By CBS News
She was just 21 years old when she won Hollywood’s most coveted prize – the Oscar, for Best Actress – for her first movie, “Children of a Lesser God.” “You have to understand that I was a girl from Chicago who appeared on the scene out of nowhere,” said Marlee Matlin.
Thirty-four years later, she remains the only deaf person to win an Academy Award, in any category.
“When I won the Oscar,” she told Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz, “the community was very, obviously very thrilled, certainly. And then they said, ‘Okay, now what? What are you gonna do for us?’ It was a heavy load.”
Her new film, “CODA,” now streaming on Apple TV, is the story of deaf parents with two children, a deaf son, and a hearing daughter, played by Emilia Jones.
Matlin plays the mother: “It’s about a hearing girl who wants to sing, but she has deaf parents who rely on her to interpret, and they always have.”
Mankiewicz asked, “They want hearing actors as the father and the older brother. And you say?”
“I said, ‘If you do that, if you choose somebody who’s gonna ‘play’ a deaf person, I’m out,'” Matlin replied.
“That suggests to me that, maybe, 35 years after ‘Children of a Lesser God,’ and 34 years after the Oscar, that you’re a little more comfortable making some noise?”
“And in all honesty, I didn’t even think,” Matlin said. “I just said it, I put it out there. Playing deaf is not a costume. We, deaf people, live it.”
For Matlin, “CODA” (the acronym stands for Child Of Deaf Adults) gave her a rare opportunity to work in an ensemble cast of deaf actors.
“It was always sort of as background or, you know, token deaf characters,” Matlin said. “And this time we carried the film.”
“I was envious, and I think my wife was, too, of the marriage [in the film],” Mankiewicz smiled. “Like, that’s what I want, right? That was it. That’s as good as it gets!”
“You could still do it,” Matlin laughed.
“No, we’re good, we’re good,” Mankiewicz assured her.
As the most famous deaf person in show business (and probably the country), Matlin has worked steadily since her debut – feisty on “The West Wing,” funny in an episode of “Seinfeld,” and always game, quickly becoming an audience favorite on “Dancing with the Stars.”
She’s come a long way from the Chicago suburb where she grew up as a deaf child in a hearing family. Her hearing loss was caused by illness and high fevers when she was just one-and-a-half-years-old. “My childhood was so normal,” she said. “I was just so happy to have great neighbors, great schools, great friends, great family.”
“You’re a big sports fan?”
“Yes, I am. Big time! My father and I always watched sports together. You really didn’t need captions to watch sports.”
Her parents enrolled her in a weekend arts program for deaf children, where the camp director cast eight-year-old Matlin as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.”
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