In 1986, Marlee Matlin broke three Hollywood records. As the star of Children of a Lesser God, she was the first deaf actress to be featured in a leading role since the silent era. When she won an Oscar, she became the first deaf actress to take home an Academy Award. And at 21, she was also the youngest woman ever to win Best Actress. (She still holds the record, followed closely by Jennifer Lawrence, who was 22 when she took home her gold statue for Silver Linings Playbook in 2012.)
But for a long time, this victory was an aberration. Hollywood doesn't have a great track record when it comes to having deaf actors telling their own stories, which is why Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes' film about two characters leading intersecting journeys 50 years apart, feels so unique.
Millicent Simmonds plays Rose, a 12-year-old deaf girl who runs away from her home in 1927 Hoboken in search of the bright lights of Broadway, and her favourite actress. Her story, told in silent film format, allows the actress, who is deaf herself, to tell her own story, in her own way. Her face is fascinatingly expressive, and every glance and gesture conveys myriad complex emotions. As a result, her scenes are extremely visual, a throwback to the early days of film, when dialogue was read on title cards in between scenes, and accompanied by live piano.
And yet the format feels utterly modern. Earlier this year, Master of None featured a storyline about a deaf bodega clerk in its remarkable episode "New York, I Love You," which was utterly devoid of sound. The decision to have an entirely silent segment came from Aziz Ansari's conversations with deaf people, who complained that their experience was never really reflected in the stories told about them.
"The deaf couple, normally when you see those people on shows, it’s like, 'Oh my God, this poor person!' Or it’s all about them being deaf," Ansari wrote in his Vulture recap of the episode. "And when we talked to deaf people about their lives, they were like, 'Yeah, it’s so annoying, anytime we see deaf people on a show, there’s sad music playing and you never just see them dealing with the same problems you see other characters dealing with.'"
Treshelle Edmond, who played the character and is herself deaf, highlighted the issue in an interview with Essence in May: "Sexual situations are rarely discussed when it comes to deaf and hard of hearing people on screen, so I hope this showed people that we all share things in common," she said.
TV has historically done a better job at portraying diverse stories. Switched At Birth, for example, has given deaf actors like Katie Leclerc and Sean Berdy a platform, and Shoshonnah Stern had a pretty memorable turn on Weeds.
But film, as always, is slower to adapt, Despite the positive press surrounding the film, there is one aspect of Wonderstruck that is ruffling some feathers. According to Harold Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, the increase of deaf stories being told onscreen has not been followed by an increase in deaf actors cast for those roles. Julianne Moore, who holds a lead role in Wonderstruck, is one example of a hearing actress cast in the role of a deaf person.
"Wonderstruck could have had a wonderful impact if all of its deaf roles were cast to deaf actors. Unfortunately, that is not the case," Rosenblum wrote in an email to Refinery29. "The NAD applauds the casting of deaf actors for certain roles in the movie, but that does not excuse giving the biggest role of the movie — a deaf role — to a hearing actor. This is the equivalent of casting black actors for all the black roles in the movie, Selma, but giving the role of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to a white actor. It is unfortunate that the Wonderstruck movie will be remembered not for its powerful story but for how a hearing actor misappropriated a deaf role."
Despite all that, and perhaps even because of it, Millicent Simmonds' role is groundbreaking. The 14-year-old actress plays a character who, yes, is deaf, but is also dealing with the very relatable concerns of any girl on the cusp of womanhood. As a woman, I crave more representation for women on screen, behind the camera, and in positions of power in Hollywood, so that the stories that represent my experience in the world can finally be told. In this role, 14-year-old Simmonds is striking a small victory for deaf women who have gone too long without seeing themselves and their stories told on a big screen.
Perhaps this year, we'll have a new record-breaker at the Academy Awards. I think we're long overdue.