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Who is Marlee Matlin? ASL interpreter wows at Oscars 2021 as she presents Best Documentary Feature award

Audiences lauded the Academy for bringing Matlin as an ASL interpreter and her presenting the award in sign language was one of the highlights
UPDATED APR 26, 2021
Marlee Matlin presented the Oscar award for Best Documentary Feature in sign language (Getty Images)
Marlee Matlin presented the Oscar award for Best Documentary Feature in sign language (Getty Images)

'The Sound of Metal' swooped most of the awards at the 93rd Academy Awards. The film revolves around the lives of two deaf men played by Riz Ahmed and Paul Raci, both of whom were exceptional in their roles and were lauded by fans for the same. However, there's one more movie and character that had a similar impact 34 years ago — the role of Sarah played by actor and deaf activist Marlee Matlin in the movie 'Children of a Lesser God'.

She was one of the most talked-about celebrities from the event that took place on Sunday, April 25, and aired on ABC. Audiences lauded the Academy for bringing Matlin as an ASL interpreter and her presenting the award for Best Documentary Feature for 'My Octopus Teacher' in sign language was one of the highlights from the evening. 


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Marlee Matlin attends the Photo Call and Screening For Facebook Watch's 'Limetown at The Hollywood Athletic Club' on October 15, 2019, in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

Who is Marlee Matlin?

Matlin was born on August 24, 1965, in Morton Grove, Illinois, and was the youngest of her three siblings. At just 18 months, she permanently lost her sense of hearing following an aggressive illness that left her hearing impaired in the right ear and only with 20 per cent hearing in the left, making her legally deaf.

Matlin began learning sign language at the age of five after her parents refused to send her to a special school. But they had their own struggles with their daughter who was admittedly stubborn and strong-willed. "(My parents) learned some sign language to communicate with me, but they raised me with a great deal of love and respect, and it wasn't easy for them because of who I was — being a girl, being very stubborn, being very strong-willed, being very outspoken, and very independent," she told Exceptional Parent magazine. 

Actress Marlee Matlin speaks at the 4th annual Women's March LA: Women Rising at Pershing Square on January 18, 2020, in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

Marlee Matlin's big break in Hollywood

Matlin discovered acting through a program at the Center on Deafness and found her first leading role as Dorothy in a production of 'The Wizard of Oz' with a children's theater company in Chicago. Apart from acting, Matlin pursued her education and acquired a degree in law enforcement at Harper College.

She got her first big break as the lead in a production of 'Children of a Lesser God' and she reprised the role when the play was adapted for the big screen. She starred as Sarah, a young deaf woman, who becomes involved with a speech teacher (played by William Hurt) at a school for the deaf. She rejects learning to lip-read and to talk, choosing to communicate through sign language alone. Matlin was lauded for her ability to emote without using her voice and received critical acclaim for her portrayal of Sarah. She was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in the year 1987. However, the 21-year-old was dealing with her own issues around the time.

Actress Marlee Matlin arrives at the American Film Institute’s 44th Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute to John Williams at Dolby Theatre on June 9, 2016, in Hollywood, California (Getty Images)

Marlee Matlin's substance abuse issue

Matlin was nominated for the biggest honor, however, she was dealing with many personal issues at the time. She was at the Betty Ford Center receiving treatment for a substance abuse problem when she learned of her Academy Award nomination. To top that, she was in a romantic relationship with William Hurt at the time of shooting for the film, which didn't turn out to be the best decision for them. "We brought out each other's worst instincts," she had told People Magazine at the time. 

Marlee Matlin's Awards

Matlin has received Emmy Award nominations in 1994 for her role on town drama 'Picket Fences' and TV drama 'Reasonable Doubts'. She received another Emmy nomination for her appearance on the legal drama 'The Practice' in 2000 and for a guest appearance on the crime drama 'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit' in 2004. Outside of her on-screen career, Matlin is a philanthropist and supports a number of charitable causes. She is associated with the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and the Starlight Children's Foundation, to name a few

Marlee Matlin attends the 93rd Annual Academy Awards at Union Station on April 25, 2021, in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)