"For a split second" after her name was announced, Marlee Matlin didn't believe she had won an Academy Award. The performer was up against Jane Fonda, Sissy Spacek, Kathleen Turner and Sigourney Weaver in the 1987 Best Actress race -- and her win marked the first time a deaf actor had won an Oscar.
As Matlin recalls in the Academy's "Behind the Oscars Speech" series, she knew all eyes would be on her. She counted down as it got closer and closer to her category, until presenter William Hurt took the stage.
"I remember watching him, and he opened the envelope, he looked right at me, and I wasn't sure why he was looking at me, and then he signed my name," she says. "For a split second, I thought he was teasing me, that he was playing a joke. But then I thought, 'Well, no. He can't be playing a joke on live television in front of millions of people watching the show. So, I guess I won!'"
Children of a Lesser God -- directed by Randa Haines from a screenplay written by Hesper Anderson and Mark Medoff, and based on Medoff's 1979 play of the same name -- marked Matlin's very first acting role. She starred as Sarah, a deaf custodian at a school for the deaf, who develops a romantic relationship with a hearing speech teacher (Hurt).
The crowd's long applause for Matlin's Oscar win meant a lot to the actress, who admittedly felt "validated" by the honor after being so new to the industry.
Now, 35 years later, Matlin is proud to see how much has changed. Alongside Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Daniel Durant, Matlin starred in the coming-of-age film CODA, which centers on the only hearing member of a deaf family. At the 94th Oscars, CODA was nominated and won in three categories: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (for Kotsur), and Best Adapted Screenplay. It is the first film starring predominantly deaf actors to win Best Picture.
"I am so fortunate that there are so many other voices in the deaf community, voices that are being heard, and I am pleased to see that," Matlin says.
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