Saturday, November 28, 2015

1986: Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God

In her film debut, Marlee Matlin plays the graduate of a school for the Deaf who is still working there as a janitor. She becomes romantically involved with a new hearing teacher, but his belief that Deaf people need to learn to speak and her refusal to do so constantly threaten their relationship.

This win is a big deal for several reasons. So far, Matlin is the most recent of only four people to win a Best Actress Oscar for her feature film debut (the others being Shirley Booth, Julie Andrews, and Barbra Streisand). She also became the youngest person ever to win this award, breaking the record set by Janet Gaynor in the very first ceremony, and remains the youngest winner to date. And she is also the first, and so far only, Deaf actress to win this award.

I have mixed feelings about this win. I really enjoy Matlin's performance at the beginning of the movie, but by the end I'm less impressed. She starts out full of bitterness, anger, and fear, masking her vulnerability with sarcasm but allowing the audience glimpses of the pain within. It's beautiful to watch and masterfully done. But then by the last scene the performance has deteriorated so that it basically only consists of pining glances at William Hurt. Maybe it's more that I just don't like the direction the story goes at the end, because I really don't want them to end up together since he was such a jerk, but I feel like she's not the same person in those scenes as she was earlier. Yes, she is supposed to have changed a lot, so this was probably intentional, but I would have liked to have seen at least some of the woman she was at the beginning still there at the end. But again, a lot of this is probably the story's fault. For at least 80% of the movie she does a very good job, and her performance is easily the best aspect of the film, so overall I'd still say she earned this Oscar.

Relatively few Hollywood films have Deaf characters, and even fewer have cast Deaf actors to portray them. That's one of the many aspects that make this movie unique. It also means that there aren't many opportunities in movies for Deaf actors, so it's not too surprising that this has been Marlee Matlin's only Oscar nomination so far. She has appeared in other films, but most of her work has been in television, which seems to offer a much wider variety of roles than movies. Hopefully this will not always be the case, and someday Matlin might get another chance to give an Oscar-worthy performance. She's certainly talented enough to do so.

Up next: Cher

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