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Children of a Lesser God

****
1986

‘…smarter than you might remember. Locating an issue in male control, and setting her heroine against that control, Children of a Lesser God has a message that’s relevant to MeToo…’

Mark Medoff’s award-winning 1979 play uses issues connected with deafness to develop a theme about the gap between men and women, or the difficulties of relationships in general. It’s an unusually mature view of relationships, and is prepared to drill down on one particular aspect; the egocentric behaviour of men. This 1986 film version was directed by a woman, Randa Haines, and concerns the controlling relationship between a teacher (William Hurt) and the janitor (Marlee Matlin) at the remote school for deaf children where he works. A newcomer matched with a hugely popular actor struck sparks, but Matlin recently revealed that her off-screen relationship with Hurt mirrored that portrayed in negative ways; looking solely at what’s on-screen, Children of a Lesser God firmly addresses the issues that led to MeToo.

James Leeds (Hurt) is a young and gifted teacher; his new employer (Phillip Bosco) jokes that he’s ‘been to all the best schools’. We see Leeds in action with a small class, and he’s pretty good, managing to reach most, but not all of his students with a mixture of games, comedy and musical performance understood through vibration. Leeds has a certain white saviour quality, one that immediately raises hostility from ex-student Sarah Norman (Matlin) who empties the bins in his classroom. The two start up a relationship, but while Leeds is happy to take credit for Sarah’s signing and social abilities, he’s also aggressive and manipulative towards her, and she eventually moves out of the house they share together.

At heart, Children of a Lesser God tells a romantic story; Leeds never sets out to do anything but right by Sarah. But his actions are selfish; he blames her for him not wanting to listen to music, and can’t help himself from goading her to speak like him, even though she has a specific problem with that. Leeds takes the compliments on Sarah’s bridge technique when they turn up as a couple at a social function, but not only doesn’t protect her from the patronising comments of other guests, but doesn’t even notice that they are an issue, and how upsetting they are for her. Based on a real couple that Medoff knew, James and Sarah are sympathetic in the way that they struggle to connect; he means well, and she’s been abused before, but that doesn’t give him the right to control her.

Children of a Lesser God makes a great coup from the casting of non-hearing actors, with the shorthand for the development of Leeds’ class providing a charming spine. The acting is very strong too, with Hurt’s famously halting delivery well-served, and Matlin offering up a transformative performance as Sarah, one that led her to an Oscar. Not everything that was acceptable in the 80’s is acceptable now, but Haines’ film is smarter than you might remember. Locating an issue in male control, and setting her heroine against that control, Children of a Lesser God has a central message that’s relevant to MeToo; there’s no reason for any woman to have to accept a male view of the world around them.

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  1. I could have sworn that I first saw Matlin in the tv show Pretender in the 90’s, but looking through her imdb page there wasn’t a whisper of that. So maybe it was some other actress? But I was pretty sure Matlin was it.
    And I just did some googl’ing and it turns out I was thinking of Deanne Bray, who went on to do that FBI show, which is why I remember her.

    Man, odd how things take you down memory lane.

    • Thanks for clearing this up! Let me know if you imagine connections between this and any other tv show…

              • My goodness, we’re on a roll here.
                quick, get somebody else to say something clever so we can riff on their comment for another 10 or 15 comments of our own….

                  • Absolutely.
                    Without the validation of the hoi poloi, what use are reviews anyway? Only the most monstrous egotist could feel that their reviews alone were enough. Look at me for example. Always reaching out and trying to reach consensus with those who follow me. I wouldn’t dare review a book unless I already knew what everybody else was saying about it.

                    Saaaaaaay, you’re not a monstrous Egotist, are you?

                    • Not at all. I just cut and paste the text directly from Alex Good’s Netscape Navigator account, then add typos.

                    • glad to hear it. Somebody has to keep NN alive after all.
                      and since I’m already Treasurer of the Bins, my quota of doing stuff is filled, so your job is keeping NN on life support. Don’t let anyone pull the plug!

                    • Given that Alex thinks John Wick 2 is the best of the trilogy, he’s obviously got more need of bin space than we do.

                      Quite a selection of bins you have!

                    • I concur. But what else is a Canadian going do? All that wide open space with the winds blowing across the prairies? At least taking bins to the curb is a safe hobby 🙂

                      I like to think of the US as the world cosmopolitan when it comes to bin diversity.

                    • I hear you. I’ve worked the NY State recycling bin system, and found it refreshingly diverse also.

                      My fear is that Alex’s six hours plus a day he claims is bin duty is a front for something else…

                    • Be careful. Accusing another member of the WP4 of nefarious ne’re do-well’ing is a serious thing. How do you think I”ve gotten away with it all these years? 😉

                    • Well, some day, when you’re as Bad/Good as me, you’ll understand, grasshopper….
                      but until then, we’ll just have to make snide remarks at each other 😀

                    • Yes. Without the internet, we are as but dust in the wind. The filthy, dirty annoying kind of dust, not the nice clean kind that scours the flesh from your bones.

                    • Do you do taster packs? So I can try before I choose? Make an informed choice?

                    • Ahh, I see we have some confusion. I’m not the Dust Man. You’ll need to go to Building 17, floor 1907 and find the window with “Dust Man Requests”. It changes daily, so good luck.

                    • Oh, it’s just you seemed to know a lot about different kinds of dust. Can you see how this mistake could happen?

                    • I took a couse in Dustology 101, so to the layman I can understand why I might appear so lofty and full of knowledge. But you get a real expert like the Dustman and whooweee, whole worlds can open up before you.
                      (usually very unpleasant ones, but new worlds nonetheless)

                    • Wow, with Alex a permanent captive of his own bins, I seem to have landed in the company of what you might call real rubbish men.

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