The Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin likes to tell the story of preparing to be interviewed for CNN. She’s sitting there, mentally readying herself while the clock ticks down, and just before her image is beamed live to millions of people, the interviewer leans over to Matlin’s translator and says, “Can you tell Marlee that my dog is Deaf?”
It’s a common occurrence. From the moment that Matlin first crashed onto the scene in Children of a Lesser God (literally – we see airborne pots before we see her), the world has acted like a 13-year-old boy in her presence: two parts awe to one part excruciating awkwardness.
She has talent, she has looks, she is Deaf. It is a trifecta that has left Matlin with the unenviable title of Hollywood test case.
Readers can find Matlin’s response to this honor and other revelations in her recent autobiography, penned with the ghost writer Betsy Sharkey. As a book, I’ll Scream Later follows the standard line for a Hollywood celebrity. Written in a colloquial tone that Matlin says “absolutely captured my voice,” it meanders from exhortations,
We headed first to the island of Lanai. It’s so beautiful there; if you get the chance, you should go,
to gossipy details of Matlin’s intimate friendship with Rob Lowe:
One unforgettable night on the beach in Santa Monica we had all the light we needed from the luminescence of the fish swimming near the shore.
Yet, probably to Lowe’s immense relief, it is not the fish that have garnered the book so much press. It is the revelation that Matlin was in a violent relationship with her Children co-star William Hurt.
Many have called Matlin’s account a tell-all, a perception reinforced by the amount of pages she devotes to her rocky time with Hurt. I asked her in an email interview if she saw it that way:
Tell all is truth. Truth is power. As I’ve always said I have never lived by any other motto than ‘silence is the last thing the world will ever hear from me.’ I’m sticking to it.
Born in the outskirts of Chicago to middle class parents, Matlin was the youngest child of three and the only girl. She lost her hearing at the age of eighteen months, probably due to a genetically malformed cochlea, and doesn’t ever remember when she wasn’t Deaf.
The change brought tension into the family. She was alternatively fretted over and indulged by her parents, who enrolled her in mainstream schools. Though she defines her childhood as happy, she had a temper and she and her mother often fought.
At the age of eleven she was molested by a female babysitter. As a sophomore, she became sexually involved with a 39-year-old schoolteacher. She dreamed about becoming a cop. She threw herself into performing. She also began abusing marijuana and cocaine.
Even a hack psychologist would suggest that these events were related, and Matlin is admirably frank about her struggles, if unwilling at times to analyze her motivations. Busted in high school for pot possession, she deflected by falsely claiming her father had hit her.
I “so regret that day,” she says in her book, but goes no further.
She was still using drugs at the age of 19 when she was cast as the volatile Sarah in Children. A Deaf twenty-something janitor who refuses to speak, Sarah becomes involved with a teacher at a school for the Deaf, James Leeds, and the movie tracks their complicated relationship.
As a feat of acting, it was and still is a fireworks display. Matlin was gawky, raw, violent and vulnerable all at the same time, matching Hurt’s wry Leeds in each scene.
Without voice, much of her performance came through her face and body language. Her scenes are laced with nuance and I asked her if she thought her deafness, paradoxically, gave her an edge over other actors in any way:
I am great at reading other people’s faces, reading happiness or fear that looms under the surface. It’s just all the things I’ve learned to look out for seeing as I don’t have the benefit of relying on hearing people’s voices to read people.
During and after filming, Matlin and Hurt were in a relationship, one that Matlin claims often left visible bruises. Hurt was an alcoholic, and appears to have been extremely jealous of Matlin’s newfound success. She was nominated for an Oscar at around the same time that she checked herself into the Betty Ford clinic.
She quit cold turkey in January and won the Academy Award in March, the youngest actress to win in a leading role. Hurt’s response was curt:
What makes you think you deserve it? There are hundreds of actors who have worked for years for the recognition you just got handed to you. Think about that.
The late 80s and early 90s were a relatively fallow period after Matlin’s early harvest. Flummoxed by her unique set of skills, Hollywood wasn’t quite sure what to do with her. In addition, like many actresses who win the award young, Matlin found out that it does not promise success:
Working in tandem with my production partner and my agents, I work every day to find work. I may have a little golden man called Oscar but I am a working actor who is always looking for work. That’s true for nearly 100% of actors in Hollywood. At some point we are unemployed and we have to hit the pavement and work it if we want to stay viable.
Work, as one might guess from Matlin’s repetition, is a critical concern.
Which may explain, but not excuse, the films that followed. She starred with Ed Harris in the critically panned Walker and then went on to make an embarrassment of a thriller with Martin Sheen called Hear No Evil.
If nothing else, Hear No Evil proved Matlin’s professionalism, for she gamely submitted to being beaten, chased through a forest and filmed taking a bath. Playing a physical trainer who becomes involved in the theft of, wait for it, a rare coin, Matlin adds her customary finesse to what one might politely call schlock. There’s one moment where she wipes her eyes sideways after waking up which has more honesty in it than the entire script. By this time, she and Hurt had separated and she had become a high profile spokesperson for the Deaf community, a role that was not always easy. Some in the community resented her instantaneous success and criticized her decisions to speak aloud on public occasions. Matlin says she has little time for it:
And as far as being lauded one moment by Deaf people and then criticized the next, well that happens less as people have seen that I’m not going anyplace except up. They also know I don’t have much patience for that kind of stuff and that most times I just let it slide off my back.
Matlin’s drive and sense of surety – “I am very demanding, very exact, very precise” – can come across at times as relentless. Nor does she waste much ink in I’ll Scream Later second-guessing her decisions.
But, then again, she had to deal with more than her fair share of moronic challenges. Cast in Reasonable Doubts, a well-received but soon cancelled television series with Mark Harmon, she recalls the first impression of a producer:
That Marlee Matlin is terrific. Is she going to be Deaf for the entire series?
Slowly, eventually, producers’ brains caught up with their netherparts, and she was offered better jobs with better scripts. In everyday life, Matlin is known as a jokester and an extrovert, personality traits that smart writers soon found ways to exploit.
After notable stints on Picket Fences, Seinfeld and Spin City, she surged back into the public consciousness with her role as the pollster Joey Lucas on The West Wing. Though her performance as a feisty take-no-prisoners character is spot-on, she is helped in no small part by the dialogue.
Here, as an example, is her greeting to the Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman – through a translator named Kenny:
Joey Lucas: Joshua Lyman, you have the cutest little butt in professional politics.
Josh Lyman: Kenny, really, that better have been her talking.
Joey Lucas: I’m here.
Josh Lyman: Where the hell have you been?
Joey Lucas: My plane had mechanical difficulties.
Josh Lyman: This is the State of the Union! There was nothing you could do about it?
Joey Lucas: No, because as a child I never paid attention during airplane mechanics class.
In The West Wing, as in her role in her subsequent series The L Word, Matlin was able to mix signing (sometimes with a translator, sometimes not) and speech, a method she says she uses in her own life. I asked her if she had an acting preference for one or the other:
It’s not about the method, it’s about the material. If it’s strong and powerful words that I’m seeing on the page, I would do it standing on my head if they asked me to.
This willingness to do headstands is part of the reason for her current high profile at an age when many actresses are struggling to pay the bills. For in addition to agreeing to appear nude in Children, she has played a lesbian alongside her longtime friend Jennifer Beals and was a recent contestant in Dancing with the Stars. I called them bold moves. She didn’t disagree:
I worry about nothing except doing work that I like and that I look at as quality work. I don’t think of legacies or what people think. They are bold moves because I’ve found I can get the most attention with doing things that people don’t expect of me. It’s just the way it is.
A wise woman once said we don’t grow up, we just grow old, and Matlin comes across in her book much the same way I’d imagine she came across as a ten-year-old.
Focused, energetic, passionate about acting, still struggling to sort out her relationship with her parents, intent on being the center of attention, unconcerned by what others think of her, proud of being Deaf but unwilling to let herself be defined by it.
In her interview, however, I had the sense that a page has been turned. Having spilled her guts in print, Matlin appears intent on avoiding a lengthy discussion of her revelations and focusing on the future tense. She has four children and a loving husband (a cop, no less) and insists that her family and siblings are “fine now and happy.”
“I’m always trying to show that I can do anything – except hear,” she said in her email. “That means I’ve got a whole lot of stuff still left to do!”
- I’ll Scream Later
- Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 336 pp.
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Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.