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Hi-Deaf Images: Actress' book gives life and learning a hearing

July 16, 2009 By:
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What about sex?

Sex is good.

You betcha, and no better time than the present. But what if that's not what was actually said, and what was really asked was "how about dinner at 6? Six is good."

That's some big matzah ball hanging out there, "Seinfeld." But for Marlee Matlin, "sex/six" was comedy at its most organic, if not orgasmic.

" 'Did you say sex? Dinner at sex?' I am so grateful to Carol Leifer, who wrote 'The Lip Reader,' and who thought outside of the box when it came to using a deaf character," the Oscar-winning actress says of the infamously funny episode of "Seinfeld" in which she played a tennis official with the good lines bouncing her way.

"I must admit that I even had difficulty thinking of myself being able to make a live audience laugh when I first got on the set with the other actors."

Game point? "I trust them so much," she says of her comical experience, "that Carol and I are working on a half-hour comedy together," which is "wickedly funny and politically incorrect and I love it."

Love match on the TV tennis court. But then Matlin has netted a major career on screen and off, and all the racket and rack-your-brain decisions come out in an intriguing and intoxicating autobiography, I'll Scream Later, which she wrote with Betsy Sharkey.

No more, no less: The "Children of a Lesser God" Oscar winner offers anecdotes and insights that fall on deaf ears and those who heard her rants to be taken seriously -- and, as her major talent demonstrated, comically.

High-deaf images: There are tales about her combustible and confrontational contretemps with actor Bill Hurt, who apparently lived up to his surname; and the Fonz phenom, how Henry and Stacy Winkler gave her the wink of approval at the right time -- and throughout the years -- encouraging her ambitions in a business that ambushes the less-than-fully physically functional.

But the 43-year-old deaf actress, who was born hearing, has listened to the many lessons life and her career have had to offer, all given a hearing in this well-written read.

Most intriguing, perhaps, is how the deaf community has at times given her the talk-to-the-hand turn-off, expressing anger at Matlin's choice to "speak" her Oscar acceptance speech and embrace rather than embargo the hearing world.

Sign of the Times
But things have improved in that relationship, possibly as a sign of the times. "I think it's a combination of [the situation] having gotten much better and my growing maturity in having to deal with criticism -- being a mom of four helps in my sorting out what's not so important to worry about in the long run," she explains during our e-mail chat.

"I recently did a book signing and 400 deaf people showed up and couldn't have been nicer.

"That might not have been true 25 years ago."

But then, who knows what would have happened years back if her brother hadn't told Marlee about theatrical auditions for a regional production of "Lesser God," diverting her from a career possibility as a ... cop.

"Who's to say," Matlin muses of job options. "I might have been the wife and co-owner [with her spouse] of a shoe store. Or I might be teaching deaf children at the Center on Deafness. Maybe I could have been an investigator with the FBI, working surveillance, reading the lips of suspects through binoculars," she says with a laugh.

But read her lips: She may have reasonable doubts -- also the name of the 1990s TV series in which she co-starred with Mark Harmon -- but there's something about this give 'em hell hellion that has earned her a license -- and license plate -- not to kill but cajole.

Being pulled over for a license check could supply an initial shock for a cop. SWDJB -- Single White Deaf Jewish Bitch? "I used that 'B' word to show people that I mean business and that I don't take being walked over or ignored very lightly."

But this coolest of cool actresses also uses it as an icebreaker "to show people that, yeah, I can be tough and a 'B' sometimes, but, hey," she adds, "it just makes me all the more loveable."

The "L" word? No, that's the name of the cable series on which she has starred and made as big an impression as she did on "The West Wing."

As for her many mentions of Henry Winkler taking her under his wing: "He is my mentor, almost rabbi-like, in his ability to dole out helpful advice, and I love going out on the road with him doing motivational speeches to help inspire people who want to hear our stories."

Matlin has a storied connection with the Jewish community, and being raised in the religion. "I definitely would not be where I am today had I not had the benefit of a Jewish upbringing," she avows.

Give this good soul a saw and she's ready to repair the world. "The principals of tikkun olam guided my parents" and the actress as well, who has done much fundraising for Jewish groups and charities.

Outside tikkun olam, did her roots as a Jew -- as a deaf Jew -- make her fell even more the outsider? "I don't think of myself as an 'outsider' but rather a fighter and I think the chutzpah my parents had and which they passed along to me contributed to that perception I have of myself.

"Like most Jews, I just don't take anything for granted and that's why I am where I am today."

Today you are a woman ... she remembers well how right that ritual felt, beaming from the bimah at her Bat Mitzvah, giving a speech which spelled out her strength: "I am deeply proud that I am a Jewish girl because this religion is very important to me."

And fulfilling, as she writes in her book of a wonderfully tearful rite of passage that seemed oh-so-right: "When I looked up and saw everyone crying, tears started streaming from my face. I looked down and saw my tears had fallen on the Torah.

" 'I'm so sorry, Rabbi,' " I said over and over.

"Don't worry, my child, our history is stained by tears. Your tears are a wonderful mitzvah."

The book also details other tearful episodes, of a hurtful kind, such as sexual situations forced on her as a young girl. "My breaking the silence about the sexual improprieties could potentially help someone else who wanted to 'scream' later," she says.

"Only by speaking out can the cycles of abuse and molestation stop."

Stop and start -- how else to explain the on-again, so way-off- again relationship that was the embattled embrace of Bill Hurt as lover. "It sounds trite," she tells me. "I forgive him but I have not forgotten."

Neither does she forego those addictive details of the days when "drugs were my thing": "I have no regrets of the way I lived my life," she explains. "I only ask forgiveness from the ones I may have hurt along the way" -- which may have included her parents.

"I was an addict (and a teenager) and I did something that was totally inexcusable," recalls Matlin of falsely accusing her father of hitting her to divert attention from her getting in trouble at school.

And then there are the issues of mother's daze: "Please understand," she adds, "I love my mother, but our relationship is complex and there are many issues that have yet to be resolved. I wrote the book not as a means to hurt her or confront her but to get things off my chest."

And she has beaten her chest as a war cry to help the deaf community, calling a major life achievement her efforts in "helping to get the law passed that requires all TV sets to be equipped with closed-caption technology."

The actress caps her accomplishments to date with I'll Scream Later, an open book on work and life, which includes a great marriage and a quartet of kids.

Scream is also a sotto voce salute to friendship -- to her lifelong pal, Liz ("someone whom I consider my sister"), and an American idol or two.

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