Sunday marked the 88th Annual Academy Awards. And while the focus of this year’s Oscars seemed to be a prolonged response to #OscarsSoWhite (for better or Stacey Dash), the Academy’s lack of female representation was largely overlooked. Since 1929, out of scads of Best Picture nominated films only 12 have been directed by women. More shocking, the first of these nominees didn’t come until 1986. So this week’s 52 Films By Women pick is that groundbreaking drama, Randa Haines’ Children Of A Lesser God.
Adapted from the Tony Award-winning play, the film was Haines’ feature directorial debut, and also the film debut of deaf actress Marlee Matlin. Haines, a Los Angeles native, had worked her way up from script supervisor on low-budget offerings like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death to helming a string of television shows and TV movies. Maitlin was bit by the acting bug while doing children’s theater at the International Center of Deafness and the Arts. One of these performances led her to the role of Children Of A Lesser God’s strong-willed heroine, who rejects being defined by her disability.
William Hurt stars as James Leeds, a spirited teacher dedicated to teaching his deaf students how to speak, employing teen lingo and pop music as an eccentric way to get through to them. But it’s Matlin’s movie. She plays Sarah Norman, a deaf janitor who refuses to speak, but nonetheless asserts her voice. Introduced in a flurry of sign language and obscene gestures, Sarah makes a bold first impression, spurring a smirking Leeds to quip, “Doesn’t mince words, does she?” Even from across the room, she fascinates him with her verve. Despite a rough start, a romance soon sparks.
He wants to teach her to vocalize, but she is not just uninterested; Sarah is hostile toward the idea. The choice between signing and speaking becomes a metaphorical battle for identity and playing by the world’s rules. “Don’t do anything you can’t do well,” she signs. Why should Sarah bother to stumble through how the world speaks when she is a master of the language of her community? The world can accept her on her terms, or fuck off. Haines captures the beauty of her self-imposed solitude in quiet, blissful moments of Sarah swimming in a dark lurid pool. But as James gets to know her, she reveals this isolation can also be a lonely guard against rejection.
Instead of employing subtitles, much of Hurt’s dialogue is dedicated to spelling out Matlin’s signs for the hearing audience. But Matlin’s face is so expressive, her eyes so engaging, her signing so emotive that this device soon fades to the background, allowing her body to communicate in a unique but astonishingly clear way. The most ravishing of these moments might be the dance scene (picture up top) where she dances to the beat of her own drum. She can’t hear the music, and so won’t be confined to it.
She comes by her rage honestly. He comes by his passion sincerely. Together, their chemistry is riveting, charged with lust, conflict and fascination. “Sarah,” he says to her, exasperated and vulnerable, “You are the most mysterious, beautiful, angry person I have ever met.” And then comes a love scene, gorgeous, steamy, and metaphorically satisfying. But that’s only the beginning for this couple’s journey. And also just the first hot sex scene.
Children Of A Lesser God is intimate, intense, and alive.
The film earned five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actress. Haines was snubbed from the Director’s category, where David Lynch (Blue Velvet), Roland Joffe (The Mission), James Ivory (A Room With a View), and Woody Allen (Hannah and Her Sisters) ultimately lost to Oliver Stone (Platoon). But Matlin conquered Jane Fonda (The Morning After), Sissy Spacek (Crimes of the Heart), Kathleen Turner (Peggy Sue Got Married), and Sigourney Weaver (Aliens). Winning Best Actress made the 21-year-old the youngest performer to achieve the honor, and the first deaf Academy Award-winner in history.
Revisit her remarkable win, where she signed her acceptance speech:
Children Of A Lesser God launched Matlin, who went on to work in film and television, proving an inspiration to generations of actors and the handi-capable. Haines continued to direct, reteaming with hurt for the drama The Doctor before helming the Robert Duvall-fronted romance Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, and the Vanessa Williams’ vehicle Dance With Me. She hasn’t recaptured the success of her first feature.
Kristy Puchko invites you to tweet at her with your #52FILMSBYWOMEN picks.