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This story first appeared in the March 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
One could argue that Marlee Matlin made history three times the night she won an Academy Award for her stirring performance in 1986's Children of a Lesser God, Randa Haines' adaptation of Mark Medoff's play. In 1987, at age 21, she was the youngest woman ever to win a lead actress trophy and the first deaf actor to grace the Oscar podium -- and for her film debut, to boot.
But on this sunny morning inside The Living Room at The Peninsula Beverly Hills, the 47-year-old actress encounters a pint-size admirer who's excited to see her for a completely different reason. "I loved you on Blue's Clues!" exclaims current nominee Quvenzhane Wallis, 9, of Matlin's appearance in the erstwhile Nickelodeon program about an adventurous animated puppy.
Their meeting is equal parts heart-tugging -- Matlin greets Wallis with, "You're so pretty!" while Wallis shows off a bit of sign language -- and perhaps history-making: If Wallis takes home the statuette for her breakout role as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild (a role she nabbed at the mind-boggling age of 5), she will assume Matlin's throne as Oscar's youngest leading lady.
"It's like she's been making movies her whole short life," marvels Matlin of Wallis' performance. "I was mesmerized -- it was so raw and natural." For Wallis' part, her meteoric ascent into history is "something I never expected," and if she finds herself at the microphone Oscar Night, "I will thank God and everyone who gave me this chance," she says.
Matlin, who says she will never forget the "surreal moment" when co-star William Hurt signed her name onstage 26 years ago ("I thought he was playing a joke on me!"), offers Wallis just one piece of advice: "Don't forget to thank the Academy. And your mom and dad," says Matlin, smiling. Wallis, carrying one of her now-ubiquitous puppy purses out into the winter sun, assures her with conviction. "I won't forget, I promise!"