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Actress Marlee Matlin: Courage Plus Dreams Equals Success

‘Though I work in a field that couldn't be more different than what you all are working in, as women, we share a common goal,’ actress Marlee Matlin said Wednesday at the Women of the Channel Leadership Summit West. ‘It's the desire —actually the right—to stand equally with our male peers … apply skills learned, realizing our full potential and achieving success.’

Academy Award-winning actress and activist Marlee Matlin attributes her success in Hollywood and beyond to courage and dreams.

That’s the formula that helped Matlin, deaf since she was 18 months old, overcome barriers and win the Best Actress Oscar at age 21 for her 1986 debut feature film turn in “Children of a Lesser God.”

“Though I work in a field that couldn't be more different than what you all are working in, as women, we share a common goal,” Matlin said at the Women of the Channel Leadership Summit West in Palm Springs, Calif. “It's the desire, actually the right, to stand equally with our male peers … apply skills learned, realizing our full potential and achieving success.”

“I, too, in my journey came with the same questions that you are being asked today,” said Matlin, whose words, conveyed using American Sign Language, were given voice by Jack Jason, her interpreter of 33 years. “How do I choose the right path and figure out who I'm supposed to be? What are the best tools to get there? And, most importantly, how can I ensure that I will get all the answers? And that's why I'm so glad to have the opportunity to be here today to learn, to share, to inspire and, best of all, to motivate each other.”

Thirty-two years ago in January, Matlin said she was asking those same questions when she checked herself into the Betty Ford Center for drug addiction treatment in nearby Rancho Mirage, the day after she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in “Children of a Lesser God” and on the eve of her Academy Award nomination.

“What is important is that my journey could not have been possible without three very simple words, which I carry around with me every day: They are courage, dreams and success,” Matlin said.

Matlin And Courage

Without the courage that she learned from her parents, teachers and mentors, Matlin said she would not have realized success when no one thought it was possible because she’s deaf.

Matlin’s parents set her on that path, insisting she attend school in their neighborhood at a time when “mainstreaming” deaf or disabled children into regular classrooms was not yet mandated by federal law.

“It was courage,” Matlin said. “Every day, my parents opened the front door and encouraged me to explore. It was about me, not my deafness. They gave me freedoms like any child who could hear. They allowed me to roam around the neighborhood on my own, walk to stores by myself, even make friends with kids in the neighborhood without their constant worry or intervention. Granted, I was different. And yes, kids could be bullies or insensitive. But to them, that was just a part of growing up, giving me the tools to stand up for myself.”

Her family worked so hard to make sure her life was no different than other kids’ that a reporter many years later noted Matlin’s childhood must have been like living with the Brady Bunch.

“And he was right, because with that Matlin courage and that positive attitude, I was encouraged to be whoever I wanted to be,” Matlin said. “I imagined myself as the most positive role model I knew at the time: Marcia Brady. Marcia Brady who just happened to be deaf with long luxurious hair, skating down the street, saying ‘hi’ to everyone in the neighborhood, whether they knew me or not.”

But Matlin said her dreams took a detour in adulthood.

Matlin And Her Dreams

Matlin was 8 when her mother brought her to the Center on Deafness, a community theater and arts center for hearing and deaf children near their suburban home outside Chicago.

When Matlin learned the center was doing a production of “The Wizard of Oz,” she put that “Matlin courage” to use and made sure the director knew there was only one part for her. She won the lead role.

“I was on my way,” Matlin said.

By the time she was 12 years old, she had been acting in theater productions at the center and throughout the Midwest.

“I was determined to make my mark,” she said. “I even wrote myself a letter telling myself that I wanted to be an actor in Hollywood who rode around in a big car and gave my autograph to anyone who asked. I would sign it, ‘I am the best.’”

Matlin developed a lifelong friendship with actor Henry Winkler after he visited the center. She introduced herself after a performance and said it was her dream to be an actor in Hollywood just like him.

Winkler had difficulty with reading and math growing up, and his parents called him “dumb dog” in German, according to Matlin. Years later, his own son had the same problems, and he learned it was dyslexia, she said.

Winkler turned to Matlin, knelt down and said, “Marlee, you can be whatever you want to be. Just follow your heart and your dreams, and success will come to you. Don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise.”

It's great advice for anyone, said Matlin, who, nine years later, was holding her Oscar on stage.

But Hollywood wasn’t ready for her success, according to Matlin. The next day, columnist Rex Reed said her win was the result of a pity vote. New York Magazine proclaimed she would never work in Hollywood again because there were no parts for actors who didn't speak, she said.

On top of that, her then-boyfriend actor and Oscar winner William Hurt—her “Children of a Lesser God” co-star—asked her to seriously consider what it meant to win the Oscar after just one film, when others won only after many years of hard work.

“'What makes you think you deserved it, Marlee?’ he asked me right there in the limousine right after the ceremony,” Matlin said. “Whatever courage I had to follow my dreams and realize success, it almost went right out the window of that car. And for the first time in my life, I actually felt handicapped, and I nearly gave it all up right there. But fortunately for me, I had just enough courage left. More importantly, I was sober.”

Matlin left what she says was an abusive relationship and turned to Winkler and his wife for support.

“He helped reinforce the notion of dreams can come true, if you just have the courage to follow them,” she said. “And he did it with a quote that said, ‘If you will it, it is not a dream.’”

But work was tough to find after her Academy Award win as prejudices and stereotypes run deep in Hollywood, Matlin said.

“I soon realized that nothing was going to happen unless I made things happen for myself,” she said. “I set up meetings with agents and producers, many of them who'd never even met someone who was deaf. And soon I was pitching ideas for movies and TV series. And then, like Henry, I formed my own production company to be in charge of the projects and my business and the direction of my career. Most importantly, I refused to back down when there was a barrier in my way.”

When she was invited back to the Oscars the next year, as is tradition, to present an award, Matlin said she made sure to “show Hollywood that I was the one in charge.”

“Instead of just signing my introduction to the award for best actor, I decided to speak the names of the nominees, just to show people that I had been signing and speaking all my life,” she said.

But deaf critics took her to task and accused her of sending a message that deaf people should speak and not sign.

“I refused to back down,” Matlin said.

Matlin On Success

Thirty-two years later, Matlin has done additional films and television, earned two more Golden Globe nominations and four Emmy nominations.

“Not too shabby,” she said. “Even more importantly, the landscape has changed. There isn't anything or anyone I can't have access to, because all of us are using smartphones with access to instant messages, video chat. There are relay services, and videos are in caption. There are self-captioning services and, best of all, people are communicating—communicating about diversity, communicating about inclusivity, about equality.”

Still, Matlin said, though deaf and disabled people account for 20 percent of the general population, only 5 percent of TV and feature film roles are deaf or disabled characters. And of that 5 percent, 95 percent of those characters are played by people who are not deaf or disabled.

The disparity also is apparent on the other side of the camera. In eight seasons of the “Game of Thrones” TV series, the production company hired only one female director and two female writers, according to Matlin.

“So here we are today, asking the question, ‘What is the solution?’” she said. “It’s not only applicable to Hollywood, but also to the tech sector. The solution is clearly what you are doing here by telling your personal stories, by sharing your successes and, most importantly, by proving that anything is possible if you set your mind to it. With each other, you are effecting change.”

“Courage plus dreams equals success,” Matlin said. “You can and will find the means to meet the challenges, trends and opportunities that are out there for the taking in today's technology sector and achieve success.”

Channel Reaction

Matlin’s talk was inspiring for Katie Bodell, chief success officer at Cloudbakers, a Chicago cloud services company.

“Her story and message of ‘courage plus dreams equals success’ clearly resonated with the crowd, demonstrated by the attention and respect she received,” Bodell said. “Whether it was intentional or not, she also subtly challenged us in a good way. If 20 percent of the workforce is either deaf or disabled, are we doing enough to support them in the channel, or are we as naive as Hollywood?”

IBM’s Joanna Raitano, whose parents were deaf, introduced Matlin using sign language. Raitano is vice president of IBM Cloud and cognitive software for the company’s North American partner ecosystem

“I signed before I could speak,” she said. “My whole life was infused with deaf culture. That story doesn't define me, but for sure shapes me. This is like my dream. When you think about like my life growing up, Marlee was like the mecca. I could become an IBM vice president, I've done all these things, and my parents are going to be like, ‘You can retire now, you introduced Marlee.”

“It’s been such a wonderful experience to read and to learn more about her,” Raitano said. “My initial ... thoughts of her was when I was only 8 years old, and the movie came out, ‘Children of a Lesser God.’ When you're 8, and you have two deaf parents, you become 20 very quickly. So I watched the movie with my mom, and she covered my eyes many, many times. But the reason she had me watch it was because she wanted me to know that Marlee's deafness didn't define her. She had a beautiful thing where she could bring sign language to everyone. She could show them how beautiful the language is, how wonderful the culture is.”

Meanwhile, Matlin said yesterday’s Women of the Channel conference was the first time among her many speaking engagements that she was introduced in sign language at a non-deaf-related event.

“You made my day,” she said.

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