Wednesday, November 24, 2010

1986 - Children of a Lesser God

It's Thanksgiving week here in the United States. That generally means people are flying home to be with their families. Kat and I will be doing that next month instead when we fly to Australia, so for this holiday, we've chosen Miami as our destination. And I'm sure we'll be giving thanks for the warm weather down there. Happy Thanksgiving to all my U.S. readers!

Yesterday, I viewed the next in 1986's lineup of Best Picture nominees...

Children of a Lesser God
Randa Haines
Hesper Anderson and Mark Redoff
(based on the play by Redoff)
William Hurt, Marlee Matlin, Piper Laurie, Philip Bosco
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Actress (Matlin)

James Leeds (Hurt) is the new speech teacher at a New England school for deaf children. While his unorthodox methods raise some eyebrows, he is very successful and much loved by his students. As he teaches them to speak (and even sing!), he finds himself smitten with the school's deaf janitor, Sarah Norman (Matlin). A former student herself, the bitter Sarah stubbornly refuses James' offers to help her speak, but does not refuse his romantic advances, albeit after some initial hesitation.

Children of a Lesser God could be a beautifully moving film if it weren't for one rather distracting flaw. James translates aloud everything Sarah signs as she is signing it. Sure, it conveniently allows those of us in the audience who do not know sign language (the majority, no doubt) to understand what she is saying, but it is such a phony dramatic device that it merely makes James seem fake. I understand that studios are reluctant to use subtitles for fear of audiences staying away from movies they have to read, but they really should have bitten the bullet in this instance. In fact, it may not even have required subtitles. Simply leaving the audience to infer Sarah's meaning from the context of James' side of the conversation would have been far less superficial.

It's a shame, really, because the story has the potential to be a lot more intimate. As it stands, though, the relationship between the two main characters feels somewhat distant due to James' insistent repetition. Consequently, the love story, which is otherwise personal and touching, seems a little rushed.

William Hurt puts in an admirable effort despite being given the short straw. His Oscar-nominated performance is especially commendable considering he is essentially speaking for two characters. He is slightly cheesy at times, but that is easily justified by his character's geeky sincerity. In her film debut, Marlee Matlin (pictured) delivers a heart-breakingly honest portrayal, earning her the Best Actress Oscar at the age of 21, which remains the record for the youngest winner in that category. The third acting citation for the film went to the richly deserving Piper Laurie for her tender performance as Sarah's estranged mother.

Despite my harshness in highlighting this film's main shortcoming, it remains an engaging film. I'm just disappointed because it could have been so much more.


  1. Have a great visit and Thanksgiving in Miami. Keep your newly acquired New York street-smarts about you. Miami can be a rough town. I speak from experience.

    You've hit the nail on the head with the flaw in Children of a Lesser God. It's exactly what I wrote in my notes while watching it. I felt the same way the first time seeing it in 1986. I would have much preferred subtitles for Sarah or as you say, nothing. Near the end of the film they allow James to just react to Sarah's signing a few times, and it works quite well.

    Otherwise. it's a tender and passionate love story well-acted and directed. Marlee Matlin was only the second performer who was actually handicapped to win an Oscar. Know who the first was? Hurt was in the middle of his consecutive threesome Best Actor nominations. A physically quirky actor who uses some of Cary Grant's mannerisms like cocking his head and leaning back. I think I saw the road show stage version of this play, but for the life of me can not remember the actors.

  2. The first would have to be the handless Harold Russell. What do I win? :-)

  3. I actually met Harold Russell sometime in the late 70s. He was quite complimentary toward William Wyler, as well he should be. A great movie, The Best Years of Our Lives. Buy yourself a Cafe Cubano on me, when in Miami.

    By the way, I read that SAG ballots went out today to 2100 randomly selected members. So, did you get one? I'm curious about the buzz during the screenings of The Social Network and The King's Speech. I think they may be the front runners this year.

  4. I don't think I'm eligible to be in the nominating committee just yet. I think you have to have been a member for at least a year. I will get to vote for the winners, though.

    I saw a special SAG screening of The Kings's Speech. Absolutely adored it. Without really considering who else might be nominated, I'd almost be prepared to say Colin Firth might get his first Oscar next year.

    In fact, I've seen some amazing films lately at these screenings. Barney's Version and Blue Valentine have some incredible performances, too. A good year for actors.