Oscar winner to speak on inclusion, diversity


The evening of March 30, 1987 was an exciting one for Marlee Matlin, then 21 years old.

It was the 59th Academy Awards. The young Matlin sat anxiously in the audience as actor William Hurt announced the names of the nominees for “Best Actress.”

Jane Fonda for “The Morning After.” Sissy Spacek for “Crimes of the Heart.” Kathleen Turner for “Peggy Sue Got Married.” Sigourney Weaver for “Aliens.”

Then her name — Marlee Matlin for “Children of a Lesser God.”

A few seconds passed by and an envelope was opened.

“And the winner is,” Hurt announced with a tad pause. “Marlee Matlin.”

But Matlin couldn’t hear her name being called. She couldn’t hear any of the names being called nor the pin-drop silence that followed in the seconds prior.

She couldn’t hear these things because she’s deaf. She did, however, see her name on the screen and the applause that followed. She walked on the stage with her interpreter Jack Jason to accept her Academy Award, the first and only one given to a deaf person.

“I had my parents there,” Matlin said to The Oracle in a phone interview through an interpreter. “My grandmother was there. I couldn’t have been happier.”

The next morning, she opened the newspaper. As she read the words of a film critic, the elation she felt subsided. The critic wrote that even though Matlin won the award this time, there wouldn’t be another.

“They told me I would never work in Hollywood again,” Matlin said. “I don’t understand. How can somebody say that about somebody who just won an Oscar?”

That moment was a difficult one for the young actress.

“It sounds odd, but it was the first time in my life I felt handicapped,” she said. “Which is a word I never use. I felt that people were handicapping me. I didn’t handicap myself — I wasn’t handicap.”

Matlin said the situation upset her, but it didn’t take long for her to realize that labels meant nothing and she could do what she wanted. The advice of longtime friend and mentor Henry Winkler, an actor widely known for his role as Fonzie on the show “Happy Days,” helped her regain focus.

“You know what?” he said to her. “Don’t pay any attention to them.”

That advice remains with her today.

“I don’t listen to it anymore,” Matlin said. “And I just don’t have time for it.”

Matlin will be speaking about overcoming barriers tonight in the Marshall Student Center Ballroom at 8 p.m.

Matlin grew up in a loving and supporting home, and describes her childhood as normal — so normal, she said, a reporter once described her childhood as “one long episode of ‘The Brady Bunch.’”

As Matlin grew up and began interacting with others outside her home, her picturesque childhood dissipated.

“Kids made fun of me,” she said.

Though she always dreamed of acting, her pursuit of that dream soon became thwarted as she faced drug addiction and physical abuse.

On that day in 1987, when she was accepting her award, few knew that behind Matlin’s smile was a story of inner struggle.

“I was addicted to drugs until I was 21,” she said. “Just before I won the Academy Award . . . It wasn’t right for me to be that way. I wanted to have a family. I wanted to be clear headed. I wanted to be clean.”

Matlin said she’s been sober now for exactly “26 years, 10 months and a few days.”

But the reasons why she started drugs aren’t the most important aspect of her story to “psychoanalyze,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s important as to ‘why?’” she said. “I think the most important thing to say is, ‘Let’s move on.’”

Today, Matlin stays busy with family — a husband, four kids and a dog.

“I really am fortunate to have a supportive husband and a supportive family structure,” she said. “It allows me to be mom, producer, as well as actress, as well as author.”

The supportive family environment also allows her to participate in shows like “Dancing with the Stars” and “Celebrity Apprentice.”

In addition to her acting schedule, she has found time to develop an app, “Marlee Signs,” which utilizes video and motion to teach basic sign language.

Her speech, she said, will be about her life in terms of the barriers she’s overcome. She hopes people will leave knowing dreams are important and should be valued.

“Never, ever underestimate anyone who has a desire to dream,” she said. “My life philosophy is that we all have the courage to dream.”

She said she has come up with a formula to express this idea: Courage + Dream = Success.

“I think that’s a formula that should be taught in every school,” she said.

“It’s a matter of telling my story as a means to inspire others to do the same (as I did),” Matlin said. “To achieve.”

Matlin said she lives in a world of silence, but “silence is the last thing anyone will hear from me.”

Matlin will receive $28,000 for her performance and the Center for Student Involvement will give away 30 meet-and-greet tickets on a first come, first serve basis on the third floor of the MSC today. Doors for the event will open tonight at 7:30.