Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin has never devolved to listening to the haters, and there have several of them over the course of her long and lauded career. Most famously, critic Rex Reed called her 1987 Oscar win for “Children of a Lesser God” a pity award. Instead of giving any oxygen to such talk, Matlin has become one of the loudest advocates for not just hiring more deaf and disabled talent, but for including closed captioning on awards screeners. And she hasn’t slowed down.
When I brought up that closed captions aren’t included on screeners for shows and films sent to press, Matlin said (through translator Jack Jason), “Now I have another job to do!”
I didn’t realize what strides Matlin had made for the entertainment industry until I was involved in it and discussing the dearth of disabled representation. Before I became a journalist, Matlin’s name mostly invoked as an Oscar factoid, usually flippantly thrown out by some filmbro as an example of how a “compelling narrative” — i.e. Matlin being a deaf performer — could secure an award. According to these people, Matlin didn’t win based on talent, she won for being deaf. It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now.
Matlin’s current main job is promoting the Sundance smash hit “CODA” — when the film debuted at the festival in January, it swept the festival’s awards, winning both the audience award and grand jury prize in the U.S. dramatic section, plus a directing win for filmmaker Sian Heder and an ensemble award for the cast; Apple picked up the feature for a record-smashing $25 million — the story of a deaf family and their hearing daughter (Emilia Jones) who wants to go to college. Matlin isn’t the only deaf performer in the film: her character’s husband (Troy Kotsur) and son (Daniel Durant) are both also played by deaf actors.
Matlin reiterates time and again that the old models of looking at representation are no longer acceptable. Being in the industry for over 30 years, the actress said she understands how historically it was common for non-disabled/deaf/blind performers to play these parts. “I don’t want to diminish anybody’s acting work because that was what happened then,” Matlin told IndieWire. She said as a young person growing up, she didn’t know non-deaf actors like Stockard Channing, Jane Wyman, or Patty Duke were playing those parts.
Now, though, audiences are not willing to easily accept hearing/sighted/non-disabled actors playing these parts. (It’s certainly ironic that “CODA” is being released the same weekend as “Don’t Breathe 2,” a movie about a blind man played by a sighted actor.) Matlin has been open about the ableism she’s experienced in the past.
During a recent interview with The Daily Beast, Matlin discussed being let go from a crime drama because she asked for an interpreter, and how Jane Campion felt an audience wouldn’t accept a deaf performer like Matlin in the Holly Hunter role in “The Piano.” “I had this actor’s frame of mind, which was ‘I could play that as an actor. I could play that role,’” she told IndieWire. “I am a huge fan of Charlize Theron … and her fabulous work. She was able to do so many different parts, so many different characters, and I always felt the same way growing up.”
“We’re typically relegated to victim roles,” Matlin said. “They’re fine with us playing victims, the same sort of characters over and over again,” but the actress said so much of Hollywood is built on fantasy, it’s impossible to continue that mentality. Matlin said she understands how members of the community feel about being asked the inevitable “how do you feel being the [deaf/disabled/blind] performer in the industry” question.
For her, it’s no longer about answering the question, but stating what you’re going to do to change the paradigm. Case in point: advocating for more deaf journalists to cover “CODA” in general. Matlin said she didn’t want the movie to fall through the cracks, but only knew of one website, The Daily Moth, that had deaf journalists. “There are journalists out there. People who have written op-eds, there are journalists like you. I would hope that there were more,” Matlin said. She said it’s all about starting young and encouraging those with disabilities or various conditions to aspire to more.
“When it comes to education, deaf children — whether they’re mainstreamed or they’re at schools for the deaf — teachers have a responsibility to inspire kids that there are so many, many opportunities out there for them that they can pursue,” said Matlin. “And to let them know that you can do whatever it is you want to do as long as you work for it.”
It’s just one avenue where “CODA” is changing the game, and Matlin said that so many of the issues being discussed now when it comes to disability, deafness, and the media are a long time coming. For example, this year’s Oscar ceremony was the first time in the ceremony’s entire history that a wheelchair ramp was designed for the stage, mostly because “Crip Camp” co-director — and Best Documentary nominee — Jim LeBrecht is a wheelchair user.
Matlin said the ramp symbolized a lot more to her than a means of getting a wheelchair up and off the stage. She felt it was a welcoming acknowledgement that the nominees weren’t different, but part of the Oscar community.
The ceremony was also the first time Matlin, herself an Oscar winner, had ever been asked to present an award. “I’ve been reminding them every year, ‘I want to present. I want to present,’ and they would say, ‘Well, Marlee, you have to be in a movie. You have to be in on everyone’s lips,” she said. “I said, ‘Well, so what? I’m an Oscar winner just like everybody else who is an Oscar winner?’”
Matlin said she doesn’t blame the Academy, of which she has the utmost respect, but feels it’s more indicative of an outdated pecking order. That being said, Matlin hopes this year’s ceremony illustrated to the Academy the ways in which the organization and starry ceremony could still improve.
“I always think in the back of my head, ‘Wouldn’t it just be nice to have somebody signing at the Oscars?’ It’s such a beautiful language. It’s so visual,” Matlin said.
Apple will release “CODA” in theaters (with open captions at all screenings) and on its streaming platform on Friday, August 13.
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