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Before I did the Children of a Lesser God film, I did not grow up watching the Oscars. I didn’t. I just wasn’t interested. It wasn’t until I got the Children of a Lesser God role that my life changed.
It pivoted. Of course, I was nervous, but I kept my cool. I sat in my seat and watched the awards happening. There were awards after awards, and when it was my turn, Bill (William Hurt) walked to the stage. He had the envelope in his hand, and I watched him. My heart… I don’t even know where it went. It was beating in and out comically.
Ooh… I watched as he opened the envelope, and to my surprise, he signed my name. I had no speech prepared. I really wish I did.
I approached the stage, very shy, and people applauded loudly and energetically. It was really… an amazing experience. I can still feel it.
The hearing Hollywood people, a lot of the critics, they all said, “Why did Marlee Matlin win? How? It was a pity vote.”
What they meant to tell people was, “She’s Deaf. She played a Deaf role. So how is that great acting?” I was floored. New York Magazine did a follow-up, too, saying, “That Deaf Marlee Matlin (they used the label Deaf) will never work at Hollywood ever again.” It’s a one-time thing. That’s it. There’ll be no opportunities after. Nothing.” I was speechless. No way.
And then… they asked me to present the Best Actor award at the Oscars next year. So I did my thing. I used my speech to speak the names of the five nominees. The next day, again, people brazenly criticized me. Not from hearing people, but from the Deaf community. I was absolutely confused. “What did I do?”
I had no idea, honestly, no idea at all. “Wh-what did I do?” I was young. I was 22 at that time. Very young!
I found out later it was because I spoke. It was because I didn’t sign. I didn’t know. Oh… so they thought I was trying to send a message to hearing parents–to hearing parents of deaf babies that it’s better to speak, not sign. Huh.
Honestly, it just never registered in my mind to do that, or I wasn’t even aware of doing that. Of doing the political stuff. I was naive. I was still thrown off. “What do you mean? I don’t get it?”
I-I was just a girl from Morton Grove, Illinois, in Chicago who went to a mainstreamed school who spoke and signed. It was SEE (Signing Exact English) at that time. I did not know anything about Deaf history. I was never taught that. NO one even offered to approach and sit me down and explain what Deaf culture was all about. No one did!
I had to find out myself the hard way. It… It was a really difficult time in my life for a good 10-15 years. Yeah, so…
I shut out the Deaf community for the most part of the 10 years. I did not go to any events. I wasn’t invited to a lot of them either. I wouldn’t say the whole Deaf community shunned me. No. Not all of it… but a big portion did. The Deaf people shut me out, too. So I had to take the punches and move forward.
I did my thing. I am slowly opening my mind and heart to pick up on what Deaf culture is all about. ASL, Deaf education. I learned to trust. I learned to forgive. I learned to just be patient. I’m proud to be a part of the Deaf community. I really am. 110%
I love you.
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