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The indie film that broke all records with its $25 million Sundance sale is next-level inclusive, says its Oscar-winning star Marlee Matlin: “To have a hearing actor put on a deaf character as if it was a costume — we’ve moved beyond that point now.”
After theaters had reopened following a year-and-a-half blackout, Marlee Matlin returned to the multiplex to watch Disney’s Cruella with her family. Shortly after the film started, she could tell something was wrong.
Matlin knew music was a big part of the movie — an ’80s-inspired punk take on the classic Disney villain — and she could tell that there were songs playing under star Emma Stone’s onscreen kidnapping of dalmatians, but the songs’ lyrics were not showing up in her caption glasses: wearable tech that theaters provide to deaf and hard-of-hearing customers that overlay subtitles on a movie. Matlin turned to her husband, Kevin Grandalski, who is hearing, asking, ” ‘Honey, are there lyrics that you hear? And he goes, ‘Yeah.’ ” She continues, “I found out after the fact that studios stopped subtitling lyrics.”
In 2016, Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount and Sony beat a class-action lawsuit in California brought against them by the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which alleged various laws were violated in the studios’ refusal to provide captioning or subtitling of song lyrics in feature films. Now, Matlin was missing out on Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy” playing over a car chase with Cruella’s Panther De Ville. “It deprives us of being able to access the story just like anybody else,” she says. Put another way: “I only saw half of the movie. It was a half-ass movie, basically.”
More than 30 years after Children of a Lesser God (the movie that won Matlin an Oscar, making her the first, and still only, deaf actor to do so), the entertainment industry is placing a major emphasis on inclusion, with deaf and disabled talent pushing — alongside activist groups meeting with studios, streamers and networks — to ensure that they do not get lost in larger diversity conversations.
This month will see the release of CODA, which is fronted by three deaf actors: Matlin, Troy Kotsur and newcomer Daniel Durant. Buoyed by its $25 million record-breaking Sundance sale, CODA, out Aug. 13, is primed to become a new cornerstone in what is shaping up to be a watershed moment in disability representation in Hollywood. “To have a hearing actor put on a deaf character as if it was a costume, I think we’ve moved beyond that point now,” says Matlin. “We’re talking about a new generation of viewers.”