Marlon Brando is a man not without his misgivings, that’s clear for anybody to see and in the 21st century, it hits you square between the eyes to boot. He has certainly lived a storied life and has upset more than a few apple carts along the way. One particular moment we can get on board with, however, a moment of anti-establishment behaviour, came when he refused his Oscar for Best Actor in 1973 following his eponymous role in The Godfather.
In 1973, the actor was coming out of a very difficult decade both professionally and personally. The sixties were not kind to Brando or his career, his previous two movies had bombed and his off-screen antics on Mutiny had caught up with him—Brando had become an industry black sheep, not a big enough name to draw in crowds and now, notoriously difficult to work with. Rumours that Brando may never work in Hollywood again began to swirl. The opportunity to work on The Godfather, therefore, likely looked like the last throw of the dice for the iconic yet ageing actor.
What a throw it turned out to be. The wonderful portrayal of a 1940s mafia family based out of New York would cement so many careers into the annals of Hollywood history, but it was Marlon Brando’s performance as The Don which would stand out among the rest. It would be recognised by his peers and his critics alike, garnering a reputation that had seemed irretrievable.
His portrayal of the paradoxical patriarch, a ruthless and violent criminal desperate to love and protect his family, will forever go down in history and rightly earned him the Best Actor nomination in 1973. He faced tough competition from Peter O’Toole, Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier (those were the days), yet Brando was still the favourite to win after The Don had won America’s hearts and minds.
Yet Brando, ever the anarchist at heart, decided he would not attend. In fact, on the eve of the awards he announced that he would boycott the 45th annual Academy Awards and instead would send a representative to take his place should he win. He would send a little-known actress and the President of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, Sacheen Littlefeather. It was a bold move intended to make a statement.
When Roger Moore and Liv Ullman announced Brando’s name as the winner of the Best Actor award, Littlefeather arose from her seat in full Apache dress and solemnly made her way to the stage with intent. As Moore began to put the award under her nose, Littlefeather motioned it away with an open palm; she stood behind the podium, looked at the crowd, set down a 15-page letter Brando had passed along beside her and begun.
She said, “I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening, and he has asked me to tell you that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.” At this point, the crowd began to boo and were clearly enraged both by the refusal and the gall to accuse the industry at their own celebration.
An unimaginable idea today, the crowd were dead set against this flagrant disruption of showbiz in the name of racial equality — it was unsightly. She continued, “and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.” It may seem impossible to imagine now, but the stars in attendance were figuratively frothing at the mouth with anger at this show of, what they determined as, disrespect.
The happenings at Wounded Knee saw the federal government partaking in armed conflict against Native American activists in the South Dakota town. It was not a pretty sight but it wasn’t as ugly as the plethora of Hollywood actors determined to drag down this moment of free speech. Clint Eastwood debated whether he should present the Best Picture award “on behalf of all the cowboys shot in John Ford westerns”.
It didn’t end there either. While patrons of the event were booing in the crowd, iconic actor, John Wayne was standing at the side of the stage visibly upset. “[Brando] should have appeared that night and stated his views instead of taking some little unknown girl and dressing her up in an Indian outfit,” he later told New York Post. This plus many other high profile celebs wrongly saying that Littlefeather wasn’t an Apache by blood likely proved Brando’s point and confirmed his reasoning for making it.
The very next day The New York Post printed the entirety of Brando’s 15-page speech where he spoke about why he chose this moment to take a stand. Brando wrote: “The motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing him as savage, hostile and evil. It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children… see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.”
Watch below as Sacheen Littlefeather rejects Marlon Brando’s 1973 Oscar for Best Actor for The Godfather.