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Joe Morgan looks back at one of the most controversial moments in Oscar history, when Marlon Brando declined his trophy for The Godfather and instead sent Sacheen Littlefeather to make a stand for better representation of Native Americans on film.

The Academy Awards are a career highlight for many Hollywood A-listers, particularly if they win one of the twenty four awards up for grabs. These days the annual ceremony, apart from the occasional overlong acceptance speech or particularly obvious award snub, generates very little in the way of controversy, with most winners seemingly happy to graciously accept their award and lap up the career enhancing limelight that comes with it. This was not so during the ceremony of 1973, when one of the most bizarre incidents in Oscar history occurred thanks to one of Hollywood’s most talented but temperamental stars.

oscarMarlon Brando was scheduled to collect his second Academy Award for Best Actor, having won his first in 1954 thanks to his superlative performance as boxer Terry Malloy in Eli Kazan’s On the Waterfront. His role as Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) had been a similarly career-defining performance that had succeeded in reviving Brando’s career, flagging significantly after he starred in a series of big-budget flops during the 1960s. It was for his role in The Godfather that Brando was due to receive his second academy award, securing his return to critical and commercial success after nearly a decade in the Hollywood doldrums.

But Brando ensured the 1973 ceremony would be remembered for something altogether more infamous. The actor chose to decline his award and refused to appear at the ceremony in person, instead sending Native American civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather to read a statement criticizing the historical mistreatment of Native Americans by the white establishment throughout history, along with their frequently negative portrayals in television and Hollywood films.

Brando, known for his liberal political leanings, was a vocal supporter of civil rights group AIM (American Indian Movement) and had prepared a fifteen page statement for Littefeather to read out. She was forced to replace this with a two minute improvised speech once anxious producers became aware of Brando’s plan and threatened to have the twenty six year old protestor arrested if she spoke for too long. 

Brando_oscar-win-for-godfat_1

The bizarre segment lead to a mixed chorus of applause and boos from the bemused audience, and Brando was later faced with a significant amount of ridicule and criticism for the stunt. The actor was attacked not so much for the message he wanted Littlefeather to depart on his behalf but for the fact that he chose not to be there to do it himself.

Accusations were later made regarding Littlefeather’s status as a Native American when it transpired her mother was white and the Indian costume she wore on stage was hired at the last minute from a fancy dress shop. Brando himself later expressed regret for the incident, stating that he felt responsible for the jeers and boos that met Littefeather’s address and the subsequent ridicule she suffered as a result.

But the incident would go down in history as arguably one of the most memorable and controversial moments ever to have taken place at an award ceremony, let alone at the Oscars. Academy Awards had been declined by previous winners in the past for various reasons, but no actor until this moment had the audacity to make such a bold and daring statement that was sure to provoke such a negative reaction at a time when Brando should have been doing everything possible to stay on the good side of the Hollywood establishment to prevent the career revival instigated by his role in The Godfather being put at risk.

SACHEEN-LITTLEFEATHER_510x510Hollywood post-McCarthyism has never been afraid to wear its liberal credentials on its sleeve, particularly in the modern era where the dominance of figures like Sean Penn, Matt Damon and Michael Moore make it more unusual for actors not to publicly declare support for an oppressed minority or fashionable political cause.

But despite their social activism, modern film stars seem too concerned with public image to disrupt the revered award ceremony’s status quo, highlighting what an often tepid and unremarkable affair the Oscars has now become, especially when comparing Brando’s stunt to what passes for “controversy” at today’s ceremonies.

Brando’s snub was a daring move that, for all its pomposity and theatricalism, did much to enliven the event itself and cement the actor’s reputation as the ultimate Hollywood rebel both on and off screen, even if it contributed little to furthering the Native American cause.

By guest writer Joe Morgan

The Spread

The Spread is the official magazine of London-based film community Cinema Jam. We cover everything film, from movie and product reviews, features, editorials, news updates, interviews, and more. Follow @CinemaJam on Twitter for more updates!

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Posted on Feb 2, 2015

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