Struggling To Hear Each Other
A Deaf Child's Parents Face a Difficult Choice

By Kathy Blumenstock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008

Jeff Daniels spent a month learning American Sign Language for his role in CBS's "Sweet Nothing in My Ear." But Daniels, who plays the hearing spouse of a deaf woman, is quick to emphasize that the film isn't a movie about deaf people. "It's about people having to make a difficult decision involving their child," he said.

Daniels portrays Dan Miller, and Marlee Matlin plays his wife, Laura, in this Hallmark Hall of Fame production that follows the couple as they cope with their son's hearing loss.

A cochlear implant could restore the boy's hearing, but Laura, who has been deaf her entire life, is against it. Dan wants his son, Adam, to have what he considers a more normal life. Their clash over what's best threatens to dissolve the marriage.

"They were so in love with each other, but it's the love for their child that becomes the wedge between them," Daniels said.

Daniels called his most intense scene, a meeting between the couple and their son's doctor, "my Mount Everest."

"There was so much medical terminology," he said. "I was acting my own lines, signing what [the doctor] was saying to Marlee, then watching her sign to tell the doctor what she said. I was acting for three people."

Matlin, who has been deaf since she was 18 months old, said in an e-mail that she was drawn to performing a role in American Sign Language. She had not performed a part entirely in ASL since her Oscar-winning role in 1986's "Children of a Lesser God."

For "Sweet Nothing in My Ear," Matlin said, she "had to have a dialogue coach who made sure I performed the ASL correctly."

ASL has its own specific grammar and syntax, but Matlin normally signs in a looser fashion that more closely mirrors spoken English.

"The best comparison I could use is a person who speaks American English, playing the part of someone who speaks English as spoken in England," Matlin said.

Director Joseph Sargent said his biggest challenge in working with Matlin was having to "remind her to keep her mouth shut," he said. "Because she is able to speak a little, she is able to form words and has gotten into a habit of mouthing words even while she is signing."

He said he and his team edited scenes around Matlin's tendency to speak by "cutting to Jeff a little ahead of where we'd planned."

The movie includes key characters who are deaf and are played by deaf actors -- including Noah Valencia as Adam and Phyllis Frelich and Ed Waterstreet as Laura's parents. The producers debated whether to use speaking voices with the signing.

"At first we absolutely, adamantly said there would be subtitles, not voice actors," Sargent said. But test audiences who viewed the film said the subtitles were a distraction from the unfolding story.

"In a foreign film, you hear the actor's voice and it connects emotionally," Sargent said. With viewers reading subtitles, trying to match words to the actions on screen, "we had the silence that robbed us of that emotional link."

Besides using the voice actors, Sargent made other adjustments, including a scene that shows Laura and her mother returning from shopping.

"I wanted them loaded with bags, giving a sense of reality to where they've been," he said. "They both looked at me and said, 'You've got to be kidding; how do we communicate with bags in both hands?' For the deaf, the force of their voice is in those two hands. So 'one hand free' was suddenly our golden rule."



9 p.m., CBS

'Love Is Never Silent'

The actors who portray Marlee Matlin's parents in "Sweet Nothing" -- Phyllis Frelich and Ed Waterstreet -- also worked with director Joseph Sargent in "Love Is Never Silent," a 1985 Hallmark Hall of Fame film. The DVD is slated to be available in Hallmark Gold Crown stores starting in June.

Set in the 1930s and '40s, it centers on a hearing girl (Mare Winningham, right) whose deaf parents have relied on her since her childhood, and she simultaneously protects and resents them.

"As the voice of her parents, she knew she could not leave them," Sargent said. "At the time that story took place, it was unthinkable for deaf people to show their signing in public, to call attention to themselves."

Sargent said "Sweet Nothing" shows "how far we've come in recognizing a separate culture with a viable language. The two films together, in effect, give us a complete portrait. " --- Kathy Blumenstock

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