In recent weeks I have been watching and writing my posts on the 2020 Oscars (as of writing this, I still don’t know who has won the big prize), but doing that inspired me to watch one of the big contenders from the 1980s. Children of a Lesser God is a film that represents a lot of Oscar-based trivia. It is the first film directed by a woman to receive a Best Picture nomination, even though they weren’t quite ready to make Randa Haines the first female director to be nominated in her discipline. Marlee Matlin, upon winning the award for Best Actress Oscar became not only the youngest winner of that award but the only deaf performer to ever win an Oscar.
With that list of first, Children of a Lesser God is arguably the most progressive the Academy had been for a few decades – even if it became a source for a lot of what people consider to be an Oscar bait plot line. I mean, this is a movie about a teacher coming to teach at a school for the deaf only to fall for the mysterious and guarded deaf janitor and have them go through a lot of the standard romantic film beats with the unique selling factor being that the female lead is deaf.
Then again, that’s ultimately selling short what is one of the stupidly rare instances where we have a main cast member with a hearing impairment. Hell, how many films do you see where the majority of the cast have a hearing impairment? I can’t think of a second. Considering that this isn’t a small community, they are criminally underrepresented in cinema.
Looking back on this film with 2020 eyes, are there better ways that they could have tackled it? Two spring to mind. Firstly, the whole thing should be subtitled. Subtitles for the spoken words for hearing impaired viewers and then subtitles of the sign language for non-hearing impaired viewers. This would then lead to number two which would to stop William Hurt’s character form constantly having to translate for the audience. This does feed into his more pompous motivations as a character, but it would also help to prevent Marlee Matlin’s character from being so much of an ‘other’.
Speaking of Marlee Matlin – this is such a great performance. In some ways it’s like watching a well don’t silent movie performance, but in the world of a talkie. It’s just that she doesn’t do the silent movie over-acting and is far more naturalistic. Everything you need to know is in her face and boy can she bring every emotion to the surface there. Given her performance and just how unusual this movie is in terms of representation, there is no argument over why Children of a Lesser God is on the 1001 list.