At the Academy Awards ceremony each year, it is traditional that the previous year's Best Actor and Best Actress winners in both main and supporting categories present the award the following year in the same category but for the opposite gender. As William Hurt had won the Best Actor Oscar the previous year for Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), at the Oscars ceremony for this film, Marlee Matlin's co-star Hurt ironically got to present Matlin with her Best Actress Academy Award. Trade paper Variety columnist Army Archerd wrote that "the audience at home could not see the warm and long embrace she received from William Hurt as she came offstage".
According to the book "Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and the Film Entertainment Industry" (1999) by John S. Schuchman, the film was the first major motion picture since the 1926 silent film You'd Be Surprised (1926) to cast a deaf / hearing impaired actor in a major role.
For her Best Actress Oscar acceptance speech, actress Marlee Matlin thanked the film's cast and crew, "particularly William Hurt for his great support and love", with the aid and assistance of an interpreter.
Marlee Matlin won the Best Actress Academy Award for her role as Sarah Norman in this film. At 21 (actually 21 years and 218 days), she is the youngest ever winner of a Best Actress Oscar. Matlin is also one of only four actresses to win the Best Actress Oscar for a debut film performance, the others being Shirley Booth for Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins (1964) and Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl (1968), and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.
A dispute erupted between actress Marlee Matlin and director Randa Haines over whether Matlin should have to smoke in the film. Matlin didn't want to but Haines stipulated she had to start practicing smoking two months prior to shooting. Matlin defied this and did not start smoking until about one week prior to the start of filming.
Marlee Matlin was cast after the film's producers saw a video-cassette of a Chicago production of the "Children of a Lesser God" play. Matlin's performance was not in the play's central role of Sarah Norman but was in a supporting part in the stage production. It completely won them over.
William Hurt and Marlee Matlin became romantically involved during the making of this film. Apparently, Matlin moved into Hurt's New York Central Park West apartment straight after filming wrapped. Later, according to Matlin in her autobiography, Hurt allegedly physically abused her during their relationship.
The original Broadway production of "Children of a Lesser God" by Mark Medoff opened at the Longacre Theater in New York on 30th March 1980 and ran for 887 performances until closing on 16th May 1982. The play won the 1980 Tony Award (New York City) for Best Play. The playwright Mark Medoff also co-wrote the screenplay for this movie.
Initially, Marlee Matlin believed that she was rendered deaf in infancy before the age of two by a bout of roseola infantum or infantile measles but later found out that roseola doesn't cause deafness. In the 1990s, a doctor told her mother that he believed that Matlin had a genetically malformed cochlea, which meant that she could likely hear when she was born but that her hearing receded over the first couple of years of her life.
The film and source play's "Children of a Lesser God" title is derived from the twelfth chapter of Alfred Lord Tennysons "Idylls of the King" cycle of twelve narrative poems. It states: "I found Him in the shining of the stars, I marked Him in the flowering of His fields, But in His ways with men I find Him not. I waged His wars, and now I pass and die. O me! for why is all around us here, As if some lesser god had made the world, But had not force to shape it as he would, Till the High God behold it from beyond, And enter it, and make it beautiful? Or else as if the world were wholly fair, But that these eyes of men are dense and dim, And have not power to see it as it is: Perchance, because we see not to the close;- For I, being simple, thought to work His will, And have but stricken with the sword in vain; And all whereon I leaned in wife and friend, Is traitor to my peace, and all my realm, Reels back into the beast, and is no more. My God, thou hast forgotten me in my death; Nay - God my Christ - I pass but shall not die".
In an interview with the New York Daily News, actress Marlee Matlin said: "I guess I have a Zorba spirit because I like being free and doing what I want. I used to be a very angry deaf person, like Sarah in Children Of A Lesser God...I even wrote a letter to President Ford asking why he didn't have closed captions for his TV speeches. He didn't answer".
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor (William Hurt), Best Supporting Actress (Piper Laurie) and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium but won only the one Oscar which was for Best Actress (Marlee Matlin).
First of two films that actor William Hurt has made with director Randa Haines. The second and final movie [to date, July 2013] has been The Doctor (1991) which was made and first released around five years later.
Linda Bove, who has the small role of Marian Loesser in this movie, is best-known as a cast member of the long-running children's television show Sesame Street. She was a regular from 1973 to 2000; her character was also named Linda and was also Deaf, often appearing in segments in which she taught children, adults, or Muppets some sign language.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
Marlee Matlin has only one spoken line in English during the entire film: "Here you go! Hear my words! Hear my voice! Ah, you want more than that? I'm gonna scream!". The rest of her performance is in American Sign Language.