“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other.” — Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (73)
The ability of 1970s American cinema to provoke meaningful debate today, four decades after its inception, lies chiefly in its blending of the personal and the political. The best films of Ashby, Lumet, Pakula and Scorsese tapped into the national zeitgeist on two principal levels: they challenged the conventions of classical film form at a time when real-world power structures were subjected to similar interrogation; and they repeatedly framed their gritty first-person character studies within this broader cultural consciousness. In hindsight, it’s remarkable that the likes of Dog Day Afternoon (1975), All the President’s Men (1976), Taxi Driver (1976), and Coming Home (1978) not only made money but were also nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
A quick scan of the films that won or were nominated for Best Picture during the 1980s shows precisely what the formal daring and social commentary of the New Hollywood cinema was replaced by: the middlebrow prestige drama. Morally liberal, artistically conservative, and never less than tasteful, films such as Ordinary People (1980), Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), On Golden Pond (1981), Terms of Endearment (1983), Places in the Heart (1984), Rain Man (1988), and The Accidental Tourist (1988) constitute a cinema that now feels strangely out of time. That’s not to say these films are bad, only that within them a different aesthetic is felt: a clear privileging of performance over authorship; an “invisible” directing style that betrays the screenplay’s frequent literary or theatrical origins; and, above all, scant critique of the social conditions behind these person-centered stories of love, grief, or domestic warfare. Catching the neo-conservative individualism of the Reagan era better than we once realized, the 1980s drama was so glossily self-contained in scale and focus that its place in cinema history has been all but erased.
A prime candidate for reappraisal in this subgenre is Randa Haines’ directorial debut Children of a Lesser God. A thoughtful romance based on Mark Medoff’s Tony Award-winning play about the troubled relationship between a deaf woman and a hearing man, the film received five Oscar nominations following its release in October 1986. It also made minor history on a few counts. In addition to being the first female-directed film nominated for Best Picture, it featured the first significant use of ASL (American Sign Language) in mainstream Hollywood narrative, as well as a supporting cast of young actors and actresses who were actually deaf — a fairly progressive measure when we consider that the standard handicapped-role policy today is to cast non-disabled actors bucking for awards gold. And when the film’s 21-year-old leading lady, talent-search winner Marlee Matlin, won the Best Actress Oscar, she became both the youngest-ever actress and the first deaf person to win the award. Such achievements alone warrant closer study of the film.
William Hurt stars as James Leeds, a bright and energetic speech teacher who over the opening credits arrives at a New England school for the deaf. A born showman, James seeks to reach his ninth-graders through good intentions and playfully unorthodox methods: performing handstands in class, building lessons around pick-up games, and teaching rhythm through the vibrations of pop music. He becomes intrigued by the school’s custodian, Sarah Norman (Matlin), a beautiful and intelligent young deaf woman who graduated with flying colors but has since withdrawn into bitter silence. Sarah, who insists on using sign language, resists James’ staunch belief that she should read lips and learn speech phonetically. As their courtship deepens, the couple is overwhelmed by their mutual inability — or unwillingness — to find a meeting point “that’s not in silence and not in sound.”
Like all lovers, James and Sarah are locked in a sadomasochistic language game where both parties, convinced of their own vision of the world, battle to have their subjectivity affirmed as universal truth. In their case, the battle is a literal one over the value of sign language versus speech. Sarah claims to refuse speech because she doesn’t want to be a poor imitation of the hearing world, at one point sarcastically mimicking the speech efforts of James’ star pupil Lydia (Allison Gompf). Yet her silence is also a radical form of protest against a hearing world that continually disappoints her while telling her what’s in her best interest. Estranged by choice from her ineffectual mother (Piper Laurie), Sarah was bullied as a child and later sexually exploited by her sister, who kept a waiting list of boys for her to sleep with. To risk further hurt by meeting the world on its terms now would be to “shrivel up and blow away.” It’s this stubbornness that represents a seductive challenge for an interventionist do-gooder like James, who cannot resist pick-up lines like “If you let me, I bet I could teach you how to speak.” In his insistence on speech therapy as the answer to her problems, James is more concerned with cracking Sarah’s emotional defenses and integrating her into the mainstream social order than understanding her right to a deaf culture and linguistic identity of her own.
Medoff’s play was overtly political, a deaf-rights tract that gave voice to deaf teenagers’ anger at being treated by the hearing world in the title manner. In adapting it for the screen with Hesper Anderson, Medoff softens the polemics into a boy-meets-girl romance problematized by the girl’s disability: a universal tearjerker structure that crosses elements of Love Story (1970) with The Miracle Worker (1962). On an informal level, we may speak of the narrative shift from stage to screen as moving from a political discourse to what literary theorist Roland Barthes calls a lover’s discourse. If the film lacks engagement with deaf-rights issues in regard to health care, employment, or access to alternative communication technologies, it’s partly because the focus of identification has shifted largely toward James. Barthes explains that the lover’s discourse is not the mutual exchange of passion between two people in love, but the wracked inner dialogue of a lover in pursuit of an unattainable other who is “by vocation, migrant, fugitive” (13). Children of a Lesser God is the story of a besotted outsider’s futile attempt to experience silence through the lover’s discourse, which for Barthes remains “severed not only from authority but also from the mechanisms of authority (science, techniques, arts)” (1). The film plays out as a set of situations where the hearing man, in his desire to possess a deaf other, is gradually awakened to the limitations of spoken language.
For James, music is a cathartic release. Sarah’s innocent obliviousness to a Bach record forbids him from sharing a degree of intimacy with her; as he confesses in one of the film’s more obvious moments, “I can’t enjoy it because you can’t enjoy it.” Hung up on rescuing Sarah from the perceived loneliness of her “precious silent castle,” he’s forced to confront his own alienation when he begrudgingly accompanies her to a party for a deaf government economist (Sesame Street‘s Linda Bove) who completed two PhDs without using speech — an achievement that leaves him cold but that Sarah both admires and envies. Similarly, while the film is alert to the powers of touch that infuse the lovers’ signed interactions and many tactile moments of dancing, holding, and caressing, these gestures of physical intimacy cannot mitigate James’ strained mid-lovemaking confession to Sarah that “I can never get close enough.” His sentiment confirms Barthes’ theory that the love experience, far from being a state of unity, is in fact one of “extreme solitude” (1) and final detachment from the other; a detachment that refuses to yield even within the ephemera of orgasm.
Also evocative of Barthes is the comfort and frequency with which James summons the most overused phrase in the lovers’ vernacular. Throughout the film he tells Sarah that he loves her. We never doubt his veracity, but there’s a sense in which he wields the phrase as the great equalizer from which all else must follow. For Barthes, “I love you” (or, as he terms it, “I-love-you”) is a passive-aggressive figure of rhetoric, a holophrase that’s emptied of meaning by both its grammatical circularity and its discursive function of suppressing “explanations, adjustments, degrees, scruples” (148) in the interpersonal realm. At its worst, “I-love-you” is a linguistic act of terrorism that leaves the other no breathing space or recourse to reason, a phrase that bares fangs and “affirms itself as force — against other forces . . . against language” (153). During a violent argument where she vows that nobody will ever speak for her again, Sarah reminds James that romantic love has no bearing on her need for independence. Infuriated by what he perceives as the last straw in her “great control game,” James finally affirms his love as force: “You wanna talk to me?” he yells. “Then you learn my language!”
Given the subject matter, Haines’ direction does not show a corresponding interest in the potential of film language. It’s not at the level of photographed theatre, but her preference for classical montage, delicate lighting, and medium close-ups that allow faces and hands to express emotion with minimal blocking all betray the fact that her primary directing experience — besides an Emmy nod for the TV movie Something About Amelia (1984) — had been on episodes of Knots Landing and Hill Street Blues. Standing in for New England, the New Brunswick locations provide a picture-postcard backdrop of windswept coastlines and bronze autumnal flora to complement Michael Convertino’s synthetic string score. It’s not all After School Special prettiness, though. The sound design, in particular, makes some evocative stabs at deaf subjectivity: the blue silence of the pool in which Sarah swims alone at night is registered with an ambient pulse that contrasts eerily with the chattering static of James’ world.
William Hurt was one of the most celebrated new actors of the decade, and the box-office successes of Body Heat (1981)and The Big Chill (1983) meant he was at the peak of his popularity when this film was released. James is a tricky role, in part due to the film’s reliance on the artificial device of having him verbally translate everything Sarah signs, repeating it aloud for the hearing viewer’s benefit because, as he conveniently mentions early on, “I like to hear myself talk.” Some critics felt subtitles would have been a better strategy, but Hurt sells this gimmick by savoring James’ words with conviction and showing his fragile attachment to the world of speech. He also locates James’ rationale somewhere between his idealistic smile and his bullying forehead, making for a subtler, more appealing performance than the flamboyant transvestite prisoner for which he had won the previous year’s Best Actor Oscar in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985).
Matlin’s Best Actress win tends to raise post-PC eyebrows these days. Everyone knows the Academy loves history-making underdogs, and what better way to make history than by saluting a 21-year-old deaf newcomer over four big stars (Sigourney Weaver, Jane Fonda, Kathleen Turner, and Sissy Spacek). A disappointing post-Oscar résumé of novelty TV guest spots shouldn’t tarnish Matlin’s achievement as a sentimental victory based on youth and disability rather than merit. Suggesting at once the porcelain radiance of Audrey Hepburn and the naturalistic grit of Debra Winger or Holly Hunter, she builds a complete performance through nuanced facial expression, sensual body language, and hands of vital eloquence. Sarah is a study in contradictions — cynical and tender, arrogant and sexy — and Matlin makes her real by living in the moment and listening carefully to the conversational rhythms she and Hurt develop. Perhaps because they were dating in real life, their erotic frisson is also very credible: see the aforementioned scene where they arrive home from a party in the midst of a blazing row, interrupt it for a heated bout of rage-sex and, instead of feeling spent, carry on fighting afterwards.
Despite its acclaim at the time, Children of a Lesser God has been unfairly neglected by history. In fact, its naked sentimentality and easy consistency of tone say as much about the state of American cinema in 1986 as the radical nightmare of Blue Velvet or the jingoistic bombast of Top Gun. And these qualities feel refreshing — almost exotic — in a current cinematic landscape steeped in postmodern aesthetics of irony, subversion, and self-referentiality. There’s something genuinely moving about James and Sarah’s struggle to find a place where they could, as Barthes says, “drop somewhere outside of language” (233). In this way, the film also reconciles the personal and the political better than it has been credited with: its humanist affirmations sharpen, rather than blunt, its commentary on the discursive limits of language.
Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1977.