak, but relies on an interpreter for business meetings and interviews. "When I was young I knew I was deaf," she told People magazine in 1986. "I couldn't accept it. I was very angry until I did accept it, which wasn't until maybe two years ago."
Her parents, Libby and Donald Matlin, learned sign language, along with her two older brothers, Eric and Marc. "The children in the neighborhood didn't accept her," her mother told Redbook. To help her daughter find a supportive community, Matlin's mother encouraged her to spend free time at Chicago's Center of Deafness, where she began acting in the Children's Theater for the Deaf. At eight years of age, Matlin appeared in productions of The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan.
Matlin attended John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, also near Chicago. She was among the first generation of hearing-impaired children to attend public schools rather than institutions for the deaf. The school offered academic programs for the hearing-impaired and Matlin was soon participating in both the hearing and non-hearing worlds. In high school, her interest in acting waned. As she explained in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, "I had no thought of becoming an actress, because I thought there were no opportunities." Instead, Matlin enrolled in Harper Junior College and began to pursue studies in criminal justice, but left feeling that "there wouldn't be enough deaf criminals out there to keep me working." Soon after, a friend encouraged her to audition for the Chicago revival of Mark Medoff's award winning play, Children of a Lesser God. Matlin went reluctantly, and was given the role of Lydia, a minor character. Her performance came to the attention of producers who were casting the film version of the play. When offered this opportunity, Matlin was initially hesitant, afraid of failing: "I said, 'The film version of Children of a Lesser God?' No-no-no-no-no. My mind wasn't open to it. I had no idea how many deaf actors were out there auditioning for the lead role."
Matlin's intense energy and her obvious chemistry with co-star William Hurt won her the role of Sarah Norman, an angry young deaf woman who refuses to speak because the hearing world refuses to sign. Medoff adapted the screenplay from his theater script, which he wrote for Phyllis Frelich, another hearing-impaired actress. The film tells the story of Sarah Norman's encounter with a teacher of the deaf, played by Hurt who, over the course of the film, falls in love with Sarah and learns to respect and appreciate her silent world. Matlin's performance, an entirely non-speaking role, earned her an Academy Award for best actress in 1987. "I think this film will open up the world to hearing-impaired people who are actors and actresses," Matlin said when the film opened. By 1997, Matlin was more realistic: "It's hard to find roles, period, regardless of whether I'm deaf or a woman," she told the New York Post. "My deafness is obviously an added difficulty, but you try to break whatever barriers you can."
The year after her Academy Award triumph, Matlin returned to present the 1988 Best Actor award. She began her presentation by signing with an interpreter, but stopped signing to read the list of nominations aloud; it was the first time Matlin had spoken on camera. She worked diligently with a speech therapist to perfect her presentation, but her effort proved controversial, angering many in the hearing-impaired community who thought Matlin was suggesting that speech was preferable to signing. Though Matlin has found it difficult to please some critics, her work on behalf of the hearing impaired has been a significant part of her professional life. "I'm trying to tell young people that you should give your time to others because there are people out there who really need it … particularly when the government is giving less," she told the Montreal Gazette in 1996. Matlin is spokesperson for the National Captioning Institute and has worked with a number of charitable organizations, including the Pediatric Aids Foundation and the Starlight Foundation.
During rehearsals for Children of a Lesser God, Matlin began a relationship with actor, William Hurt. Soon after filming ended, Matlin left her parents' home in Chicago to live with Hurt in Manhattan. The relationship lasted two years and, by all accounts, it was a volatile one. During this time she had little contact with her family or friends and became increasingly alienated from Hurt. Her self-esteem plummeted in the face of critics who argued that Matlin did not deserve the Academy Award because she was a deaf person playing a deaf person. Matlin's relationship with Hurt ended in 1987. She moved to California and lived, for a time, with Henry Winkler, best known for his role on the television situation comedy "Happy Days," and his wife, Stacey.
Matlin's next few films, Walker in 1988, Bridge to Silence in 1989, Man in the Golden Mask in 1990, and The Linguini Incident in 1991, received little critical attention, though Bridge to Silence marked her debut in a speaking role. In 1991, Matlin turned to series television and landed the starring role of Tess Kaufman in the dramatic series Reasonable Doubts, which ran for two seasons before it was cancelled in 1993. Though she made a guest appearance in a 1990 episode of the popular situation comedy, Seinfeld, Reasonable Doubts offered Matlin the opportunity to develop a significant dramatic role as an assistant district attorney who happens to be hearing impaired. Executive producer Robert Singer had pitched the series to NBC with a hearing actress in mind, but then he met Matlin. "Right after meeting her I knew I wanted her to do it," he recalls. "She has a star quality that's unmistakable," he told the New York Times. In an interview with the Washington Post, Singer called Matlin "remarkable. She can do more saying nothing than most people can talking. … She really will take nuance and direction. You can make subtle adjustments with her and she just gets it. You tell her something and you see this light go on, and the next take, she has it. She has great instincts."
Matlin, the first hearing impaired actor to star in a dramatic television series, relished the new acting challenge. "At first, I could see that the writers were caught off guard," Matlin told the New York Times. "It takes time for people to assimilate ideas about deafness." For courtroom scenes, the writers provided her character with an interpreter; for other scenes Matlin used a combination of sign language and speech, conferring with the writers about what words were easier or more difficult for her to pronounce. She also coached co-star Mark Harmon, whose character needed to be fluent in sign language. Off camera, Matlin's bawdy sense of humor and irrepressible energy charmed the crew. Singer notes that "she has to look at you to know what you're saying. Because she can't inflect with her voice the way other actresses can, she compensates with body language and tremendous facial expression. And that comes across very strong, both on film and in life."
Reasonable Doubts was quite popular with the hearing-impaired community, although Matlin found herself once again caught up in controversy. Her signing wasn't clearly visible in all camera shots, a fact that angered some. Others had even more stringent requirements. "I even got a letter from a guy quite respected in the deaf community. He was worried about the image I present of deaf people. He told me I should stop swearing and I should stop using sexual connotations on my show because, hey, deaf people don't swear, deaf people don't have sex, deaf people don't get involved with violence. Well, there are plenty of deaf people who do, and why can't I represent that? You have to get real sometimes," Matlin told the New York Times.
After a cameo role in Robert Altman's The Player in 1992, Matlin went on to star in Hear No Evil in 1993 and Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story in 1994. In Against Her Will, Matlin played a hearing person for the first time in her career. The film was based on the true story of Carrie Buck, a developmentally challenged woman at the center of a landmark case that, in 1927, was heard by the Supreme Court. Their decision legalized the forced sterilization of such women. Matlin was drawn to Buck's story: "I was proud to portray her because I felt such an amazing instinct to protect her, to represent her in a positive way, while at the same time highlighting such a negative issue," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. Matlin was pleased with her work in the film, particularly because she was able to portray a hearing woman so convincingly.
Matlin returned to episodic television, with a guest appearance on Picket Fences as Laurie Bey, the "dancing bandit." The part earned her an Emmy nomination and Matlin counts it among her favorite roles. From 1992 to 1996, Matlin was a guest star on some of the most popular television shows, including ER, The Larry Sanders Show, Spin City, and The Outer Limits. From 1996 until 1999 she also appeared in a half dozen films: It's My Party, (1996), Dead Silence, (1997), When Justice Fails, (1998), Two Shades of Blue, (1998), and In Her Defense, (1998). A 1999 feature, Freak City, for the Showtime network, was "a cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Awakenings," Matlin told the Mining Co.'s Jamie Berke. In addition, Matlin, along with longtime interpreter Jack Jason, ran Solo One Productions. The company gave Matlin the control and autonomy she needed to pursue her career. Two television projects developed in 1999 were Ninety Days at Hollyridge, for the Lifetime cable network and Isabel Crawford of Saddle Mountain for CBS.
In the fall of 1993, Matlin married Kevin Grandalski, a police officer in Los Angeles. Grandalski learned to sign at Fresno State College, where he earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice in 1988. The couple had a baby girl, Sarah Rose, on January 19, 1996. They plan to teach Sarah to speak with her hands as well as with her voice. In 1998, Matlin spoke to an audience about what she has learned from her disability: "The real handicap of deafness is not in the ear but in the mind," she said. "We all have challenges in life of one kind or another. We can achieve much more if we focus on our abilities rather than our perceived disabilities."
Further Reading on Marlee Matlin
Associated Press, January 13, 1997.
Boston Globe, March 22, 1996.
Christian Science Monitor, April 30, 1987.
Gazette, March 17, 1996.
Ladies Home Journal, April 1989.
Los Angeles Times, October 2, 1994; September 22, 1991.
New York Times, January 5, 1992; April 13, 1988.
People, March 15, 1993; November 22, 1993; April 2, 1993;April 10, 1989; October 20, 1986.
Redbook, April 1992.
Star Tribune, May 13, 1998.
U.S. News & World Report, November 10, 1986.
Washington Post, October 11, 1992.
"Marlee Matlin," Miningco.com,http://deafness.miningco.com/library/weekly (August 24, 1998).
"Marlee Matlin: Actress Filmography," Internet Movie Data Base, http://us.imdb.com (March 12, 1999).