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Marlee Matlin has received many important awards and has had many laurels bestowed upon her over the years, but here’s an honor that’s a little out of the norm: This year, she was named the godmother of a cruise ship—specifically, the ms Noordam, the newest luxury vessel in the Holland America cruise line.
Recently, the onboard ceremony launching the Noordam on its maiden voyage provided Matlin an exciting opportunity to check out the accessibility features the cruise line offers and to sit down for an interview with ABILITY Magazine. “This ship has been made very accommodating for someone like me,” she explains via her sign language interpreter. “They have a TDD device for phone calls, doorbells that display flashing lights, closed captioning on the television sets, a vibrating bed alarm—I don’t need an alarm because with four kids I have an internal alarm, but it’s nice all the same.” Interpreters are available free of charge for passengers who are deaf, she notes, and many other features make setting sail with Holland America comfortable for all types of passengers.
As it turns out, the actress says the cruise honor is fitting. She’s a foodie, you see, and cruises are always filled to the gills with lavish cuisine. “This cruise line is famous for having wonderful food, so they couldn’t have asked for a more perfect godmother,” she declares.
The Los Angeles-area resident also has a large appetite for life. A zestful woman, she overflows with creative talent and energy and has long been involved in a broad range of activities and activism. Matlin’s jam-packed resume presents an illustrious 20-year career in film and television, in which her presence and performances have helped to shatter stereotypes and rip down barriers for actors who are deaf or hard of hearing—and for people with disabilities in general. Additionally, she has her own film-production company, Solo One Productions, and has been the executive producer for several TV movies.
The petite 40-year-old has been a strong advocate for the deaf community,
and she regularly gives her time to charitable organizations of all kinds.
A mother of four small children, she has performed in educational, music
and kids’ videos, and has authored several works of fiction for
America first glimpsed Matlin’s talent and intensity when she blazed onto the big screen 20 years ago in Children of a Lesser God, starring opposite William Hurt. Her explosive portrayal of a conflicted young deaf woman earned her glowing reviews—and the Academy Award for Best Actress. At 21, she became the youngest actress ever to win the Best Actress Oscar (and one of only four actresses to receive it for a film debut). In the following years, she made a diverse string of movies, ranging from Robert Altman’s classic Hollywood satire The Player to the AIDS drama It’s My Party to the New Age-flavored What the Bleep Do We Know? in 2004.
Strikingly attractive, Matlin quickly became a familiar figure in American pop culture. In the same year she snared the Oscar, she was cited by Harper’s Bazaar Magazine as one of the Ten Most Beautiful Women, and Esquire Magazine included her in its annual “Women We Love” issue.
From the beginning of her career, Matlin’s prominence and high visibility have raised the public’s awareness of actors who are deaf. For a number of filmgoers and TV audiences, she was the first deaf actor they had ever watched perform, perhaps the first person to bring to their attention that an actor with a disability could play mainstream roles.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, satire is certainly the next. Perhaps Matlin’s fame as a trailblazer was best reflected by a guest-starring turn on Seinfeld, in which she played herself; her ability to read lips provided the key story line (and punch lines), as bumbling George Costanza displayed his typical lack of social grace and sensitivity.
The humorous treatment of her disability might have struck some viewers as taboo, but she believes strongly that for people with disabilities it’s important at times to approach situations with a sense of humor. “I like to play around with people who don’t know me,” says Matlin, who speaks vocally to others although she generally has her interpreter on hand. “Often I’m talking to people through my speaker phone, and after 10 minutes or so they say, ‘Wait a minute, Marlee, how can you hear me?’ They forget I have an interpreter there who is signing to me as they talk. So I say, ‘You know what? I can hear on Wednesdays.’”
Sometimes all Matlin can do is laugh when she thinks of some of the unwitting things people have said. She tells a story, for example, from the first TV series she was on, NBC’s Reasonable Doubts. “It was a Warner Brothers-produced show, and one day during the first season an executive from Warner Brothers happened to show up and was watching us at work. He said to the executive producer, ‘You know, Marlee Matlin is great. Is she going to be deaf for the entire series?’”
Then there was this bizarre incident: “Once I was doing an interview
with CNN and the interviewer—who was extremely nice—leaned
over to me while we were getting made up, just before the camera was
ready to shoot live in front of millions of people, and with about three
seconds left she said, ‘Marlee…my dog is deaf.’ Then
suddenly the light came on and there I was looking at her, reacting to
this comment, thinking, Does she want to throw me a bone? I had no idea
what she wanted.”
Animatedly, she details the burning intensity of her response: “I thought I must be dreaming because I hadn’t seen that sort of thing in at least a couple of decades. I looked at my friend and asked, ‘Did you see that?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, I did see that.’ And I said, ‘Let’s go.’” Compelled to confront the man, despite what she says felt like “20-degree-below-zero weather” outside, Matlin and her girlfriend tore out of the restaurant.
“I think he saw me running after him, because he was walking very quickly, and I went right up to him and his three friends and I said, ‘What’s that about?’” she recalls. “And they said, ‘No, no, that was nothing.’” But Matlin didn’t let them off the hook so easily. “I said, ‘You know what? He was making fun of me.’ And in the back of my mind, I thought, I can’t believe I’m doing this. I felt like I was a little kid all over again, standing up for what I believe in and who I am—and I don’t need to see that kind of stuff any longer.
“What he did was so passé, so childish, so amateurish. Obviously he wasn’t educated, and his friends realized as much and said, ‘Oh gosh, we just wanted to get your attention.’ I told them, ‘Well, you got it, because I’m standing right here telling you that you can never do that again.’”
In the end, the men apologized, and Matlin says she walked back into the restaurant extremely satisfied. The rest of the evening turned out to be very good, but she is still rattled as she remembers the encounter. “I mean, even my kids, my little kids, don’t do that,” she states emphatically. “That was probably one of the worst experiences I’ve had in a long time.”
More pleasant experiences relate to her family and her kids and her belief in the potential that children bring. “It’s all about starting with people at a younger age, talking about how we have shared values and shared cultures, learning together to accept who we are,” she says. In the past several years, she has built a strong audience base among children. Besides popping up in the Baby Einstein DVDs, she also hosted Disney’s award-winning series Adventures in Wonderland and performed in numerous episodes of Nickelodeon’s popular program Blues Clues, playing Marlee the Librarian. In addition, in 2002 she penned a novel for children entitled Deaf Child Crossing, published by Aladdin Paperbacks, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Recently. she has released the sequel, Nobody’s Perfect.
As for the adult crowd, Matlin has probably been most familiar lately as a recurring character in NBC’s long-running series The West Wing. For seven seasons, she played Joey Lucas, a tough, aggressive pollster who was very good at her job. Like many characters Matlin has played, Lucas defied the vulnerable and powerless stereotype Hollywood often paints for characters with disabilities. Her pollster was tenacious and politically savvy....Continued in ABILITY Magazineby Paul Sterman
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