The man who made offers others couldn’t refuse once refused the movie industry’s heftiest honour.
On March 5, 1973, Marlon Brando declined the best actor Academy Award for his gut-wrenching performance as Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.” He did so for a very unexpected reason.
In the 1960s, Brando’s career had slid into decline. His previous two movies — the famously over-budget “One-Eyed Jacks” and “Mutiny on the Bounty” — tanked at the box office. Some critics said “Mutiny” marked the end of Hollywood’s golden age, and worse still, rumours of Brando’s unruly behaviour on set turned him into one of the least desirable actors to work with in some ways.
Brando’s career needed saving. “The Godfather” was his defibrillator.
In the epic portrayal of a 1940s New York Mafia family directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Brando plays the patriarch, the original Don. Though the film follows his son Michael (played by Al Pacino), Vito Corleone is its spine. A ruthless, violent criminal, he loves and protects the family by any means necessary. It’s the warmth of his humanity that makes him indestructible — a paradox shaped by Brando’s remarkable performance.
“The Godfather” grossed nearly $US135 million nationwide, and is heralded as one of the greatest films of all time. Pinned against pinnacles of the silver screen — Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier, and Peter O’Toole — Brando was favoured to win Best Actor.
On the eve of the 45th Academy Awards, Brando announced that he would boycott the ceremony and send little-known actress Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. She was president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee.
On the evening of March 5, when Liv Ullman and Roger Moore read out the name of the best actor award recipient, neither presenter parted their lips in a smile. Their gaze fell on a woman in Apache dress, whose long, dark hair bobbed against her shoulders as she climbed the stairs.
Moore extended the award to Littlefeather, who waved it away with an open palm. She set a letter down on the podium, introduced herself, and 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 — ”
The crowd booed. Littlefeather looked down and said “excuse me.” Others in the audience began to clap, cheering her on. She continued only briefly, to “beg” that her appearance was not an intrusion and that they will “meet with love and generosity” in the future.
Watch the scene unfold:
Why he did it
In 1973, Native Americans had “virtually no representation in the film industry and were primarily used as extras,” Native American studies scholar Dina Gilio-Whitaker wrote in a blog post on About.com. “Leading roles depicting Indians in several generations of Westerns were almost always given to white actors.”
But they weren’t just neglected or replaced in film; they were disrespected — a realisation that hurt Brando’s perception of the film industry.
The following day, The New York Times printed the entirety of his statement — which Littlefeather was unable to read in full because of “time restraints.” Brando expressed support for the American Indian Movement and referenced the ongoing situation at Wounded Knee, where a team of 200 Oglala Lakota activists had occupied a tiny South Dakota town the previous month and was currently under siege by US military forces. He 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.”
Still, Brando lent the Native American community a rare opportunity to raise awareness of their fight in front of 85 million viewers, leveraging an entertainment platform for political justice in unprecedented fashion. Hi
s controversial rejection of the award (which no winner has repeated since) remains one of the most powerful moments in Oscar history.
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