Thursday, May 5, 2022

Children of a Lesser God”: The Deaf Speak Out

CODA, a small film about a deaf family in small-town Massachusetts, surprised the experts by winning Best Picture at this year’s Oscar ceremony. But CODA (the title stands for “Child of Deaf Adults”) is hardly the first award-winning American film that has featured non-hearing characters.

 Johnny Belinda was a schmaltzy melodrama that created quite a stir in 1948 for its then-bold depiction of rape and its consequences. It was nominated for a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture, and star Jane Wyman took home a golden statuette for her portrayal of what was then called a “deaf-mute.” It would not be the last time a hearing actress was lauded for portraying someone unable to hear. The film version of William Gibson’s stage hit, The Miracle Worker, dramatizing the early life of Helen Keller, was one of 1962’s greatest hits. It garnered two Oscars. One was for Anne Bancroft as Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan. The second, in the “supporting” category, was for young Patty Duke (barely 16), who vividly portrayed Keller as a savage young girl unable to see or hear until the great breakthrough moment when she discovers that water “has a name.”  Duke, who had also starred in the stage production of Gibson’s play, was of course perfectly capable of seeing and hearing. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine someone contending with the physical and mental rigors of this role, especially on a  typical eight-performances-a-week Broadway schedule, without being able to communicate easily with her director and her fellow thespians. A blind actress playing young Helen Keller still seems impossible. But a DEAF actress—who knows?

 A change in thinking is afoot. I’m by no means claiming that all members of the deaf community are inherently talented actors. But those fluent in American Sign Language are grounded in what we might call acting techniques. This language is not conveyed simply through spelling with the fingers. Emphatic gestures and easily-read facial expressions are part of the whole communication system employed by the deaf.

 Children of a Lesser God, which ran on Broadway from 1980 to 1982 after being launched at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum, is a play by Mark Medoff that directly tackles the gap between the deaf and the hearing community. The play won three Tony Awards, for Best Play, for Best Actor (John Rubenstein) and for Best Actress (Phyllis Frelich). In many ways it is Frelich’s own story, reflecting her struggles as a deaf woman to reconcile with an environment that demands that she learn, however awkwardly, to voice words in English. What gives the play power is that it’s an unconventional love story, in which a hearing man who teaches deaf youngsters to speak falls for a vibrant but angry young woman who refuses to set aside her well-honed ASL skills in order to join the wider world. 

 When the play was acquired by Hollywood, playwright Medoff was still involved, but the context of the story changed, removing a strand involving a lawsuit that would have required deaf children to be instructed solely by deaf teachers. Yet the central issue remained: that of deaf individuals fearing they’ll lose their unique culture if required to communicate in ways that are not natural to them. The 1986 film was nominated for Best Picture and 5 other honors. Male lead William Hurt, whose recent death I mourn, makes a sympathetic leading man, both sensitive enough and quirky enough to be believable in a challenging role. But his opposite number, Marlee Matlin made history as the first deaf performer to win an Oscar.  Now, thanks to CODA’s Troy Kotsur, she’s not alone.



  1. Hiya, I’ve seen the 3 movies you mentioned and think that “… Lesser God” was majestically magnificent, WoW; you got the others right as well. I’ve loved Hurt in everything he did (I see him and Jeff Daniel’s as twins) and Matlin was, to make a bad pun, indescribable. Many years ago I volunteered for a decade looking for alternatives to prison for adolescents detained at Rikers (a place that should be “Hiroshimad”. Anyway, I was chosen to learn ASL so I could help the deaf teens (there was a rash of them in jail in the ‘80’s). Being with them, and their families, was a blessing, something everyone should experience. If one thinks the world is “hard” they should spend time within the deaf community. It is UNNAVAGATABLE!!!!!!! I have no idea how they manage, but so many do so triumphantly. Peace. Bob

    1. Bob, how did you become "Anonymous"? Your work with the deaf sounds fascinating. I used to know very well the play on which "Children of a Lesser God" was based -- it's different (and perhaps better) than the film, but absolutely fascinating.