The wave of misfortune that swept through Oscar award-winning actress Marlee Matlin’s life at 18 months robbed her of the ability to hear but left behind one invaluable asset: determination.
In front of a sold-out audience, Walnut Creek’s Newsmakers Lesher speaker series concluded its 2011-12 lineup with Matlin’s forceful, compelling shout-out for what she called “the deaf or otherwise abled.”
After a brief video about Fremont’s California School for the Deaf, the evening’s non-profit partner, film and television clips illustrated Matlin’s longevity in Hollywood’s brutal terrain.
First, a 21-year-old Matlin won the Best Actress Oscar with a grapefruit-sized poof of baby’s breath in her hair and a stunned look on her fresh, young face. Minutes later, her show-stopping hips spoke volumes on Dancing with the Stars and tears flowed (even from the eyes of her interpreter) as she raised $1 million in one day on NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice.
“I’ve done everything to challenge the notion of what a deaf person can do,” she said.
From a young age, Matlin’s parents helped her establish a firm identity. She was a kid with a hearing aid and an attitude of being the most popular girl in the neighborhood.
When doctors suggested she be sent to a far-off school for the deaf, her parents asked themselves, Who will put Marlee to bed and tell her we love her?
Without even bothering to answer, her mother and father rejected the experts’ advice. Instead, they gave Marlee and her brothers the equipment they would need to survive the unfortunate, inevitable taunts they would receive:
Marlee’s hearing aid?
“It’s big wads of bubble gum, want some?” her mother advised saying.
“She speaks in an accent because our parents are foreign spies,” her brothers were told to respond.
Despite the tough, chin-up attitude that led a deaf girl onto the stage and into the very public eye of film and television, Matlin’s pain at being ignored or misunderstood remains raw.
Recounting critic Rex Reed’s evaluation of her Oscar win as a “pity vote” and people who condemned her choice to speak aloud the name of nominees at a subsequent Academy event, Matlin signed with blistering speed.
“I’m 25 years, two months and 23 days sober,” she said, crediting fellow actor Henry Winkler with providing support and even a place to live during transitional periods in her life.
Stating that “the real handicap does not lie in the ears [of the deaf], but in the mind,” Matlin said she is fighting for 9-1-1 texting and believes sign language should be taught as a second language in all high schools.
An audience question asking for advice to parents of deaf children drew an immediate response.
“Expose the child to signing right away,” Matlin urged. “American Sign Language is the tool, although I advocate speaking with signing too.”
Asked about her television work, Matlin said The West Wing was her favorite and hardest job, dancing “almost naked every week on national television” was thrilling, but the money she raised for children in developing countries on Donald Trump’s show was clearly the winner.
One comment, delivered early in Matlin’s 90-minute presentation, summed up her remarkable journey and predicted the road ahead:
“Silence is the last thing the world will hear from me,” she promised, before leaving the audience with a final word she chose as her epitaph and spoke aloud: “Adios!”