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How Marlon Brando and Sacheen Littlefeather Changed Oscar Night

Entertainment | February 24, 2019

Marlon Brando in 'The Godfather;' presenters Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann on stage with Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Academy Awards. Credits: IMDB.com; Bettmann/Getty

And the Oscar For Best Actor In A Leading Role went to... Marlon Brando. But it was Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American actress and activist, who took to the stage with a 15-page speech in her hand. It was the most bizarre Oscar-night turn of events we'd ever seen, a political protest in place of a celebration of Brando's performance as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather, that left presenters Roger Moore holding the statuette and Liv Ullmann looking on in shock. Sacheen Littlefeather and Marlon Brando's stunt at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony was the ultimate outrageous Oscar moment, and her brief speech elicited both boos and applause from the audience.

"Hello, My name is Sacheen Littlefeather," she began. "I am Apache, and I am president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. I'm representing Marlon Brando this evening, and he has asked me to tell you, in a very long speech which I cannot share with you presently, because of time, but I will be glad to share with the press afterwards 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. Excuse me. And on television, in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at wounded knee. I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening, and that we will, in the furute, our hearts and our understandings, will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando."

At the 2019 Academy Awards presentations, there will undoubtedly be some surprise winners and losers, but there is one thing we call all expect: politically-charged acceptance speeches. It is a trend these days for actors and actresses to use the Oscars’ stage as a platform for sharing their views on political, social, and industry causes. It is quite possible that we can thank Marlon Brando for starting the trend in 1973. But Brando did it with a twist, actually declining the award but using the event as a platform. Let’s look at the before, during, and after of Marlon Brando’s 1973 Oscar speech. 

Marlon Brando Was One Of Hollywood's Most Respected Actors

Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire." Source; (newrepublic.com)

Marlon Brando shot to stardom with his role in the 1947 film, A Streetcar Named Desire. After that, he was a bona fide Hollywood superstar for the next couple of decades, with roles in The Wild Ones, Julius Caesar, On the Waterfront, and Mutiny on the Bounty to his credit. His work garnered much praise and honors. He was nominated for several Awards and Golden Globes in the Best Actor category, and had even won a Best Actor Oscar in 1954 for On the Waterfront. When Brando was cast in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, many considered the role to be Brando’s comeback after a bit of a slump. 

Brando Had Witnessed Poor Treatment Of American Indians In His Industry

Brando in "One-Eyed Jacks." Source: (austin.com)

Marlon Brando had always had a desire to help the underdog and the oppressed. Working in Hollywood, however, opened Brando’s eyes to a whole different type of racism that was not being discussed in the Civil Rights Movement…the treatment of Native Americans. Native Americans were being portrayed on film as ignorant, savage barbarians. They were cast in the role of the enemy or bad guy, to the white cowboy heroes. Native American actors were relegated to bit roles or extras, while white actors were given leading Native American roles. Brando felt that Hollywood was white-washing stories of the American west and attempting to erase the proud and long heritage of the Native Americans. 

The Standoff At Wounded Knee

Wounded Knee - Source: (pinterst.com)

A few months before the Academy Awards presentation, the Wounded Knee incident began. The event started when the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization attempted to oust tribal president, Richard Wilson, on corruption accusations. The coup failed and more than 200 Native American followers of the American Indian Movement took over the town of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, to protest the U.S. government’s handling of the incident…and demanding that the United States honor the treaties it has established with the Native American people. The occupation lasted more than 70 days and only ended after U.S. Marshals and FBI agents seized control. The Wounded Knee event served to draw attention to the plight of Native Americans and the deceptive treaties fulfillment on the part of the U.S. government. The standoff at Wounded Knee was still fresh in the minds of all Americans when the Academy Awards were handed out on March 5, 1973. 

Brando Was A Shoo-in For The Best Actor Oscar

Source: (eddieselover.com)

Going into the 45th Academy Awards ceremony, Marlon Brando was the heavy favorite to win the Best Actor Award for his role in The Godfather. Although Brando announced that he planned to boycott the ceremony, he also decided to use the opportunity to bring awareness to a cause that he felt passionate about: the unfair treatment of Native Americans in the film industry. Brando penned a speech -- a lengthy one, too -- and set a plan in motion to cause a stir at the ceremony, even though he would not be present. 

Sacheen Littlefeather Took Everyone By Surprise

Roger Moore, Liv Ullmann, and Sacheen Littlefeather on stage at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony. Credit: Bettmann/Gety

Although Marlon Brando boycotted the Academy Awards presentation, he sent a proxy. Sacheen Littlefeather was an unknown Native American actress. When Brando’s name was called, Littlefeather, dressed in buckskin, took the stage holding Brando’s 15-page acceptance speech. She waved off presenters Liv Ullmann and Roger Moore, who was attempting to hand her Brando’s Oscar statuette, and told the audience, “I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening and he has asked me to tell you that he regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.” 

Boos, Then Cheers As Littlefeather Speaks

Time did not allow Littlefeather to read Brando's speech in its entirety. Source: (latimes.com)

Sacheen Littlefeather held up Brando’s 15-page speech and noted that she could not read it in its entirety due to time restrictions, but explained that the press would be given copies of the whole speech. Her remarks were met first with booing, then some cheering. Some in the audience were stunned that Brando both boycotted the ceremony and refused his award. Some were supportive of the Brando’s cause. Most people agree that it was inappropriate for Brando to use the Oscar stage to advance his cause. Others were angered and appalled, not as much by the message that Littlefeather delivered, but by the fact that Brando had someone else deliver it for him. 

Backstage, John Wayne Had To Be Restrained

John Wayne was downright angry about Littlefeather's speech. Source: (theaceblackblog.com)

Sacheen Littlefeather was escorted off the stage to another round of boos and cheers. It was later reported that, once she got backstage, she encountered a very angry John Wayne who had to be restrained by security to keep him from going after the young actress. He later told reporters, “If Brando had something to say, he should have appeared that night and stated his views instead of taking some little unknown girl and dressing her up in an Indian outfit.” Michael Caine shared Wayne’s views, bashing Brando for “letting some poor little Indian girl take the boos” for him.

Others at the awards presentation poked fun at the incident. Raquel Welch, just before announcing the winner of Best Actress, quipped, “I hope the winner doesn’t have a cause.”  And while presenting the award for Best Picture, Clint Eastwood, added that he was presenting the award on “behalf of all the cowboys shot in John Ford westerns over the years.” 

Brando Tried To Explain, Afterward

Brando defends his actions on 'The Dick Cavett Show,' 1973. Source: IMDB

The incident left Marlon Brando in a position of having to defend his actions…or inactions. He explained that he was sending a message to Hollywood by boycotting the Academy Awards presentation, but he also wanted to use the platform to bring awareness to his cause. When it became clear that he would most likely win the Best Actor award, he wanted both his words and his absence to hammer home his message. He chose Littlefeather, a friend of his and a fledgling actress, to stand in his place. Brando spoke to reporters and was interviewed on the Dick Cavett Show and in the New York Times, where he stated, “The motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character.”

Sacheen Littlefeather Claims She Was Blacklisted

Source: (flavorwire.com)

Although Marlon Brando’s status as an actor and celebrity was strong enough to withstand much of the animosity heaped on him after his rejection of the Oscar award, Sacheen Littlefeather was not so lucky. The actress says that she was blacklisted in Hollywood, which essentially ended her acting career. In addition, she received hate mail and death threats aplenty. Her ethnicity was called into question, as well as her motivation for helping Brando. 

The Rest Of Sacheen Littlefeather's Story

Littlefeather as she appeared in the documentary "Reel Injun." Source: (reellifewithjane.com)

By standing in for Marlon Brando as he refused his Oscar award, Sacheen Littlefeather became the subject of much hate and controversy, but she bounced back and went on lead a fulfilling life as a social advocate and even re-entered the film industry, albeit not as an actress. She was a co-founder of the National American Indian Performing Arts Registry, an organization that works to place Native Americans in movie roles. In fact, it was this registry that was responsible for many Native Americans landing roles in the highly-acclaimed Dances With Wolves. Her work as an adviser on PBS’s Dance in America: Song for Dead Warriors earned Littlefeather an Emmy Award. She even appeared in the 2009 documentary Reel Injun, which chronicles the portrayal of Native Americans in film. With the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that has dogged the awards show since 2015, Littlefeather was again thrust into the spotlights as many entertainment reporters sought to connect her part in Brando’s 1973 Oscar controversy with the current belief that the Academy Awards favor white directors and performers. 

Tags: Academy Awards | American Indians | Marlon Brando | Native Americans | Protests | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Sacheen Littlefeather | The Godfather | Oscars

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.