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Deafness in the Movies

Have You Seen These?

By

Updated September 23, 2010

One night, I caught the (captioned) classic film "Johnny Belinda" on Turner Classic Movies. This is a 1948 Oscar-winning film about a deaf woman with no language who is taught sign language by a hearing man.

Early Years of Deafness in the Movies

In the early days, deaf characters were played by hearing actors. The deaf woman in "Johnny Belinda" (compare prices) was played by a hearing actress. The deaf community began demanding that deaf roles by played by deaf actors. Gradually, Hollywood got the message. Real deaf people began to be cast in the movies.

Increase in Deafness in the Movies

More movies are being made about deafness or with deaf actors. More than 30 years ago, Disney made the film "Amy," about a teacher in a deaf school. I think real deaf children were in the film. When I was a child, I saw "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter," based on the Carson McCullers novel. That film featured a deaf character who was very important to the story though not the main character.

Turning Point in Deafness in the Movies

If I had to select a turning point for mass acceptance of deaf actors, it would have to be the 1979 tv movie "And Your Name is Jonah" with a young deaf boy, Jeffrey Bravin, as the central character. To date, this classic has never been available on video. It aired without captions because closed captioning was not yet a technical reality. I finally saw it with captions at the Gallaudet University library.

"And Your Name is Jonah" was followed about a year later with "Love is Never Silent," based on the classic novel "In This Sign." Like "Jonah," "Love is Never Silent" has not been available on video. I wish that a company would put both "Jonah" and "Love" on DVD.

Deaf Superstar Actors in the Movies

The era of deaf superstardom began with the arrival of the Oscar-winning Marlee Matlin in "Children of a Lesser God," the film version of the play of the same name. (compare prices) Matlin went on to star in a few more films, most of which were unsuccessful at the box office. Then she had a comeback of sorts in a HBO tv-movie about a deaf class held hostage (she played a teacher).

Either Deaf or Hearing Actors in the Movies

Today, there are enough professional deaf actors today that there is no reason actually to hire a hearing actor over a deaf one. I have noticed that Hollywood seems to favor deaf actors for deaf roles.

Future of Deafness in the Movies

There have been other deaf movies, but these are the only ones that I can recall. More movies about deafness and with deaf actors will continue to be made. These are "mainstream" movies, not to be confused with "specialized audience" movies like Deaf Cinema. Who knows, maybe someday the Oscar statue will sign "I Love You."

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