Over the last several decades, the entertainment industry has produced numerous films and television shows that focus on characters who have some degree of hearing loss. One of the most memorable examples is The Miracle Worker (1962), the true story of Annie Sullivan teaching Helen Keller to understand words through signs and motions made with her fingers in Keller’s hands. It’s a powerful, well-written film that’s elevated by strong, Oscar-winning performances from Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke.
Another well-known example is It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). George Bailey, the main character portrayed by legendary actor James Stewart, struggles with single-sided hearing loss. His backstory is that he suffered an infection in his left ear after saving his brother from drowning in frozen water. As a result, he loses hearing in that ear, which ends up preventing him from being deployed in World War II. Throughout the film, his “bad ear” is frequently referenced, most famously when Mary intentionally whispers “I’ll love you till the day I die” into it.
If you’ve seen Jerry Maguire (1996), you might remember a scene where Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger find themselves in an elevator with a deaf man and woman. The man signs to the woman, “You complete me.” Later on, Cruise famously uses the phrase to profess his love for Zellweger, and it is perhaps the film’s most quoted moment next to “Show me the Money!”
Recent Growth of Deaf Representation in Film
How about some more recent films? Wonderstruck (2017) is about a deaf girl named Rose who leaves home to search for her famous actress mother. Nearly 50 years later, Ben, a partially deaf boy, also leaves home to locate his father. The storyline weaves back and forth until it intertwines together to form the film’s inspirational conclusion.
Tinnitus has also been a prominent theme in recent films. In the 2017 hit Baby Driver, Baby, the lead character portrayed by Ansel Elgort, suffers from intense ringing in his ears due to a car accident he was in as a child. When he isn’t outrunning the police as a getaway driver, he also cares for his deaf foster father. Additionally, in the 2018 remake of A Star Is Born, Jack Maine (played by Bradley Cooper) battles with numerous issues, including alcohol, drug abuse, and progressively worsening tinnitus.
Critically acclaimed as one of 2018’s best horror films, A Quiet Place earned praise for casting deaf actress Millicent Simmonds as the unhearing, eldest daughter of the family being terrorized by creatures who hunt their prey by sound. The plot of the film pivots on the fact that everyone in the family communicates using American Sign Language (ASL) to avoid making noise. Before shooting started, Simmonds taught ASL to everyone in the cast.
On the other hand, a film that was criticized by the deaf community in late 2018 was The Silence, which featured a hearing actor portraying a deaf character. A Twitter storm of protest led by deaf actress Marlee Matlin and deaf model Nyle DiMarco objected to director John Leonetti’s neglect to cast a deaf actor in the role. The year before, Academy Award Best Picture winner The Shape of Water was lambasted for the same reason.
Other recent movies that have featured deaf or hearing-impaired characters include The Old Man & The Gun (2018), Creed (2015), Creed II (2018), The Hammer (2010), and Hush (2016). Fun fact: Our team at Midlantic assisted in the making of Creed II. They were initially brought on to consult on a scene where main character Adonis Johnson’s child is receiving an ABR test. As luck would have it, our Clinical Sales Associate, Janelle Burdette, was asked to go beyond her consultation duties and act in the scene. If you’re planning on watching it soon, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her! Also featured is the state-of-the-art newborn screener, the GSI Novus
Hearing Loss in Television
Television series Switched at Birth, featured on the Freeform Network (2011-2017), was a drama centered on two teenage girls struggling with the trials and tribulations of family life, searching for their self-identities, and dealing with hearing loss. One of the leading characters and a featured supporting character are both played by deaf actors who are fluent in ASL.
Legendary series The West Wing, which aired from 1999 to 2006, gave its many viewers an inside look at the inner workings of The White House. One prominent member of the fictional Bartlet administration was the aforementioned Oscar-winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin, who portrayed a headstrong, no-nonsense political expert who didn’t mind stepping on toes and tearing down walls of secrecy.
A more eccentric example can be found in David Lynch’s cult classic, Twin Peaks. In the series, Lynch plays Gordon Cole, the Regional Bureau Chief that acts as Agent Cooper’s immediate supervisor. His most distinguishable feature? The large and outdated hearing aids he wears due to severe hearing loss. When asked how he lost his hearing, he just leaves it at “long story.”
As you can see, deafness and hearing impairment are being represented in cinema now more than ever. In fact, most of the movies and shows referenced in this article are from this decade. We’re starting to see more characters that struggle with hearing issues and, as a result, more deaf actors and actresses being cast into these roles. It’s encouraging to see that becoming a movie or T.V. star is starting to become a realistic aspiration for members of the deaf community. Let’s just hope this trend continues.