The groundbreaking honor makes the 53-year-old “CODA” star the first deaf man to receive the prestigious award — and the second deaf actor to win the accolade — marking a huge moment not only in Hollywood history but in disability representation.
The moment wasn’t lost on Sunday’s audience members, many of whom applauded the actor in American Sign Language as he walked to the Oscars stage to receive his historic award.
In a touching speech, Kotsur gave a nod to “the wonderful deaf theater stages where I was allowed and given an opportunity to develop my craft as an actor,” and he seemed well-aware of the larger impact of his Best Supporting Actor award.
“I just wanted to say that this is dedicated to the deaf community, the CODA community and the disabled community,” Kotsur continued. “This is our moment.”
The Arizona-raised actor also thanked one of his biggest inspirations.
“My dad, he was the best signer in our family. But he was in a car accident, and he was paralyzed from the neck down and he was no longer able to sign,” Kotsur said. “Dad, I learned so much from you. I’ll always love you. You are my hero.”
But much like Frank Rossi, the character Kotsur plays in “CODA,” his powerful speech was also peppered with levity. At one point, the actor made a joke about the film’s cast being invited to the White House.
“We met our president, Joe, and Dr. Jill, and I was planning on teaching them some dirty sign language, but [my “CODA” co-star] Marlee Matlin told me to behave myself,” he quipped. “So don’t worry, Marlee. I won’t drop any f-bombs in my speech today.”
In the acclaimed family drama from Apple, written and directed by Sian Heder, Kotsur plays Frank Rossi, a deaf father and fisherman. Frank, along with his wife Jackie (played by deaf actor Marlee Matlin) and son Leo (played by deaf actor Daniel Durant), relies on his non-disabled daughter Ruby (Emilia Jones) as his link to the hearing world. (“CODA” stands for “child of deaf adults.”) Ruby is a talented singer, which poses a conflict among the rest of her non-hearing family.
The Arizona-born actor’s win is especially meaningful due to the Academy’s affinity for movies about disability that lack any actual disability representation — which has led to some truly horrid and harmful depictions of disability in film.
Kotsur’s win is also significant due to the Academy’s history of rewarding non-disabled actors for playing disabled characters. These include several Best Actor winners — including, but by no means limited to, Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking in 2014’s “The Theory of Everything”; Jamie Foxx’s depiction of Ray Charles in 2004’s “Ray”; and Daniel Day-Lewis’ take on the Irish writer and painter Christy Brown in 1989’s “My Left Foot.”
Kotsur is now the second deaf actor to win at the Academy Awards, joining Matlin, his “CODA” co-star, who became the first deaf person to be nominated for, and then win, an Oscar. Matlin was named Best Actress for her role in 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God.”
Hopefully Kotsur’s win will help Hollywood realize that he — and other disabled people in the entertainment industry, from actors and directors to writers, cinematographers, editors, crew members and everyone else — are talented and deserving of jobs in films about their lives. Let’s not wait another 36 years for a third disabled person to be recognized by the Academy.