Godfather Wins Oscar as Best Film
Godfather Wins Oscar as Best Film
By: Steven V. Roberts
Date: March 28, 1973
Source: Roberts, Steven V. "Godfather Wins Oscar As Best Film." The New York Times (March 28, 1973).
About the Author: American writer, journalist, and commentator Steven V. Roberts (1943–) writes for several publications such as the New York Times and the U.S. News & World Report. Roberts also appears regularly as a guest on such radio and television stations as ABC Radio, CNN, and PBS, and on such programs as "Washington Week in Review" and "Hardball with Chris Matthews." In addition, he and his wife, Cokie Roberts, write a nationally syndicated newspaper column and are contributing writers for the magazine USA Weekend.
Oscar-winning American actor Marlon Brando (1924–2004) is widely considered one of the greatest film actors in modern times. Brando is probably best remembered for his portrayals of Stanley Kowalski in the movie "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951), a rebellious motorcyclist named Johnny in The Wild One (1953), Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954), Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972), and Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979).
In the gangster movie The Godfather, Brando was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1972 (his second and last Oscar) for his captivating portrayal of the head of a Mafia crime family. Brando, however, refused to attend the Academy Award ceremony. Instead, he boycotted it on March 27, 1973, by sending Sacheen Littlefeather, who wore a traditional Apache deerskin dress and turquoise jewelry to decline the award on Brando's behalf.
Littlefeather was about to deliver a political speech written by Brando about the plight of Native Americans when a high-ranking representative for the Academy told her that she would be forcibly removed from the stage if she talked for more than forty-five seconds. Thus, the woman was forced to paraphrase the content of Brando's intended speech. The abbreviated speech and the original speech, which Littlefeather gave to the media afterwards, involved a blistering criticism about how poorly the Native Americans have been treated and depicted within the film industry and by government policy. Littlefeather also stated that Brando was angry with the U.S. government concerning its history of crimes against Native Americans, particularly the 1890 massacre by U.S. troops of Native Americans at Wounded Knee in South Dakota.
Upon finishing the speech, Littlefeather was applauded by some people but was also booed by others in the audience who did not appreciate her criticizing how Hollywood portrayed Native Americans. It was later publicized that Littlefeather was born Maria Cruz (1947–) and was not a Native American but a minor actress and activist of Mexican descent. It was still later learned that Littlefeather was indeed part Native American with bloodlines of Apache, Yaqui, Pueblo, and Caucasian. At this time, she primarily worked as a public service director for a San Francisco Bay-area radio station and participated in the American Indian Movement (AIM), which included the November 1969–June 1971 occupation by Native Americans at Alcatraz Island, the site of the former prison in San Francisco Bay. The protest was intended to popularize poor conditions under which many Native Americans lived while on reservations throughout the United States.
Hollywood, Calif, March 27—the Oscar awards were a cabaret—and sometimes a political platform.
"The Godfather," the legend of an aging Mafia chieftain, won the award as best picture of the year, but it won only two others out of a total of 10 nominations.
Marlon Brando received the Oscar for his portrayal of the title role in "The Godfather," but he refused to accept it as a protest against the movie industry's treatment of the American Indian.
In place of Mr. Brando, a young Apache named Shasheen Little Feather surprised the star-laden audience by taking the sage and delivering an emotional diatribe against the film community.
That community, she told the press conference later, has "been responsible for making a mockery of Indians" and "injuring the minds of Indian children."
Mr. Brando, she said, thought he could be "of more use" by journeying to Wounded Knee, S D., where a group of militant Indians have been protesting for the last month.
Afterwards, Clint Eastwood, one of tonight's masters of ceremonies, came on and asked whether someone would say a word on behalf of all the cowboys killed in those Western films.
It was the second time in two years that an Oscar for best actor had been turned down. In 1971 George C. Scott announced that he did not want to be considered for an Oscar for his performance in "Patton," but the Academy gave it to him anyway. His Oscar remains unclaimed.
Beginning in the early 1960s, Marlon Brando was actively involved with the rights of the Native Americans. In fact, he was arrested on March 2, 1964 in Washington State while supporting the fishing rights of Native Americans on the Puyallup River after the state government attempted to regulate their fishing on the river.
During the mid–1970s, Brando was concerned about the future of Native Americans. During the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony, he indicated through Littlefeather that he would not attend the festivities so that he could help at the incident occurring at Wounded Knee. At the time, AIM members were occupying the town of Wounded Knee, which is located on the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. During the 71-day standoff at Wounded Knee in 1973, two Native Americans were killed and a U.S. marshal was paralyzed in the fighting that occurred between members of AIM and local supporters and members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. marshals, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Although a committee was later appointed to investigate the grievances levied by AIM leaders, no official response was ever given. Brando never made it inside Wounded Knee, stating in his autobiography that he arrived too late to gain entrance. Brando also contributed to many Native American organizations and fund-raisers in support for the rights of Native Americans.
By turning down the Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony, Brando caused a large controversy in the Hollywood actor's community. At the time, the Brando/Littlefeather incident was considered an offensive and embarrassing event for the film industry. Brando considered the award ceremony trivial when compared to the discrimination, poverty, and misrepresentations that were being forced upon the Native Americans. The incident was talked about across the United States for quite a while. Today, the incident is considered another of a long list of bizarre incidents that happen in Hollywood. After the incident, Brando told reporters that his act of refusing the Oscar was not meant to show disrespect for the award.
Brando was well known as an activist for Native American rights. He adopted and identified with many of their religious and spiritual traditions. In his autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me, Brando discusses in two chapters his thoughts about Native Americans and relates some of his experiences with them. The incident at the Academy Awards ceremony helped to create additional motivation for Native Americans and positive public relations for their movement. Primarily, Brando lent his celebrity status and provided monetary funds to help promote the rights of Native Americans.
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Brando, Marlon, with Robert Lindsey. Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me. New York: Random House, 1994.
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Grobel, Lawrence. Conversations with Brando. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1999.
Manso, Peter. Brando: The Biography. New York: Hyperion, 1994.
Thomson, David. Marlon Brando. New York: DK, 2003.
American Movie Classics (AMC). "Marlon Brando." <http:// www.amctv.com/person/detail?CID=1642-1-EST> (accessed May 27, 2006).
New York Times. "That Unfinished Oscar Speech." <http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/movies/bestpictures/godfather-ar3.html> (accessed June 3, 2006).