At this year’s Academy Awards, the dreamy film The Shape of Water with its 13 nominations has the highest number of nominations that any film with sign language has had in the history of the Academy! There have been winners and nominations with deaf characters and sign language since the Academy was established in 1928, only two films came close to thirteen nominations like The Shape of Water. Let’s take a look back at the Academy’s history with sign language, beginning with the 1948 blockbuster Johnny Belinda.
A story about a deaf woman who lives in a small town and is pulled unwillingly into a scandal, Johnny Belinda was a strong contender at the Oscars in 1948 with six nominations: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adaptation, and Best Director.
WON: Best Actress, Jane Wyman
In this documentary that Helen Keller herself was involved in the making of about her life and education, Helen Keller In Her Story took the win for Best Feature Documentary.
WON: Best Documentary Feature Film
Nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject, Beyond Silence celebrates Gallaudet University’s 100th year and explores the school environment and education setting.
This famous film about Anne Sullivan’s experience with young Helen Keller is still a modern classic with powerful performances from Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. It has three nominations and two wins: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adaptation.
WON: Best Actress, Anne Bancroft
Best Supporting Actress, Patty Duke
The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter focuses on a deaf man’s return to his hometown to be with his childhood friend who was in the insane asylum; he meets a young woman and falls in love. The film earned two nominations: Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress.
This short subject documentary shows interviews with deaf and hard of hearing women in their homes; there were no men and the lighting was unusually dark in the film. It was nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject.
Language Says It All was nominated for the Documentary Short Subject category. It shows four families coming to understand their deaf children’s communication needs.
A film about a young deaf woman who works as a janitor at the deaf institute falling in love with the new teacher. It was also the year that marked the first time in history that a deaf actor/actress won an Oscar. This film was nominated for five awards and won one: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adaptation, and Best Picture.
WON: Best Actress, Marlee Matlin
This German film about a woman who has to choose between her music career and deaf parents was up for Best Foreign Film.
This feature documentary shows a deaf and hearing family at odds with each other over whether to give their deaf child a cochlear implant or not. It was nominated for Best Documentary Feature.
A film about the intertwined fates of four families across the world bound by a singular event in Africa, Babel includes a central character who is a deaf high schooler in Japan. She is seen using JSL (Japanese Sign Language) throughout the film along with the other main characters. The film was nominated for Best Director and Best Music.
This year, a documentary about a young deaf girl discovering BSL (British Sign Language) for the first time is up for Best Short Live Action.
WON: Best Live Action Short, Rachel Shenton and Chris Overton
After a heist doomed to go wrong from the beginning, a young driver cannot escape the aftermath. In this film, the driver Baby has a foster father who is deaf (played by deaf actor CJ Jones.) Nominated for Best Sound Editing, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Mixing.
A mute woman who uses sign language in 1939 falls in love with a sea creature that the government caught. She teaches him sign language and attempts to rescue him from the facility. This romantic film is currently up for thirteen nominations:
Best Achievement in Directing
Best Supporting Actress
Best Supporting Actor
Best Music (Original Score)
Best Costume Design
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Film Editing
Best Production Design
WON: Best Production Design
Best Original Score
Best Director, Guillermo Del Toro
The Academy Awards airs on Sunday, March 4th at 5pm PST.