The 1980s were awesome in America. Or, at least, that is how I remember them. Granted, my vision of life and media was pretty narrow at the time. I was focused on how I could be more like She-Ra and Wonder Women and why the Skeksis in Jim Henson's film The Dark Crystal (1982) were so scary. Yep. I am a child of the 80s.
Recently I decided to watch Children of a Lesser God (1986). It was too adult for me when it came out in the mid-1980s and, realistically, I wouldn't have enjoyed it any way since I would have been totally grossed out by all the sex. Like. Totally. As an adult who doesn't believe in cooties any longer (most days) must admit that I found the film really interesting in terms of how it attempted to transform the image of the disabled from their usual villainous position as the cinematic other to something that is much more empathetic. Emmanuel Levy commented about Children of a Lesser God:
Not only Matlin benefited exposure-wise from the film: it did a lot of good for deaf actors and actresses in general. The hope of deaf actors and actresses at that time was that they could start getting parts in films that were not necessarily about being deaf people. The triumph of Marlee Matlin at that time, as well as others like Phyllis Frelich (who won a Tony award in the original play of Children of a Lesser God) and Howie Seagro were boosts for the National Theater for the Deaf, which had been fighting many years for such a breakthrough. Children of a Lesser God marked a breakthrough time for deaf actors.
However, that does not mean that the film was still not problematic.
Roger Ebert had an interesting comment about the way in which Children of a Lesser God was constructed to get around the fact that one of the characters, the deaf woman Sarah (played by Marlee Matlin), does not speak for most of the film:
The movie uses a strategy that works well - if you accept the basic premise, which is that everything said on the screen must be heard on the soundtrack. Marlee Matlin, who plays the deaf woman, signs all of her dialogue, and William Hurt, who plays the teacher, then repeats it aloud, as if to himself. "I like to hear the sound of my own voice," he says at one point, and indeed he does such a smooth and natural job of translation that the strategy works.
But think for a minute: Hurt can hear and can read sign language; Marlin's cannot hear or (she claims) read lips, and can only communicate by signing. In many movies about two major characters, there are scenes from two points of view. In "Children of a Lesser God," the scenes between the two of them are from Hurt's point of view, and none of them are played without sound.
I'm not suggesting silent scenes where we have to guess what the sign language means. But how about a few silent scenes in which the signs are translated by subtitles, giving us something of the same experience that deaf people have (they see the signs, and then the subtitles, so to speak, are supplied by their intelligence).
The feeling of seeing Hurt and not hearing him, of looking out at him from a silent world, would have underlined the true subject of this movie, which is communication between two people who speak differently.
By telling the whole story from Hurt's point of view, the movie makes the woman into the stubborn object, the challenge, the problem, which is the very process it wants to object to.
Regardless of how the film is remember - as a "breakthrough" for deaf actors or just another example of how women are perceived as stubborn - it is interesting to note that deaf characters in main roles have all but disappeared from popular cinema. Mr. Holland's Opus (1995) and The Family Stone (2005) featured secondary characters who were deaf, but aside from that there has not been much in the way of Hollywood films that feature deaf main characters. Even Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, has been relegated to mostly TV guest spots after her Oscar-winning turn as Sara in Children of a Lesser God. It as if the inclusion of hearing-impaired character has fallen on the deaf ears of Hollywood producers.
* Ebert, Roger. "Children of a Lesser God"
* Levy, Emanuel. "Children of a Lesser God"