AFI Movie Club: CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD – American Film Institute

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AFI Movie Club: CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD

CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD, a boundary-breaking love story, was directed by AFI Directing Workshop for Women (DWW) alum and Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal recipient Randa Haines. It was edited by AFI DWW alum Lisa Fruchtman.

 

In this exclusive AFI Archive video, director Randa Haines discusses the film:

Movie Trivia for CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD

DID YOU KNOW?

CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD is based on a 1979 Broadway play by Mark Medoff, who adapted his work for the screen with co-writer Hesper Anderson. The play, written in 18 months, was based on the true story of deaf actress Phyllis Frelich.

DID YOU KNOW?

The original Broadway production of CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD starred deaf actress Phyllis Frelich, whose real-life story inspired Mark Medoff to write the play. Frelich’s performance garnered her a Best Actress Tony® Award.

DID YOU KNOW?

CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD marked the feature film debut of deaf actress Marlee Matlin. She went on to win an Oscar® for Best Actress, becoming the first and only individual with a physical disability to be awarded one to date, as well as the youngest winner in the Best Actress category.

DID YOU KNOW?

It took roughly seven years to bring CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD to the screen. Burt Sugarman outbid Paramount president Ned Tanen for the film rights by over $1 million. The film’s final budget topped $10 million.

DID YOU KNOW?

Alan Pakula was initially hired to direct, but he was unavailable due to going over schedule with SOPHIE’S CHOICE and was replaced with Mark Rydell. Ultimately, Randa Haines took the helm, making her theatrical feature film debut.

DID YOU KNOW?

Robert Redford originally intended to take on the lead role of James Leeds and even worked on an early version of the script with Mark Medoff. Al Pacino also expressed interest in the part.

DID YOU KNOW?

To work with hearing-impaired actors, director Randa Haines learned a combination of techniques known as “total communication” in the deaf community. Out of the 16 top billed actors, 10 were severely hearing impaired or completely deaf, and 120 deaf students were hired as background performers.

DID YOU KNOW?

First-time director Randa Haines studied sign language and supplemented her lack of fluency with body language, gestures, lip reading and help from full-time interpreters. William Hurt and co-screenwriter Hesper Anderson also learned how to sign.

DID YOU KNOW?

Representatives from several deaf organizations criticized Paramount for declining to use the CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD premiere as a fundraiser for the deaf community, despite several hundred requests for such an event. In response, Paramount cited a marketing concern that an emphasis on the deaf at the premiere would discourage hearing audiences from discovering the movie.

DID YOU KNOW?

More than 25 prints of CHILDREN OF A LESSER were captioned and distributed throughout the country, ensuring accessibility for the nearly two million deaf people in the U.S. at that time.

DID YOU KNOW?

CHILDREN OF A LESSER was nominated for four Oscars® in the categories of Best Actor, Supporting Actress, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Marlee Matlin was the first deaf woman in Oscar® history to win for Best Actress, and she also earned a Golden Globe award.

Learn more at the AFI Catalog

The movie doesn’t end at the credits: Family-friendly Discussion Questions

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-Although many deaf actors in CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD were unable to deliver their lines with clear diction, the filmmakers decided against using captions for audiences to read their words. As a substitute, William Hurt was tasked with speaking the lines of his co-star Marlee Matlin, repeating her words while signing. Do you think it was effective for Hurt to take over Matlin’s voice? What does this convey about their relationship?

-CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD was revolutionary in casting mostly unknown actors with severe hearing impairments in the roles of deaf characters, and it was hailed for bringing the word “disability” into the vernacular. However, some critics noted that the film endorsed a general misperception that disabled people must be taught to assimilate, pointing to James’ insistence that his students learn to speak out loud while Sarah refuses to comply. Can you describe a scene in the movie in which this dilemma is depicted?

-Did you notice a segregation between speakers and non-speakers at the school? How do you feel about “fixing” physical impairments, considering that many deaf people take offense to being called disabled and do not wish to be integrated, or “cured”?

– In the film’s narrative, people with disabilities are seen as more vulnerable than their speaking counterparts, and thus taken advantage of – as with Sarah’s sexual exploitation by her sister’s friends. Conversely, Sarah also exploits her silence as a way to protect herself from the world of sound and uses her impairment as a source of empowerment. Can you describe scenes in the movie that reflect this theme of exploitation?

-Although CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD delves into serious issues of those who are hearing impaired, it is predominantly a love story. How does deafness work as a metaphor for other complications the characters face while falling in love?

-How would you rate CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD?

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