Children of a Lesser God (film)
Children of a Lesser God is a 1986 American romantic drama film directed by Randa Haines and written by Hesper Anderson and Mark Medoff. An adaptation of Medoff's Tony Award–winning stage play of the same name, the film stars Marlee Matlin (in an Oscar-winning performance) and William Hurt as employees at a school for the deaf: a deaf custodian and a hearing speech teacher, whose conflicting ideologies on speech and deafness create tension and discord in their developing romantic relationship.
|Children of a Lesser God|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Randa Haines|
|Based on||Children of a Lesser God|
by Mark Medoff
|Music by||Michael Convertino|
|Edited by||Lisa Fruchtman|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Box office||$31.9 million (North America)|
Marking the film debut for actress Matlin, who is deaf, Children of a Lesser God is notable for being the first since the 1926 silent film You'd Be Surprised to feature a deaf actor in a major role.
After meeting deaf actress Phyllis Frelich in 1977 at the University of Rhode Island's New Repertory Project, playwright Medoff wrote the play Children of a Lesser God to be her star vehicle. Based partially on Frelich's relationship with her hearing husband Robert Steinberg, the play chronicles the tumultuous relationship and marriage between a reluctant-to-speak deaf woman and an unconventional speech pathologist for the deaf. With Frelich starring, Children of a Lesser God opened on Broadway in 1980, received three Tony Awards, including Best Play, and ran for 887 performances before closing in 1982.
Following the vast success of his Broadway debut, Medoff, with fellow writer Anderson, penned a screenplay adapted from the original script. Though many changes were made, the core love story remained intact. The adaptation premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 13, 1986 and was released widely in the United States on October 3 of the same year. Like its source material, the film generally gained praise from the hearing and deaf communities alike.
It received five Academy Award nominations, including Matlin's win for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. Only 21 years old at the time, Matlin was the youngest actress to receive the award in this category and remains the only deaf Academy Award recipient in any category. Children of a Lesser God was also the first ever female-helmed film to be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Picture category.
An energetic new teacher, James Leeds (William Hurt), arrives at a school for the deaf and hard of hearing in New England. Involved in his students' interests, he soon sees a troubled young deaf woman working as a janitor yelling at a cook in sign language. The woman, Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin) is a social outcast at the school. Most of the staff have given up on her, but James begins to try to talk with her, at first with little success.
As the days pass, James tries to get to know Sarah more, but she still refuses to communicate. Despite her cold demeanor, James asks her to dinner and she accepts. Over time, James manages to crack the ice and encourages her to set aside her insular life.
As she already uses sign language, Sarah resists James's attempts to get her to talk. He finds out that Sarah refuses to visit her home, and assumes that her mother (Piper Laurie) has also lost interest in her. Through her mother, James finds out that Sarah and her sister Ruth were popular with the boys, but the boys only had sex in mind, inscribing themselves on a waiting list held by Ruth. Due to their treatment, Sarah is mistrusting of any hearing man and is resistant to interacting with anyone. James makes it clear that he doesn't care for that, but she doesn't believe him. When James catches Sarah using the school pool in the nude, he enters and soon they develop a romantic interest.
The relationship between James and Sarah improves and they soon begin living together. The school superintendant warns James that he doesn't believe the relationship will work, but James is adamant at staying with Sarah. James choreographs a dance with his students, which inexplicably upsets Sarah. He later learns that she thinks he hates her for not speaking. As the days pass, Sarah's cold demeanor begins to thaw, and she adapts to her new surroundings. Nevertheless, James's determination to hear Sarah speak begins to annoy her, and she feels he is patronizing her. Their differences and mutual stubbornness eventually strains their relationship to the breaking point, as he continues to want her to talk, and she feels stifled in his presence.
Sarah leaves James and goes to live with her estranged mother, reconciling with her in the process. James chases her, but she refuses to see him. After inquiring about her, James learns Sarah is working as a manicurist. Eventually, she and James reconcile at a school party.
The movie was shot primarily in and around Saint John, New Brunswick, with the Rothesay Netherwood School serving as the main set. Aside from locations in Saint John and Rothesay Netherwood School, sets were constructed by Saint John local Keith MacDonald.
Although budget details are not known, the film opened at number 5 at the North American box office with an opening weekend gross of $1,909,084. The film stayed in the Top 10 for eight weeks and grossed a total of $31,853,080 in North America.
Children of a Lesser God received generally positive reviews. On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a score of 81%. Particular praise was given to the film's two leads. Richard Schickel of TIME Magazine said of Matlin, "she has an unusual talent for concentrating her emotions--and an audience's--in her signing. But there is something more here, an ironic intelligence, a fierce but not distancing wit, that the movies, with their famous ability to photograph thought, discover in very few performances." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 3 out of a possible 4 stars, describing the subject matter as "new and challenging", saying he was "interested in everything the movie had to tell me about deafness." He continued, "The performances are strong and wonderful - not only by Hurt, one of the best actors of his generation, but also by Matlin, a deaf actress who is appearing in her first movie. She holds her own against the powerhouse she's acting with, carrying scenes with a passion and almost painful fear of being rejected and hurt, which is really what her rebellion is about." Paul Attasanio of the Washington Post said of the film, "This is romance the way Hollywood used to make it, with both conflict and tenderness, at times capturing the texture of the day-to-day, at times finding the lyrical moments when two lovers find that time stops." He goes on to say of Matlin, "The most obvious challenge of the role is to communicate without speaking, but Matlin rises to it in the same way the stars of the silent era did -- she acts with her eyes, her gestures."
There was some criticism that the film was told entirely from a hearing perspective, for a hearing audience. The film is not subtitled (neither the spoken dialogue nor the signing); instead, as pointed out by Ebert, the signed dialogue is repeated aloud by Hurt's character, "as if to himself".
Hurt, Matlin, and Piper Laurie (in her role as Sarah's mother, Mrs. Norman) all went on to receive Academy Award nominations for their performances. Only Matlin won, becoming the first and only deaf performer to win to date, as well as the youngest winner in the Lead Actress category.
- Academy Award (1986): Academy Award for Best Actress – Marlee Matlin
- Golden Globe (1986): Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Drama – Marlee Matlin
- Berlin International Film Festival (1987): Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution
- Berlin International Film Festival (1987): Reader Jury of the "Berliner Morgenpost" – Randa Haines
- Academy Award (1986): Academy Award for Best Picture – Burt Sugarman and Patrick J. Palmer
- Academy Award (1986): Academy Award for Best Actor – William Hurt
- Academy Award (1986): Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress – Piper Laurie
- Academy Award (1986): Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay – Hesper Anderson and Mark Medoff
- Golden Globe (1986): Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama
- Golden Globe (1986): Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Drama – William Hurt
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