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Children of a Lesser God is a 1986 American romantic drama film directed by Randa Haines from a screenplay written by Hesper Anderson and Mark Medoff based on Medoff's 1979 play of the same name. It stars William Hurt, Marlee Matlin, Piper Laurie, and Philip Bosco. The film's narrative follows two employees at a school for the deaf; a deaf custodian and a hearing speech teacher, whose conflicting ideologies on speech and deafness create tension and discord in their developing romantic relationship.[3][4]

Children of a Lesser God premiered at the 37th Berlin International Film Festival, where it competed for the Golden Bear, while Haines received a Special Silver Bear. It was theatrically released on October 3, 1986 by Paramount Pictures to critical and commercial success. Reviewers praised Haines's direction, its screenplay, and most notably the performances of the cast (particularly of Matlin, Hurt, and Laurie), while the film grossed $37 million in North America on a $10.5 million budget. It received five nominations at the 59th Academy Awards; Best Picture, Best Actor (for Hurt), Best Supporting Actress (for Laurie), Best Adapted Screenplay, with Matlin winning Best Actress, at age 21 becoming the youngest winner in the category as well as the only deaf winner in Oscar history.[5]


An energetic new teacher, James Leeds (William Hurt), arrives at a school for the deaf and hard of hearing in New England. He soon sees a young deaf woman working as a janitor. The woman, Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin), a former top student, is not well-regarded by the hearing staff, but seems to integrate well with the deaf students. James begins to try to talk with her, arranging a meeting through her boss, pursuing her after school ends while she is attempting to clean, and persisting despite being rejected several times. She eventually agrees to go to dinner, and he watches her dance from the sidelines.

Sarah does not want to vocalize, and James eventually agrees not to try to force her to - a promise which he later breaks. He finds out that Sarah refuses to visit her home, and assumes her mother (Piper Laurie) has stopped reaching out. Through her mother, James finds out that Sarah and her sister Ruth were popular, and according to her mother her peers treated Sarah as if she weren't different from other women. Unfortunately, Sarah later reveals that she was sorely used by the unnamed "boys", and may have been a victim of sex abuse. Such treatment has led Sarah to mistrust men and resist interacting with anyone. Later, in a pool scene, he walks in on her swimming nude. She asks him to leave, but he refuses. Shortly thereafter, he coerces her into sex.

The relationship between James and Sarah improves, and they soon begin living together. The school superintendent warns James that he doesn't believe the relationship will work, but James is adamant that he will stay with Sarah. James choreographs a dance with his deaf students, in which they lipsync to a song on a stage in front of their parents. Sarah sees this performance and becomes upset. She later states that she thinks he hates her for not speaking. As the days pass, Sarah is convinced to leave her job, give up her life, and otherwise assimilate to James's household and hearing community. James's determination to hear Sarah speak and inability to allow her to develop individual pursuits frustrates her, and she feels he is patronizing her. They split up shortly after.

Sarah leaves James and goes to live with her estranged mother, reconciling with her in the process. James chases her, but she refuses to see him. After inquiring about her, James learns Sarah is working as a manicurist. Eventually, she and James reconcile at the school prom.


  • William Hurt as James Leeds
  • Marlee Matlin as Sarah Norman
  • Piper Laurie as Mrs. Norman
  • Philip Bosco as Dr. Curtis Franklin
  • Allison Gompf as Lydia
  • Bob Hiltermann as Orin
  • Linda Bove as Marian Loesser



After meeting deaf actress Phyllis Frelich in 1977 at the University of Rhode Island's New Repertory Project, playwright Medoff wrote the play Children of a Lesser God to be her star vehicle.[6] Based partially on Frelich's relationship with her hearing husband Robert Steinberg,[7] the play chronicles the tumultuous relationship and marriage between a reluctant-to-speak deaf woman and an unconventional speech pathologist for the deaf. With Frelich starring, Children of a Lesser God opened on Broadway in 1980, received three Tony Awards, including Best Play, and ran for 887 performances before closing in 1982.[8]

Following the vast success of his Broadway debut, Medoff, with fellow writer Anderson, penned a screenplay adapted from the original script. Though many changes were made, the core love story remained intact.[9] The title of the film comes from the eleventh chapter (The Passing of Arthur) of Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King.[10][11]


The movie was shot primarily in and around Saint John, New Brunswick during the autumn of 1985, with the Rothesay Netherwood School serving as the main set. Aside from locations in Saint John and Rothesay Netherwood School, sets were constructed by Saint John local Keith MacDonald.


The adaptation premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 13, 1986 and was released widely in the United States on October 3 of the same year. Like its source material, the film generally gained praise from the hearing and deaf communities alike.[9]


Box office

The film opened at number 5 at the box office in the United States and Canada with an opening weekend gross of $1,909,084. The film stayed in the Top 10 for eight weeks and grossed a total of $31,853,080,[12] earning theatrical rentals of $12 million.[2] The film performed better internationally with a rental of $25 million, for a worldwide total of $37 million.[2]

Critical reception


The performance of Marlee Matlin received widespread acclaim and earned 21-year-old Marlee an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, making her the youngest Best Actress winner.

Children of a Lesser God received generally positive reviews. On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a score of 79% from 34 critics.[13] Particular praise was given to the film's two leads. Richard Schickel of TIME Magazine said of Matlin, "she has an unusual talent for concentrating her emotions--and an audience's--in her signing. But there is something more here, an ironic intelligence, a fierce but not distancing wit, that the movies, with their famous ability to photograph thought, discover in very few performances."[14] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 3 out of a possible 4 stars, describing the subject matter as "new and challenging", saying he was "interested in everything the movie had to tell me about deafness." He continued, "The performances are strong and wonderful - not only by Hurt, one of the best actors of his generation, but also by Matlin, a deaf actress who is appearing in her first movie. She holds her own against the powerhouse she's acting with, carrying scenes with a passion and almost painful fear of being rejected and hurt, which is really what her rebellion is about."[9] Paul Attanasio of The Washington Post said of the film, "This is romance the way Hollywood used to make it, with both conflict and tenderness, at times capturing the texture of the day-to-day, at times finding the lyrical moments when two lovers find that time stops." He goes on to say of Matlin, "The most obvious challenge of the role is to communicate without speaking, but Matlin rises to it in the same way the stars of the silent era did -- she acts with her eyes, her gestures."[15]

There was some criticism that the film was told entirely from a hearing perspective, for a hearing audience. The film is not subtitled (neither the spoken dialogue nor the signing); instead, as pointed out by Ebert, the signed dialogue is repeated aloud by Hurt's character, "as if to himself".[9]

Awards and nominations

The film received five Academy Award nominations, with Marlee Matlin winning for Best Actress.[16] Marlee Matlin was 21 years-old when she won, making her the youngest Best Actress winner to date and the only deaf Academy Award winner.[17] Children of a Lesser God was the first ever female-helmed film to be nominated for Best Picture.[18]

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards Best Picture Burt Sugarman and Patrick J. Palmer Nominated
Best Actor William Hurt Nominated
Best Actress Marlee Matlin Won
Best Supporting Actress Piper Laurie Nominated
Best Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium Hesper Anderson and Mark Medoff Nominated
Berlin International Film Festival Golden Bear Randa Haines Nominated
Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution[19] Won
Reader Jury of the "Berliner Morgenpost" Won
British Academy Film Awards Best Screenplay – Adapted Hesper Anderson and Mark Medoff Nominated
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Randa Haines Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Children of a Lesser God Nominated
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama William Hurt Nominated
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Marlee Matlin Won
Guild of German Art House Cinemas Awards Foreign Film (Sliver) Randa Haines Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards Best Actress Marlee Matlin Draw
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films Children of a Lesser God Won
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium Hesper Anderson and Mark Medoff Nominated

See also

  • List of films featuring the deaf and hard of hearing


  1. Archived copy.
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  3. Children of a Lesser God |
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  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Ebert, Roger. "Children Of A Lesser God", Chicago Sun Times, October 3, 1986. 
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  13. Children of a Lesser God.
  14. Template:Cite magazine Subscription required.
  15. Attasanio, Paul. "'Children of a Lesser God'", The Washington Post, October 3, 1986. 
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  18. Michaelson, Judith (21 July 1991). What Took So Long?.
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External links

Template:Randa Haines