Oscar-Winning Actress Talks Overcoming Obstacles

AUSTIN, Texas–One speaker here who never actually spoke a word had volumes to say about overcoming obstacles and achieving dreams.

Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who is the youngest person to ever win an Oscar and also the one deaf person so awarded, told a credit union audience at PSCU’s Member Forum here that the same, three simple words that have guided her throughout her life can guide anyone, especially when the odds seem long.

Feature Matlin

Matlin became the youngest-ever winner of an Oscar for Best Actress, having won the award at age 21 in 1986 for her role in Children of a Lesser God. She has since played numerous roles in television series, written children’s books, formed a production company and been an activist on behalf of the National Association of the Deaf and other causes. She is also executive producer on the A&E series Deaf Out Loud, which is filmed in Austin. 

‘Anything is Possible’

Matlin addressed the PSCU meeting using sign language and was accompanied on stage by her longtime interpreter, Jack Jason. At one point, Matlin even brought laughs by claiming Jason, who had a copy of her script, was getting ahead of her.

Matlin, who said there are 35-million people who are deaf or hard of hearing in the United States, repeatedly stressed the successes she has achieved are no accident, saying her Oscar win “belies the notion that deafness is an insurmountable barrier and again proves that anything is possible.”

She pointed to the theme of the PSCU meeting, “Beyond Limits,” saying it’s a motto to be adopted by anyone who wants to knock down barriers. 

Matlin at PSCU

Marlee Matlin speaking to PSCU meeting in Austin.

“I think I could sum up my journey as one that could never have happened without three important words: courage, dreams, and success,” said Matlin. “I definitely would not be here had I not been set on a path without those three words.”

Courage

Matlin was diagnosed as deaf at the age of 18 months, with doctors still unsure why. 

“What most concerned my parents was not why, but how--how would they raise a child who was deaf?” related Matlin. “They had never imagined a deaf child, never met a child. My parents felt very guilty, but that didn’t last long. As soon as they were able to, they asked lots of questions and most importantly weren’t afraid to say no. When many doctors told them there was only one solution for a child who was deaf, to send a child to a school for the deaf hundreds of miles away, my parents said no. At the end of every school visit they would ask,’ Who will put Marlee to bed each night and say I love you?’ And they didn’t stop there. They got busy. Rather than send me to those schools, they decided I would go to the schools right in the neighborhood. Today we know it as mainstreaming.”

Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove, Ill., Matlin said her parents pushed her out in the world and told her to explore it. When she encountered people who were insensitive or cruel because of her deafness, her parents wrote it off as just part of growing up.  

“The biggest obstacle my parents made me face was me in my head,” said Matlin. “I hated the yellow, ‘Caution, Deaf Child Crossing’ sign in front of our home. But my mom and dad had different perspective; they said forget the word handicap. The sign wasn’t to announce I was handicapped but instead to announce you were coming to Marlee’s Neighborhood.”

Matlin would later go on to write a series of books for children under the theme “Deaf Child Crossing.”

“They encouraged me to be anything I wanted to be; sometimes life doesn’t play along,” Matlin said. 

Dreams

When she was seven, Matlin’s mother, Libby Matlin, having watched her daughter act out in front of a mirror at home, found the International Center for Deafness in the Arts was not far from their home. The Center served both hearing and deaf children, and soon Matlin had won the lead in a production of The Wizard of Oz. 

Matlin Seinfeld

Marlee Matlin with Jerry Seinfeld during Seinfeld episode.

It was there Matlin would meet a famous actor with whom she would go on to have a life-long relationship, Henry Winkler, who was well known for playing the Fonz in TV’s Happy Days. 

“I insisted on meeting him. I went up and said, ‘Hi, I’m Marlee, and my dream is to be an actor in Hollywood just like you,’” shared Matlin. “Just as Henry was to give me some advice, my mother took him aside and asked him to carefully consider his words. She had made sure there were no barriers for me, but she had her doubts about Hollywood. She thought it would be virtually impossible. And she asked Henry to encourage me to go to college and find a more conventional career instead.”

What Mom Didn’t Know

“What my mother didn’t know was Henry would have no part of that conversation,” Matlin continued. “He had overcome his own obstacles as a child when he had trouble reading and his parents and teachers doubted him. Henry Winkler said you can be whatever you want to be and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And eight years later I was on stage with an Academy Award in my hand.”

The fame came with a price, including significant criticism, recalled Matlin.

“Rather than judge me by what I could do, people in Hollywood wanted to judge me by what they thought I couldn’t do,” she said. “The next morning after winning the Oscar, (famous Hollywood columnist) Rex Reed wrote it was the result of a ‘pity vote.’ He then added because I was a deaf person in a deaf role, how could my work be considered as acting? New York Magazine proclaimed I would never work again in Hollywood, because there were no roles for actors who couldn’t speak, reinforcing the stereotype of deaf/mute.” 

Big Changes

Matlin said her own boyfriend at the time even questioned her abilities, so she left the boyfriend and her New York home and showed up on the front porch of Winkler in California, Oscar in hand.

“Henry knew what I was going through and he repeated the words, ‘You can be whatever you want to be, and you have it right there in your hand to prove it. You are not finished, not by a long shot’.”

What was supposed to be a weekend visit with Winker turned into a two-year stay with him and his wife.  

Matlin Sesame Street

Marlee Matlin on Sesame Street.

Success

Matlin quoted a plaque made for her by a fan that read, “If you will it, it is not a dream,” and a year later she was back on the red carpet at the Oscars to present the Best Actor award. Matlin said she worked hard in preparation and spoke all the names of the nominees. That led to criticism in the deaf community that she was trying to deny her deafness by speaking, which Matlin shrugged off with advice from Whoopi Goldberg, that “you just gotta do what you gotta do.”

Matlin has since gone on to appear on multiple TV shows, including a well-known role on West Wing, as well as appearances on Seinfeld, Dancing With the Stars, Family Guy, the Law & Order franchise, and more. 
“It’s been 32 years since the Oscars and critics declaring me DOA, Deaf on Arrival, and I’m still here. How’s that for never working again, Rex Reed?” said Matlin. 

‘Hilariously Inappropriate’

Matlin, who now has four children, said anyone with a disability has to have a sense of humor, and she laughed at some of the things that have been said to and about her as a result of her deafness. She shared three examples of what she called “hilariously inappropriate” behavior, including:

  • While working on the TV series Reasonable Doubts with Mark Harmon, an NBC executive watched a scene and then asked a producer, “Is she going to be deaf for the whole show?”
  • Once, while waiting to appear live on CNN, one person remarked to Matlin that they had something in common: her dog was deaf.
    Matlin Dancing

    Marlee Matlin on Dancing With the Stars

  • While traveling, a flight attendant brought Matlin a dinner menu, before noticing she was signing with another person. The flight attendant took the menu away and returned with a new menu in Braille. “I said to the flight attendant, ‘I’m deaf, not blind.’ They take the menu and I never see them for the rest of the flight. 

Setting An Example

Maintaining a sense of humor to go with determination can take a person far, Matlin told the credit union audience. She urged people to keep that in mind in how they treat others, too.

“Life for me will always be about an example that anyone can achieve whatever they want, achieving dreams and never stopping,” she said. “But attitudes have a long way to go to catch up. For every dream that has come true for someone like me who is deaf or has a disability, there is someone who is being labeled as ignorant and unable and who is encountering barriers to their dreams.”

Before concluding, Matlin showed her audience how to sign the words courage, dream and success.

“Put those three words together, and courage plus dreams equals success, and you have a formula that should be taught in every school and hung in every workplace,” Matlin said. 

 

 

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