CAN SOMEBODY HEAR ME? I’M HERE. ON THE MGM TELEVISION FILM BRIDGE TO SILENCE (1989)

FROM THE MGM STABLE

CAST: MARLEE MATLIN, LEE REMICK, JOSEF SOMMER, MICHAEL O’ KEEFE, ALLISON SILVA, PHYLLIS FRELICH, CANDACE BRECKER etc.

DIRECTION : KAREN ARTHUR.

*****

A network of connections has always been responsible for opening my mind to others’ creative high points . I feel on that front alone, the medium doesn’t matter and in my malleable headspace, any pivotal work that has something constructive, meaningful and life affirming to contribute to an existing discourse and espouses realism is to be paid heed to. Be it television, cinema, books or any other literary form. To say something is to not let a pall of silence settle on fundamentals of life itself, no matter how contentious and complex the issue. This is the complex plane that BRIDGE TO SILENCE, an MGM television film released in 1989, lands on. However, sensitivity and the idea of brokering a conversation about difficult times and bonds tested by them is initiated beautifully by director Karen Arthur and writers Louisa Burns and Tom Bisogno. A good twenty nine years have elapsed since it released yet the kind of simplicity and eye for compassion it retains is something to be proud of as it tackles certain grey areas of personalities, especially regarding parentage, and is food for thought for anyone struggling with the odds of survival in a world of stilted communication. An immediate sense of belongingness and identification was so easy to come back then. May be it’s just nostalgia but you know it was something about the era; it seems that humanity had a field day then in the manner of portrayals. There was optimism always waiting around the corner. It’s like a personal pulse is touched when I say that.

Now I have to talk about the matrix of connections that led me to BRIDGE TO SILENCE. The first connection being, I saw the trailer/ advertisement on the MGM channel around 2014 as it ran on the itinerary and the plot revolving around the friction between mother and child was novel as here the adult child was hearing impaired. It has been a long journey to the point of finally watching it few weeks back. Which is to say that if we keep our eyes and ears open then I believe we are led to the axis of understanding and grasping the forgotten and sometimes unattainable. I had to eventually bring myself to watch BRIDGE TO SILENCE and I did. Incidentally, this axis of understanding is what this film aims for, with a clear message for discerning audiences. So the wait was worth it as after watching it, I was enlightened and humbled. I realized that my openness to new creative outpourings found an outlet in the measured touch of the creators of this film.

Coming back to the present, a prominent talk show brought me to it actually apart from that first exposure through the advertisement of the film on the channel. Priyanka Chopra was on Jimmy Fallon to promote her betokened show Quantico’s third and final season. She slipped in the news that Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin was a series regular and there, I knew I was familiar with this individual. Yes, I was right. Of course. I have known her since I read NIKHAT KAZMI’s HOLLYWOOD MOVIE GUIDE, the text that has been a mental launchpad for me in culling out cinema in my current capacity. I have gone back to the book on numerous occasions. It’s a joyful little gift for me personally and its concise contents are tailor made for a cinephile as it is. Short and sweet, as we say. In a list of dramatic films, she had written a pithy snippet of CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD (1986).

There you had it! I remembered her name from the cast, after all she had played the lead role. Again the mosaic of interconnectedness didn’t end there. I read a lot about her and there I discovered the title. BRIDGE TO SILENCE. Memories came flooding. To my surprise, it was available on YouTube in a clean print and while it sat in my video library further , I finally watched it one fine day . It’s such a blessing in these accessible times.

CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD was the film version of the celebrated play by Mark Medoff that has been acclaimed for its meditations on the existential dilemmas of the specially abled- precisely those who can’t hear. Marlee Matlin was very young and giving her debut performance when she won the Oscar. But what makes her stand out is that she channels her own life script here as in BRIDGE TO SILENCE. She actually lost her hearing ability a short while after being born and while it was a challenge unto itself she carved out her own path as an actor within the thriving theatre community. So both these films are at the pivot of who she is and the community she represents, in the process underlining the talents of individuals who are not prisoners of their realities but rather rise above them to confront their own worldviews within the larger world ready to accord them a special status. They accept themselves with their abilities and Matlin’s example essentially furnishes the sheer expressive quality of her own and of the larger performative field. The hard earned honorific of an actor who speaks through the eyes seems like a mythic construct and distant exception but Matlin has done that time and again; in the absence of a voice, employing sign language, the world of gestures and the lucidity of her facial frontiers to give her acting abilities the power of the said and unsaid. This, in turn, ties in to the beginnings of cinema itself. Her class act is a direct distillation of the silent film in which the face spoke a thousand words while eyes did the bidding. Real life, thus, has ways to be exhibited without vocalizations which is not only a novel art but a rather difficult one. In succeeding to do so, we only honour the expressive felicity of the felt experience, the one that is seen to be believed and communicated in a straight look, a stare, wink or a nod. Matlin has a sure footed expertise in bringing that to the world’s notice and how! No wonder, she was the first actor of her esteemed ilk to collect the golden statuette, upholding her freedom of expression and the dignity of her communicative cadences.

BRIDGE TO SILENCE is ultimately about negotiating the sharp twists and turns of life in which Matlin, playing a young widow, mother of a hearing four year old and specially abled woman rolled into one , brings her inner voice to the fore after losing her husband in an accident. Here she essays the role of a lifetime as to heal, she goes back to her first love – acting on the stage and in a rendition of THE GLASS MENAGERIE, a classic play by Tennessee Williams, is able to parse her world of silences and rhythms just like the play’s primary characters did, even though none of them suffered from a debility of the senses. Living life is a matter of being attuned to our sixth sense and her original theatre antecedents find a facsimile here coupled with all the passion and love for articulation.

Phyllis Frelich, a veteran who appears as Amanda Wingfield in the play within the narrative , mother of Laura, the part essayed by Marlee, herself cobbled together her spirits decades ago in marshaling a robust stage presence for those who had lost their hearing but not their zeal for acting and interpreting life. It’s such a full circle scenario since her legendary halo guides some of the most crucial passages of self respect for Matlin’s Peggy.

Both actors have known each other for years and this chance encounter is such a gift. Her friend Mary is played by Candace Brecker who is another leading light of the community.

Phyllis is a common link further as she originated the role on stage of CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD. So it’s a meeting of like minded individuals who know the subtleties of their intricate lives.

*****

CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD, Marlee’s prized role and breakthrough, had many autobiographical strains pervading it, like when Marlee tries to make the man who loves her ( William Hurt) reconcile with her silence and signs even though he wants her to make an attempt at lip reading and speak in her natural voice. Marlee was trained on both these counts in real life and here the complex layers of one half of a bond with full hearing abilities intertwines with the other who doesn’t have them. The mother ( Piper Laurie) too comes into the picture to attest to the same just as Matlin’s memory of physical abuse in real life finds echoes in the film directed by Randa Haines.

These struggles have been recounted with depth and coherence by her in her officially published autobiography I’LL SCREAM LATER. The title itself plays with the repressed order that leads one to scream in the first place as articulating an experience in words becomes painful beyond measure.

In BRIDGE TO SILENCE, this issue of frustration pushing one to reach one’s ends is compounded by her grieving and the patience of the father ( Josef Sommer) and the restless tempers of the mother( Lee Remick) on the other hand invites a realistic dual interplay within the familial fold.

So this matrix of connections starting with a random interview led me all the way to the many milestones of Marlee Matlin and the people who have played a part in her life. They all went from one seamless point to another, knitting a veritable life script of the human spirit. The film is also a showcase for distributing more compassion in society and among guardians of the specially abled.

*** hence, this post is dedicated to the many finer connections that led me to watching it and discovering more facets. Details of the plot and technical achievements of BRIDGE TO SILENCE will be written about in the next post tomorrow.

*****

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