There is a scene in Siân Heder’s new film CODA where a Deaf mother, played by Marlee Matlin, sits down with her hearing teen daughter (Emilia Jones) and explains to her that, when she was born, she prayed she would also be Deaf because, if she was a hearing child, she feared they wouldn’t connect. It’s a loving and affecting scene, but it’s also filled with humor and honesty. It’s also never melodramatic thanks to Matlin’s tremendous gifts for knowing exactly what to share with the camera. The actor has had over 35 years to master her craft. And master it she has.
In March of 1987, at the age of 21, Matlin became the youngest actor to ever win the Best Actress Academy Award for Children of a Lesser God. She was also (and still is) the only deaf actor to ever win an Oscar. And it was her film debut! The honor was bittersweet since she was battling substance abuse at the time as well as in an abusive relationship with her Lesser God co-star William Hurt. Matlin would write very honestly about her experience in her bracing autobiography, “I’ll Scream Later,” published in 2009.
The years that followed her Oscar win did not see an avalanche of exciting film roles. What she was offered were either small supporting roles (Walker, The Linguini Incident, It’s My Party) or in-peril thrillers (Hear No Evil, In Her Defense). Hollywood and the indie film world had a no clue what to do with her. That is, until television came-a-calling.
Matlin found a whole new, welcoming world on the small screen. The networks weren’t afraid to cast a Deaf actor in major roles. She made her TV debut in Bridge to Silence and went on to star in two seasons of the NBC series Reasonable Doubts, for which she received two Golden Globe nominations. She then picked up four Emmy nominations for roles in Seinfeld, Picket Fences, The Practice, and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. She appeared on 17 episodes of The West Wing, three seasons of The L Word, six episodes of Dancing with the Stars, and guest spots on ER, Desperate Housewives, and Nip/Tuck. More recently, Matlin was a series regular on The Celebrity Apprentice, Switched at Birth, and Quantico. And many of the above roles were originally written for non-deaf actors but then rewritten for her.
In 2015, she made her Broadway debut in the Spring Awakening revival.
Born in Morton Grove, Illinois, Matlin is the only member of her family who is deaf. She was born hearing but suffered loss due to illnesses and fever as a small child. Matlin is married and has four children.
The actor has always fought for the Deaf and hard of hearing communities. This will be the very first year that all Academy screeners will have closed captions thanks to her lobbying. She also aided in getting legislation passed mandating the presence of ASL interpreters at all COVID-related press conferences.
Now, 35 years after her film debut, Matlin is once again in the awards conversation with her caustic but caring mom Jackie Rossi a former model who fears losing her one connection to the hearing world — her daughter — in the delightful CODA. The terrific ensemble includes Jones and Deaf actors Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant.
These bookended films (Children of a Lesser God and CODA), more than anything else, represent a beginning for the incredibly talented Matlin. Let’s hope that from here onward filmmakers can be a bit more creative with their casting.
Awards Daily had a Zoom chat with Marlee, and her longtime interpreter Jack Jason — remember him on the 1987 Oscars — about her life and career—and CODA!