Marlee Matlin won the 1987 Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of the beautiful but embittered deaf girl in Children of a Lesser God. Matlin lost her hearing when she was only 18 months old, but she grew up acting on the stage, where she was discovered by the film’s producers when she was still 19 years old. Children of a Lesser God was her first movie role.
Twenty-five years ago, the 59th annual Academy Awards took place on March 30, 1987, and I had an A-ticket to the show. I was 21 years and 218 days old when I received the Academy Award for Best Actress. I had just stepped into an imaginary world that I’d seen at a distance for years.
In addition to my nomination for Best Actress, I was also asked to be a presenter. I asked if I could present Best Achievement in Sound. Though some at the time thought it was in poor taste and didn’t see the humor (producer Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. thought it was a funny idea), I thought it was great. Hey, this year if the The Artist could rightfully garner Oscar attention for telling a wonderful story with actors barely uttering a single word, why couldn’t it work back then in vice versa fashion for me? That’s my sense of humor, and I’ve never wanted to be treated with kid gloves.
Theoni V. Aldredge had designed my dress for the Oscars. Back then, there were no dress giveaways on the red carpet. As far as I recall, you just bought a dress off the rack. Though I was just a 21-year-old kid with a modest pocket-book, thankfully, Paramount and my publicists hooked me up with Ms. Aldredge who had won multiple Tonys for her costume work on Broadway and an Oscar for her work in The Great Gatsby. The lavender dress she designed had a blend of elegance and romance that I loved. With that beautiful dress, I decided to wear my hair up. Unfortunately, at the last moment, a combination of events left me walking out on the red carpet with baby’s breath in my hair (my hairdresser’s idea) and oversized black horned-rimmed glasses (my boyfriend’s idea who said sarcastically when I wanted to take them off, “You’re not a model”). If I had it all to take back, I would’ve ditched the baby’s breath and glasses. What can I say; it was my youth and it was the ’80s.
The week before the Oscars, I asked for tickets for my family and my interpreter Jack Jason’s family — a total of nine! And despite protestations from a publicist who said in exasperated fashion, “This is like Ma and Pa Kettle go to the Oscars,” inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, my family and Jack’s family were there, tucked away in the farthest reaches of the upper balcony. Meanwhile, down on the red carpet, everywhere I turned, major stars were greeting one another. Considering I was the only Deaf person who was there and probably the youngest person there, it’s a wonder that I didn’t take out my autograph book and ask for their signatures. But I was as composed as I could be, walking on the arm of William Hurt who was also a nominee that night for Best Actor. When the press asked me for my feelings, I repeated the line I had said to Army Archerd when I first found out I was nominated: “I’ll scream later.”
A confession: When you’re up for an award at the Oscars, try as you might, it’s hard to concentrate on the show. Finally it was time, and William Hurt was behind the podium, reading the name of the nominees: Jane Fonda, Sissy Spacek, Sigourney Weaver, Kathleen Turner and me. And then William said my name and used my “name sign,” an “M” brushing against the cheek like a smile. My stomach dropped, and I thought it was a joke. Then I realized, it couldn’t be a joke because he had made the effort to sign my name.
The moments after that are still a blur, but I recall Jane Fonda smiling and saying “Isn’t that wonderful,” and I’ve told her many times in the years since that I will never forget that. In any case, after the applause died down, I realized that I had to say something. Emotions were welling up inside me as I looked out at what felt like the entire entertainment industry. Just two years before, I was in a small stage production of Children of a Lesser God, and just nine years earlier, my mentor Henry Winkler told me to follow my heart and never let barriers stop me from achieving my dreams when I asked him if I could be an actor in Hollywood just like him. Now here I was on stage with an Oscar in my hand. I wanted to savor this moment. Dreams do come true, I thought.
My speech was simple. I thanked my family, Randa Haines, the director, the producers, the cast and crew of Children of a Lesser God, and the Academy and its members. And though I forgot to thank Jack Jason, my interpreter who has now been by my side for almost 27 years as my producing partner, I’ve done my best to make it up to him and thank him every chance I get. Besides, I’ve told him, I’ll make sure to do it the next time I’m up accepting another Oscar.
In the chaos backstage, I felt a tap on my shoulder and whirled around. It was Elizabeth Taylor, and I had to keep my jaw from dropping. And though later that evening and the next morning, when a few critics proclaimed my victory the result of a pity vote and undeserved (“she’s essentially a deaf person playing a deaf role”), I moved on with the encouragement of people like Henry Winkler to look beyond people’s preconceived notions about me. I just wanted to work.
Today, it’s been 25 years since I received the Academy Award and I’m still here. I’ve done films and I’ve done TV. And I am still the youngest woman to receive an Oscar in the category of Actress in a Leading Role. I also am the only Deaf person to have received an acting Oscar. I’m happy with the first achievement, but the second one should change. There are so many people, deaf or otherwise abled, who are so talented but overlooked or not given a chance to even get their foot in the door.
Looking back now, thinking about that moment in the lights, with my heart pounding, Oscar in my hand, all I can say is I am grateful and humbled — still to this day. Next to marrying my husband and the birth of my children, it is one of the best days ever. Twenty-five years later, it still feels just like yesterday.
And by the way, people have asked what I did the day after I won the Oscar. Why I went to Disneyland of course! I’d highly recommend it to any Oscar winner post-ceremony; it plants your feet right back down on the ground.