Children of a Lesser God (1986): Randa Haines’ Melodrama, Starring William Hurt and Marlee Matlin in Oscar-Winning Performance

Children of a Lesser God was originally a Tony-Award winning play by Mark Medoff. William Hurt and Marlee Matlin, who were lovers at the time of the production, became the stars of the movie. Their performances contributed a lot tot the story. Matlin was an unknown, discovered in a revival of the play in Chicago playing a supporting role. Also, the film was female director Randa Haines’s first theatrical film.

Since Marlee Matlin was actually deaf, her presence on the screen in 1986 proposed the possibility of the world’s first deaf movie star. Matlin was just 21 when the film was released, and she had a traditional Hollywood type of beauty. At the same time, she was the first movie actress who had to contend with her own handicap to play the lead role of a handicapped person in a major Hollywood movie! Matlin subsequently won the Academy Award for best actress in 1986. Unfortunately, Matlin’s career after Children of a Lesser God has never again reached the heights of Children of a Lesser God.

Not only Matlin benefited exposure-wise from the film: it did a lot of good for deaf actors and actresses in general. The hope of deaf actors and actresses at that time was that they could start getting parts in films that were not necessarily about being deaf people. The triumph of Marlee Matlin at that time, as well as others like Phyllis Frelich (who won a Tony award in the original play of Children of a Lesser God) and Howie Seagro were boosts for the National Theater for the Deaf, which had been fighting many years for such a breakthrough. Children of a Lesser God marked a breakthrough time for deaf actors.

Besides aiding the National Theater for the Deaf, Children of a Lesser God was also a great help to the ASL, or the American Sign Language. Children of a Lesser God introduced the general public to ASL, giving the language legitimacy and respectability. The film showed that ASL was a true language with its own beauty, like any other language. Signing was a prominent element in the film, with both Hurt and Matlin signing to each other throughout the movie. It was a love story told in ASL.

Children of a Lesser God is a teacher-student-breakthrough movie. The film fits into the same teacher-student genre as The Miracle Worker, but it plays around with the genre. The teacher is unconventional, but is able to save the student, as in the past. But in this case, Marlee Matlin is hardly Helen Keller and William Hurt is hardly Anne Sullivan. The relationship between Matlin and Hurt becomes sexual, which is a twist on the genre.