How Marlon Brando Made Hollywood Face Its Racism—at the Oscars
In 1973, Marlon Brando asked Apache activist Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his Best Actor Oscar for ‘The Godfather.’ But Hollywood didn’t want to hear their message about racism.
In 1973, Marlon Brando turned down an Oscar, and the whole world turned on him, calling him an ingrate, a dilettante, a publicity hound, a traitor. But for Brando—as William J. Mann writes in his biography, The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando (HarperCollins)—the country under Richard Nixon was in a constitutional crisis, and systemic racism was undercutting the American dream.
Under these conditions, he believed, business as usual would be complicit with the problem. Forty-six years later, can we understand his reasons better?
March 27, 1973. The audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles braced themselves in their seats. Up on the stage, Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann were preparing to announce the winner of the Best Actor Award.
This was the moment many had been wondering about for weeks. If Marlon Brando won, for his career-comeback role in The Godfather, what was he going to do? He’d been giving hints that he might actually turn down the award.
Both Moore and Ullmann seemed unusually stiff and uncomfortable as they read from the teleprompter. Brando was not in the audience. But late word had come in that he’d sent someone in his place. Perhaps Brando had softened. Perhaps his admiration for The Godfather, for the script, his director and his costars, had persuaded him to accept the award if he won.
The names of the nominees were read: Brando, Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier, Peter O’Toole, Paul Winfield. “The winner is,” Ullmann said as Moore opened the envelope. Six long, anticipatory seconds passed as the card was handed over. “Marlon Brando in The Godfather,” Ullmann announced. The room burst into applause.
The camera swung to a young woman with long black hair and a traditional Indian buckskin dress making her way to the stage. “Accepting the award for Marlon Brando in The Godfather,” the announcer intoned, “is Miss Sacheen Littlefeather.” The camera caught the people in the audience following her with their eyes.
As Littlefeather approached the podium, Moore held out the gold statuette to her, but in a gesture that would become an iconic moment in American film history, the young woman held out her right hand, as if to say, “Halt.” Moore backed off, exchanging a look with Ullman. The applause sputtered.
Littlefeather took the microphone. “Hello,” she said, in a voice that was warm and surprisingly assured for someone so young and so unaccustomed to the spotlight. “My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I’m Apache, and I am president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening, and he asked me to tell you, in a very long speech—” (she held up several pages in her right hand) “—which I cannot share with you presently because of time, but [which] I will be glad to share with the press afterward, 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—”
Until this point the audience had been stunned into silence. But now some of those in attendance began to growl. The rising rumble clearly unnerved Littlefeather, who lost her way for a moment. “Excuse me,” she said, looking down. A burst of sympathetic applause attempted to drown out the chorus of boos, and Littlefeather found her voice. “—And on television,” she carried on, “and in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee [the occupation of a South Dakota town by two hundred American Indians in protest of government policies].
“I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening and that we will, in the future, our hearts and understandings, will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando.” With that, she walked off to renewed, if somewhat halfhearted, applause.
Backstage, Littlefeather spotted a furious John Wayne. For years to come, the diminutive young woman would remember how the big, strapping Wayne had to be physically “restrained by six security guards” from confronting her.
In 1973, Brando’s refusal of an Oscar was perceived as the ultimate insult to the movie-going public by an eccentric egotist. Yet, four decades later, during the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Jada Pinkett Smith found affirmation for her own decision to boycott the Oscars by watching a clip of Sacheen Littlefeather refusing Brando’s award.
Today, calling out Hollywood’s racism is no longer an extremist act. In the 1960s, Brando’s protests against racial segregation and discrimination—he marched for desegregation, stood with Martin Luther King at the 1963 March on Washington, and was arrested at least once—were criticized by some as needlessly provocative. Now, in the era of Black Lives Matter, they seem the very least someone in Brando’s position could have done during that period of widespread injustice.
There was precedent for Brando’s refusal. Two years earlier, George C. Scott, whose distaste for acting contests was well known in Hollywood, had refused the Best Actor prize for Patton. “The whole thing is a goddamn meat parade,” Scott said. “I don’t want any part of it.”
Brando shared that belief. The Academy Awards, he insisted, had been founded as a way “for the movie men to capitalize on their profits.” Honoring the best was a sham rationale, Brando argued, because it was impossible to do: how could his performance in The Godfather truly be compared against Paul Winfield’s in Sounder, for example, or Peter O’Toole’s in The Ruling Class?
Even more absurd, how could he possibly be in competition with Al Pacino, for the same film, for two performances that were so intrinsically tied together?
Yet Brando’s position on the awards went even further than Scott’s. It was less a critique of the Academy than a declaration on how citizens in the public eye ought to conduct themselves in a time of national crisis, which Brando genuinely felt the early 1970s to be.
While a cease-fire in Vietnam had been called, the war could reignite at any moment. Moreover, Nixon’s attacks on the press were escalating due to reports that his administration was involved in a cover-up of a burglary at the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex in Washington, DC.
According to several friends, Brando feared the president might actually start imprisoning journalists and possibly even declare martial law in order to save his own skin. Certainly he was not above claiming “executive privilege” to prevent the discovery of his misdeeds.
At what point in a national crisis does business as usual become complicit in the problem? For Brando, that time had already arrived. The idea of “business as usual” for public figures felt morally wrong.
To Brando, it was not acceptable for a president to attack his own citizens, to subvert the law, and to refuse to meet with aggrieved parties, as Nixon’s assistant secretary of the interior, Harrison Loesch, had done after a delegation of American Indians crossed the country, in a well-publicized demonstration, to present their grievances to him.
Nixon’s landslide re-election the previous November had left him feeling cocky: he believed he could contain the growing scandal. He denounced the Watergate investigations of the Washington Post, causing its publisher, Katharine Graham, to express anxiety over the president’s bullying.
Particularly troubling to Brando were Nixon's frequent hostile comments about a free press and his veiled threats to subvert First Amendment rights, especially during the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
It was in this context that Brando issued a statement in response to winning the Golden Globe (also for The Godfather) in January. (He didn't show up for that ceremony either.) “There is a singular lack of honor in this country today,” Brando said, “what with the government’s change of its citizens into objects of use, its imperialism and warlike intrusion into foreign countries and the killing not only of their inhabitants but also indirectly of our own people, its treatment of the Indians and the blacks, the assault on the press and the rape of the ideals which were the foundations of this country.”
Brando went on: “I respectfully ask you to understand that to accept an honor, however well-intended, is to subtract from the meager amount [of honor] left. Therefore, to simplify things, I hereby decline any nomination and deny anyone representing me.”
To have done what The Godfather publicists wanted him to—accept the award and say “thank you”—would make him “part of the problem,” he said. Brando could not pretend that such things as Best Actor awards mattered to him when, in his view, the Constitution was being undermined—and young men of color were being routinely singled out and murdered.
That wasn’t just rhetoric. Just days before Brando issued his statement, Wesley Bad Heart Bull, 20 years old, a resident of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, had been stabbed to death by a white man in what witnesses called a race-motivated attack.
The murder led to a riot at the Custer County Courthouse, ignited when police attempted to suppress a demonstration by two hundred Indians protesting crimes of hate and discrimination. The victim’s mother was arrested in the melee; she would serve five months in jail, while her son’s killer got no jail time at all. After this, business as usual was simply inconceivable to Brando.
Backstage after making her statement, Sacheen Littlefeather distributed copies of Brando’s statement to the press. If people wondered “what the hell has all this got to do with the Academy Awards,” Brando would say, he was ready with an answer: “The motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character.”
The Hollywood press, however, wasn’t content with just a printed statement. They wanted to hear from Littlefeather herself. The young woman was mobbed as she left the building, and momentarily prevented from getting into a car driven by Brando’s nephew Marty Asinof. Cameras flashed, and fists pounded on the car’s windows as Littlefeather managed to slip inside. Asinof maneuvered the car through the crowd and sped off for Mulholland Drive.
Back inside the auditorium, the producers of the Oscar show were seething. Howard Koch, producer of the ceremony, had told Littlefeather that if she tried to read that lengthy speech, he’d cut her off and move the camera away. The young woman’s arrival had taken everyone by surprise. Expecting Brando not to show, Paramount president Robert Evans had planned to pick up his award if he won. “I knew Brando was into this Indian thing,” Koch recalled years later, “but I didn’t know about the girl.”
“This Indian thing” rankled many in the auditorium that night. Immediately, the wagons began circling around the industry and its cherished traditions. When Clint Eastwood strode onstage with the Best Picture envelope, he looked directly into the camera and said: “I don’t know if I should present this award on behalf of all the cowboys shot in all the John Ford Westerns over the years.” The audience clapped enthusiastically. (The award went to The Godfather, and was collected by producer Al Ruddy, who made no comment about Brando or the Best Actor award.)
At the very end of the show, out sauntered John Wayne himself. The audience roared its welcome. Wayne’s appearance was the industry’s response to Brando’s charges; they would apologize for nothing. What mattered to the Hollywood establishment wasn’t “this Indian thing.”
What mattered was the integrity and the reputation of the motion picture industry, which was more important than anything else—and, as the show was about to make clear, was selfsame with America. Although Wayne made no direct response to Brando, his words carried pointed significance: “I know the show is just about over,” the cowboy star drawled, “but I wanted to come out here and be a part of this wonderful night, to be with so many talented people who make our industry a great industry.”
Though he hated to “break a precedent,” Wayne said, he thought “all the winners and presenters” should come back out onstage “to take a much-deserved bow.” Looking out into the audience, he asked, “Whad’ya say?” The auditorium cheered.
At that point, stars and directors began dutifully trotting out onto the stage, some clutching their awards, most looking bewildered and bemused. At that point, Wayne exhorted them all to sing, “You Oughta Be in Pictures,” and looking into the camera, he ordered the television audience—“you people on TV all over the world, you the movie audience that make us possible”—to do so as well. He was “watchin’,” Wayne warned, “so you better sing, or pow!” He slammed his right fist into his left hand. Falling into line was a global command.
The orchestra began, and the stars obediently began to sing. Clint Eastwood, Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, Eileen Heckart, Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Julie Andrews, Sonny and Cher, Cloris Leachman, Katharine Ross, Billy Dee Williams, John Gavin, Greer Garson, George Cukor, Eddie Albert, an actor dressed as Mickey Mouse—all were made to appear complicit in their industry’s defense of the status quo, and all of them white except for Williams.
The figures on that Oscar stage were turned into Hollywood’s front line of defense, and the message they conveyed was clear: Unlike that traitor who refused to join us, we’re proud to be in pictures. Because pictures were America—and if anyone doubted that, ads for the sponsors of the show were superimposed over the smiling stars.
“The forty-fifth annual Academy Awards Show,” the announcer said, “has been brought to you by”—and he named StoveTop Stuffing from General Foods, Shell gasoline, Arrow shirts, and Chevrolet, “building a better way to see the U.S.A.”
Watching at home, Brando wouldn’t have missed the irony. When Littlefeather arrived at Mulholland Drive, Brando embraced her and told her she had spoken “eloquently.”
Every television set in the house was on, tuned to different channels, Littlefeather recalled. Both local and national coverage of the awards led off with her statement. On the floor, their chins in their hands, Brando's sons Christian and Miko watched the furor being raised over their father’s refusal of “Hollywood’s greatest honor,” as the announcers were calling it. Jack Nicholson called to cheer Brando on. But he was among the few industry figures to offer their support.
In the days and weeks that followed, the attacks against Brando mounted. “Marlon Brando should never appear in public,” one television viewer wrote into a syndicated question-and-answer column. “He’s rude, unkempt, and above all, a colossal bore.”
One columnist reported that the letters coming in were “unanimous” against the star. Rona Barrett, reigning queen of the Hollywood tattlers, implied that Brando had been a coward for not showing up at the Oscar show himself: if he’d wanted “to tell the world how he felt about the Black Panthers, or the Indians, or whatever,” she said on her TV gossip show, why had he sent the message via “an alleged Indian princess?”
If Barrett had bothered to read Brando’s statement, she would have seen his reason for his absence. Part of the problem was the lack of Indian visibility: why speak for them when they could speak for themselves? “I thought it would be an opportunity for an American Indian to speak to sixty million people for the first time in history,” Brando said.
Of course, Littlefeather had never claimed to be a princess, merely an Apache, but that was the way white America thought. When the National Enquirer learned that Littlefeather’s original surname was “Cruz,” the tabloid pronounced her a fraud, as if Native Americans couldn’t have Hispanic last names.
If John Wayne’s rousing finish to the Academy Awards wasn’t obvious enough, a week later the industry made its rejection of Brando’s charges utterly plain.
On March 31, the American Film Institute paid tribute to, of all people, John Ford, whose classic Westerns epitomized for many the racist treatment of American Indians in Hollywood films. The event had been planned for a while, but the timing proved perfect: they could honor a man whose films they believed had been unfairly maligned by Brando’s gambit.
Moreover, Ford was being honored at the ceremony by none other than President Nixon himself. “This marks a historical first,” columnist Joyce Haber wrote reverentially, “the first time a U.S. President has so honored the art of the film.”
The wagons were still circling, and now they’d brought in the high sheriff himself. This was personal for Nixon: his private tapes would reveal that he was still smarting over the fact that Time magazine had put Brando on its cover (for Last Tango in Paris) instead of him during the week of his second inauguration.
John Wayne hosted a personal reception for the president at the Beverly Hilton, with Hollywood’s elite lining up to shake his hand. At the exact same moment, Nixon’s former aide, convicted Watergate burglar James McCord, was revealing to U.S. District Court judge John Sirica the president’s deep personal involvement in the Watergate conspiracy.
But at the AFI ceremony, Nixon was a hero, introduced by Charlton Heston. “Mr. Ford is a great man,” Nixon told the audience. “But I think Mr. Ford would want me to say, we also honor a great profession.” No matter that he was, also at that very same period of time, calling for the censorship of motion pictures, Nixon insisted he was “an unabashed fan.” The best movies, in his view, entertained while offering “the good picture of America.”
He presented Ford with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for all those good pictures and dead Indians he’d given the country over the years.
Ford, of course, was one of the great American filmmakers: The Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach, How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man, and so many others attest to the truth of his artistry. But Brando’s discomfort while watching Ford’s depiction of American Indians, almost always cast as villains or savages or as dependent upon the white man, arose from an equally valid truth.
In 1973, Hollywood saw no contradiction, no moral conflict, in honoring John Ford just a week after Brando had made plain the United States’ history of injustice against the American Indian—all while a couple hundred Indians were barricaded at Wounded Knee, their power and water cut off by the government, trying desperately to make their voices heard while fearing for their lives.
Indeed, barely two weeks after the John Ford testimonial, the first Indian casualty was reported at Wounded Knee, shot by U.S. Marshals; another man was killed on April 26.
Voices supporting Brando’s action were few. But the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, offered a full-throated endorsement: “He has served as a gadfly stinging America’s conscience,” the paper editorialized, “reminding the country of its evil past and urging it to face up to the responsibility to redeem itself. Americans don’t like to be criticized for their racial misdeeds. They falsify their history to bolster their sense of Nordic superiority.
“The Indians have been deprived of land and culture. Their rates of unemployment, suicide and alcoholism are above the national averages. The family incomes on the reservations are below the accepted poverty levels by nearly half. They need all the publicity they can get. Brando used the right forum, the right audience, the right moment to draw attention to a cause that has been too long neglected.”
At Wounded Knee, there was stunned disbelief that evolved into deep appreciation when word of Brando’s action reached them. Many years later, at Brando’s funeral, the Indian activist Russell Means, who was serving as spokesman at Wounded Knee, stood up to offer a eulogy. “It’s not possible for you to understand how inferior we felt, how we were made to feel," an emotional Means told the room. “We were the enemies of the American government. We were drunks. We were ne’er-do-wells. We were nothing.”
Then Marlon Brando spoke out, Means said, and for the first time, those beleaguered men and women at Wounded Knee thought that maybe, finally, some white man got it, some white man was willing to say that this was his issue, too, that it was an American issue. The Indians who watched the Oscar telecast, Means said, felt unexpected joy. “We never dreamt that he would turn [the moment] over to us,” Means said. “We started to scream and cry. But in Hollywood, well, they were disgusted.”
Looking back on this moment, Brando said, the boos at the Academy Awards ceremony weren’t meant for Littlefeather. They were meant for him. “They were booing because they thought, ‘This moment is sacrosanct, and you’re ruining our fantasy with intrusion of a little reality.’ I suppose it was unkind of me to do that, but there’s a larger issue, an issue that no one in the motion picture industry had ever addressed themselves to, and this forced them to do so.”
This is an edited extract from The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando by William J. Mann (HarperCollins)