Children of a Lesser God (1986)

R | 119 mins | Drama, Romance | 3 October 1986

Director:

Randa Haines

Cinematographer:

John Seale

Editor:

Lisa Fruchtman

Production Designer:

Gene Callahan

Production Company:

Burt Sugarman Production
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HISTORY

       As reported in a 3 Oct 1986 LAHExam article, playwright-screenwriter Mark Medoff used the marriage between his friends, actress and deaf woman, Phyllis Frelich, and her normal hearing husband, Robert Steinberg, as inspiration for the play, which premiered in its first workshop production at New Mexico State University on 25 Apr 1979.
According to production notes in AMPAS library files, Medoff intended to tailor the work specifically for Frelich, who had retired from the National Theatre for the Deaf. After Medoff became chairman of the drama department at New Mexico State University, he spent eighteen months writing the play.
       A 29 Mar 1987 LAT article stated that the film’s journey to the screen involved seven years of persistence. Paramount Pictures Corp. Motion Picture Group president Ned Tanen guided the project through a dozen writers, several directors including the approximately twenty-five prospects that passed on the property, and navigating shifting executive rosters at various movie studios. Tanen first tried to buy film rights, but when bidding reached $1.3 million, he reluctantly walked away. However, he remained in touch with producer Burt Sugarman, who purchased the rights. A 30 Aug 1982 DV news item reported that Sugarman originally intended actor John Rubinstein, the play’s star, to reprise his role on screen.
       In a 20 Apr 1981 DV news item, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. announced that Alan Pakula would direct the picture. According to the 3 Oct 1986 LAHExam article and a 30 Aug 1982 DV news item, when Robert Redford expressed interest in the lead role and collaborated with playwright Mark Medoff on a screenplay, ... More Less

       As reported in a 3 Oct 1986 LAHExam article, playwright-screenwriter Mark Medoff used the marriage between his friends, actress and deaf woman, Phyllis Frelich, and her normal hearing husband, Robert Steinberg, as inspiration for the play, which premiered in its first workshop production at New Mexico State University on 25 Apr 1979.
According to production notes in AMPAS library files, Medoff intended to tailor the work specifically for Frelich, who had retired from the National Theatre for the Deaf. After Medoff became chairman of the drama department at New Mexico State University, he spent eighteen months writing the play.
       A 29 Mar 1987 LAT article stated that the film’s journey to the screen involved seven years of persistence. Paramount Pictures Corp. Motion Picture Group president Ned Tanen guided the project through a dozen writers, several directors including the approximately twenty-five prospects that passed on the property, and navigating shifting executive rosters at various movie studios. Tanen first tried to buy film rights, but when bidding reached $1.3 million, he reluctantly walked away. However, he remained in touch with producer Burt Sugarman, who purchased the rights. A 30 Aug 1982 DV news item reported that Sugarman originally intended actor John Rubinstein, the play’s star, to reprise his role on screen.
       In a 20 Apr 1981 DV news item, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. announced that Alan Pakula would direct the picture. According to the 3 Oct 1986 LAHExam article and a 30 Aug 1982 DV news item, when Robert Redford expressed interest in the lead role and collaborated with playwright Mark Medoff on a screenplay, Sugarman hired director Mark Rydell to replace Pakula, who was still at work on Sophie’s Choice (1982, see entry).
       The 3 Oct 1986 LAHExam and a 25 Sep 1986 LAHExam article stated that actor Al Pacino wanted to star in the film but he became unavailable and Mark Taper Forum artistic director Gordon Davidson, who directed the Mark Medoff play at the Los Angeles venue, expressed a desire to direct the film adaptation. Meanwhile, Rydell left the project, which stalled in 1984 until a director was found.
       A 26 Sep 1986 NYT article reported that director Randa Haines used a combination of techniques known as “total communication in the deaf community” to converse with her hearing-impaired actors. She learned sign language and supplemented with body language, gestures, lip reading, and help from full-time interpreters. Actor William Hurt and co-screenwriter Hesper Anderson also learned to sign. According to a 25 Feb 1987 Var article, it was decided that the use of subtitles would distract from actor Marlee Maitlin’s performance. Instead, Hurt “would speak both parts” on screen in addition to using sign language. Production notes state that among the “sixteen top-billed actors” directed by Haines, ten were either “severely hearing impaired” or profoundly deaf.” In addition, “120 students from the Atlantic Provinces Resource Center For The Hearing Handicapped in Amherst, Nova Scotia” were hired as background actors. Filmmakers claimed the picture was “the first major movie to employ only hearing-impaired artists to play deaf characters.”
       A 23 Aug 1985 DV brief announced that principal photography would begin 26 Aug 1985 in Saint John, New Brunswick, in Canada. The 29 Mar 1987 LAT stated that the film’s budget was $10.5 million. Production notes state the film’s primary location was near Saint John at the Rothesay Collegiate School, and the adjoining Netherwood School for Girls, with its distinct Victorian-era architecture.
       A 13 Aug 1986 Var news item reported that the film would be screened at the conclusion of the Toronto Festival of Festivals, scheduled to run from 4 to 13 Sep 1986.
According to an invitation in AMPAS library files, Paramount Pictures held a special screening at 6:30 p.m. on 24 Sep 1986 at the Paramount Studio Theater.
       The 25 Sep 1986 LAHExam stated that various representatives from the deaf community criticized Paramount’s decision not to schedule a fund-raising premiere for the deaf despite several hundred requests for such an event. A high-ranking Paramount official, speaking off the record, claimed that executives were afraid that the emphasis on the deaf would discourage hearing audiences from discovering the movie. Although Sugarman was in favor of the event, Tanen opted instead to caption between twenty-five and thirty prints of the picture and distribute them throughout the country for the convenience of the country’s estimated population of 2 million deaf.
       According to a 26 Dec 1986 Reader calendar item, Samuel Goldwyn Pavilion Cinemas showed a captioned print of the film at three of its Westside Los Angeles locations from noon to 9:40 p.m. on Mondays.
       The film received an Academy Award in the following category: Best Actress (Marlee Maitlin). It was also nominated for four Academy Awards in the categories of: Best Actor, Supporting Actress, Best Picture, and Screenplay based on material from another medium. The film received a Golden Globe in the following category: Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama (Marlee Maitlin). It was also nominated for two Golden Globes in the categories of: Best Motion Picture – Drama, and Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama.
       The picture marked Marlee Maitlin’s theatrical feature film debut, according to the 23 Aug 1985 DV.

      The following acknowledgments appear in end credits: “The Producers wish to thank: The National Theatre Of The Deaf, The Canadian Hearing Society, Saint John Transit, The R. C. S. Netherwood School, The Ontario Ministry of Government Services, Atlantic Provinces Research Center For The Hearing Handicapped, Model Secondary School For The Deaf – Gallaudet College, California School For The Deaf – Riverside Campus, Belton Electronic Corporation, Madsen Electronics,” and “With very special thanks to: Justis Greene, Dr. Peter J. Owsley, Tim McCarthy, Peggy Purcell, Todd Rutherford, Ian and Pam Rowe, Jeff Daniels, Barbara Dreyfus, Michael Ochs, and the People Of Saint John and Beaver Harbor, New Brunswick.”
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GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
20 Apr 1981.
---
Daily Variety
30 Aug 1982.
---
Daily Variety
23 Aug 1985.
---
Hollywood Reporter
16 Sep 1986
p. 3, 58.
LAHExam
25 Sep 1986
Section B, p. 1, 6.
LAHExam
3 Oct 1986
p. 6.
Los Angeles Times
3 Oct 1986
p. 1, 20.
Los Angeles Times
29 Mar 1987
p. 2-3.
New York Times
26 Sep 1986.
---
New York Times
3 Oct 1986
p. 5.
Reader
26 Dec 1986.
---
Variety
13 Aug 1986.
---
Variety
24 Sep 1986
p. 13.
Variety
25 Feb 1987
p. 136.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
Paramount Pictures Presents
A Burt Sugarman Production
A Randa Haines Film
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
2d unit dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
WRITERS
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
1st asst photog
2d asst photog
2d unit dir of photog
2d unit 1st asst photog
Steadicam services
Still photog
Head elec
Asst head elec
Key grip
Dolly grip
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Art dir
1st asst art dir
Art dept trainee
FILM EDITORS
Assoc ed
1st asst ed, Canada
Apprentice ed
Negative cutting
SET DECORATORS
Const des coord
Asst set dec
Set dresser
Set dresser
Prop master
Asst prop master
Head scenic artist
Standby painter
Const supv
COSTUMES
Cost des
Costumer
Costumer
Asst costumer
MUSIC
Supv mus ed
Mus scoring mixer
Mus cond by
Addl orch
Addl orch
SOUND
Prod sd mixer
Supv sd ed
Sd ed
A. D. R. ed
Asst sd ed
Asst sd ed
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Sd consultant
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff coord
Spec eff asst
Titles & opticals by
Title des by
DANCE
Choreog
Assoc choreog
MAKEUP
Makeup des
Hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod assoc
Spec actor's consultant
Tech adv
Loc mgr
Scr supv
Prod coord
Asst prod coord
Prod secy
Loc asst to Ms. Haines
Prod accountant
Asst prod accountant
Accounting clerk
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod's coord
Prod's coord
Sign language interpreter for Ms. Maitlin
Sign language interpreter for Ms. Maitlin
Sign language interpreter
Sign language instructor for Mr. Hurt
Sign language instructor for Mr. Hurt
Casting asst
Transportation coord
Driver capt
Driver capt
Caterer
Craft service
First aid
STAND INS
William Hurt's stand-in
Marlee Maitlin's stand-in
COLOR PERSONNEL
Col timer
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the play Children of a Lesser God by Mark Medoff (New York, 30 Mar 1980). Originally produced on Broadway by Emanuel Azenberg, The Schubert Organization, Dasha Epstein, Ron Dante and the Mark Taper Forum.
AUTHOR
SONGS
“Jump (For My Love),” by Marti Sharron, Stephen Mitchell, & Gary Skardina, performed by The Pointer Sisters, courtesy of RCA Records
“I’ll Take You There,” by Alvertis Isbell, performed by The Staple Singers, courtesy of Stax Records by arrangement with Fantasy, Inc.
“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” by Otis Redding & Jerry Butler, performed by Otis Redding, courtesy of Atlantic Recording Corporation by arrangement with Warner Special Products
+
SONGS
“Jump (For My Love),” by Marti Sharron, Stephen Mitchell, & Gary Skardina, performed by The Pointer Sisters, courtesy of RCA Records
“I’ll Take You There,” by Alvertis Isbell, performed by The Staple Singers, courtesy of Stax Records by arrangement with Fantasy, Inc.
“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” by Otis Redding & Jerry Butler, performed by Otis Redding, courtesy of Atlantic Recording Corporation by arrangement with Warner Special Products
“Boomerang,” by Michael Convertino
“Godfather Mazurka,” by Carmine Coppola
“Isn’t It Romantic,” by Lorenz Hart & Richard Rodgers
“La Cumparsita,” by Matos Rodriguez
“You Brought A New Kind Of Love To Me,” by Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal & Pierre Norman
“I’ve Found Him,” by Laurence Rosenthal
“Bach’s Double Concerto In D Minor For Violins Second Movement – “Largo Ma Non Tanto.”
+
DETAILS
Release Date:
3 October 1986
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles and New York openings: 3 October 1986
Production Date:
began 26 August 1985
Copyright Claimant:
Paramount Pictures Corporation
Copyright Date:
11 September 1986
Copyright Number:
PA306668
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Lenses
Lenses and Panaflex® camera by Panavision®
Prints
Prints by Metrocolor®
Duration(in mins):
119
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
28179
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

At the Governor Kittridge School, headmaster Dr. Curtis Franklin greets James Leeds on his first day as a teacher of the deaf. After admiring James’s eclectic resume, Franklin remarks that the job does not entail changing the world, just helping children get along better. In James’s classroom, he asks students why they should learn to speak. One boy says it will help him meet girls. James sets up a role-playing exercise in which two male students practice their pick-up lines on female students. James does a handstand to demonstrate that you cannot hold a conversation if your hands are in use, further showing the importance of speaking and lip reading. Another teacher registers a quizzical expression when he looks into the classroom and notices James’s legs in the air. In the cafeteria, Franklin introduces James to superintendent Mary Lee Ochs. James asks about a kitchen worker, who just threw pots and pans at a fellow worker and stormed off. Franklin describes Sarah Norman as a pain-in-the-ass employee, who was one of the brightest students in the school, and quickly changes the subject. Later, James moves in to his cottage, and listens to classical music by Johann Sebastian Bach. Back at school, he spells out the nonsense words to the chorus of a rock and roll song for a student named Lydia. She repeats the words. He places her hand on a speaker and plays the record. Lydia feels the rhythm and sings the words along with James. As they dance to the song, Franklin appears and turns off the music. As he leaves, he gives James an angry look. At night, James sees Sarah Norman mopping the hallway. ... +


At the Governor Kittridge School, headmaster Dr. Curtis Franklin greets James Leeds on his first day as a teacher of the deaf. After admiring James’s eclectic resume, Franklin remarks that the job does not entail changing the world, just helping children get along better. In James’s classroom, he asks students why they should learn to speak. One boy says it will help him meet girls. James sets up a role-playing exercise in which two male students practice their pick-up lines on female students. James does a handstand to demonstrate that you cannot hold a conversation if your hands are in use, further showing the importance of speaking and lip reading. Another teacher registers a quizzical expression when he looks into the classroom and notices James’s legs in the air. In the cafeteria, Franklin introduces James to superintendent Mary Lee Ochs. James asks about a kitchen worker, who just threw pots and pans at a fellow worker and stormed off. Franklin describes Sarah Norman as a pain-in-the-ass employee, who was one of the brightest students in the school, and quickly changes the subject. Later, James moves in to his cottage, and listens to classical music by Johann Sebastian Bach. Back at school, he spells out the nonsense words to the chorus of a rock and roll song for a student named Lydia. She repeats the words. He places her hand on a speaker and plays the record. Lydia feels the rhythm and sings the words along with James. As they dance to the song, Franklin appears and turns off the music. As he leaves, he gives James an angry look. At night, James sees Sarah Norman mopping the hallway. After a few minutes of awkward conversation, he realizes that she does not read lips. When he offers to teach her to speak, she says she is not interested and goes back to work. The next day, James tells Franklin that he thinks Sarah has potential to do more than work in a kitchen. Although the head master believes that Sarah is content with her circumstances, he reluctantly agrees to see if she is interested in James’s instruction. Franklin gets Sarah to agree to spend one hour with James. However, she complains that his signing is too slow, and when he grabs a mirror to use as a teaching tool, she leaves the classroom. Later, James runs by the shore and sees Sarah seated on the rocks. Soon, she walks by but shows little interest in conversation until he invites her to dinner. At an Italian restaurant, James offers to help as Sarah studies the menu. As she asks what veal is, a waiter asks them for their drink order. When Sarah hesitates, the waiter suggests wine. James orders a carafe, and Sarah signs that the waiter thinks she is stupid. James responds that the waiter thinks she is deaf not stupid and only stupid hearing people think deaf people are stupid. James discovers she likes being a cleaning woman because she can work alone in silence. Sarah senses music playing and suggests they dance. On the dance floor, James watches as Sarah sways to the music. Soon, they slow dance to another song, but Sarah wants to dance and talk. James says it is difficult to sign and dance, and he would rather dance but wants to know why she will not let him teach her to talk and lip read. She says she refuses to do anything she cannot do well. Later, James makes a surprise visit to Sarah’s mother, Mrs. Norman. She is not happy to see him or discuss her daughter, but grants him five minutes of her time. James learns that Sarah’s attempts at speech looked and sounded awkward so she stopped trying. Also, some of her sister Ruth’s boyfriends took her out on dates, which she liked. Back at school, James wants to know why Sarah stopped going home. She confesses that she was popular because she could make love as well or better than hearing girls, but things got out of hand. Boys wanted to have sex with her but did not even offer to buy her a Coca Cola. Sarah runs off. Later, James finds her swimming nude in the school’s indoor pool. He apologizes for visiting her mother. He tells her that she is the most beautiful, mysterious, angry person he knows and he is in love with her. He falls into the pool with his clothes and swims toward her. They kiss and she undresses him under water. Later, Franklin invites James to dinner at his home and returns James’s still-moist shoe. He warns James to be careful. James and Sarah go on a series of movie dates. In bed, Sarah says James is the nicest person that she has ever met. When he claims that he had his heart broken before, Sarah says she does not let anyone hurt her. As they cuddle, she says that if she ever admitted that she hurt, she would shrivel up and die. On Parents’ Day, James’s students sing and dance to a rock and roll song on stage. Sarah watches jealously as the parents in the audience give them a standing ovation. She runs away, and injures herself when she throws a scrub brush at a mirror, and the splinters impale her. Later, Franklin insists that James end the relationship. When James says that he is in love, Franklin responds that relationships between speaking and deaf people are complicated and do not work. Later, James reassures Sarah that he does not hate her because she cannot speak. He loves her, and she moves in with him. They attend Franklin’s poker night. When Sarah wins several hands, Franklin and the other card players are impressed. Later, James demands that Sarah speak his name during lovemaking. She is upset that he forgot his promise to never force her to speak, and he apologizes. One evening, James relaxes by listening to Bach but decides he cannot enjoy the music because Sarah cannot. Later, he uses gestures to describe the music to her. At a party for Mary Lee Ochs, Sarah has a chance to sign with many of the guests, and James is in the minority. Back at the cottage, Sarah has remorse that she is not trained to succeed in the world. James says that she has him, but his answer does not satisfy her. When he asks her who she is, she says she wants to make love, and they grope each other roughly. Afterward, James grabs a drink and lies down on the sofa. Sarah accuses him of treating her like a puppet. He controls what she says and what she does. It will not be a true relationship until he gives her the space to be a separate person. He tells her that she cannot take her place out in the world until she learns to read lips and speak but she is too afraid to try. He demands she speak, and she utters a series of guttural wails, then cries and leaves the cottage. Later, Sarah hitchhikes to her mother’s apartment as James searches for her in his truck. Sarah says she wants to find a job, and her mother offers to help. However, Sarah is skeptical because she never helped in the past. Mrs. Norman admits that she sent Sarah away to school because she did not know how to take care of her. Her husband thought he was a failure for having a deaf child. Her mother admits that she hated Sarah for driving her husband away. Mrs. Norman asks for forgiveness. When the telephone rings, Mrs. Norman assumes it is James calling and asks Sarah what to say. Mrs. Norman tells him that Sarah has not come home. James walks by the shore and stares at the ocean. Everything reminds him of Sarah. Later, he visits Mrs. Norman and says he must see Sarah. She says Sarah has a job and is saving money to go to college. She finally relents, and James watches Sarah through the window at a nail salon. She seems happy and he leaves. Later, Sarah tells her mother that she is lonely. Mrs. Norman tells her daughter that James was looking for her, but Sarah does not know what to do, and they hug. Mrs. Norman responds that maybe Sarah does know. Back at school, students enjoy a last dance before they go on vacation. James sees Sarah across the dance floor but turns and walks out of the building. She follows him, and he tells her she looks beautiful in a summery white dress and makeup. He tells Sarah that he did not know what to do when she appeared. She apologizes for using her anger to push him away. He, in turn, apologizes for hurting her. She thinks he has learned things from her, and she discovered that she can get hurt without shriveling up and blowing away. At the dock, he asks if there is a place they can exist that is not in silence and not in sound. She signs that she wants to be connected to him. He takes her hands and embraces her. They kiss and hold each other tightly. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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