Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann with Sacheen Littlefeather as she declines the Best Actor Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando
Photo: Ts/Keystone USA/Shutterstock
In 1973, Marlon Brando made Sacheen Littlefeather an offer she couldn’t refuse.
The Godfather had been released in February 1972, instantly venerated as a movie masterpiece. The following year, Brando was a shoe-in to take home an Oscar. No Hollywood exec horse decapitation required.
Famously, Brando snubbed his inevitable award, sending a young Native American woman on stage in his place. The intention, however, was lost. Instead of a political statement, the incident was seen as a stunt, a prank, an example of Brando being bonkers. But in fact, besides The Godfather inspiring every film and wannabe gangster that followed, this moment created a more unexpected – and perhaps a more important – legacy.
Littlefeather was born Marie Cruz in California in 1946. Her mother was white, her father from the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui tribes of Arizona. At the time, mixed-race couples were illegal in that state, hence the move out west before their daughter was born.
After high school, Marie changed her name to reflect her heritage and became politicised. She joined the Indians of All Tribes organisation and occupied Alcatraz while studying acting in San Francisco in the early Seventies. A neighbour happened to be Francis Ford Coppola, who put her in touch with his leading man Brando, a long-time supporter of the American Indian Movement.
March 27, 1973 was the biggest night in Hollywood. But Brando decided to boycott the ceremony and called upon Littlefeather to do a service for him. He wanted to protest against the treatment of native Americans on film and draw attention to the siege at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where hundreds of Oglala Lakota were in a stand-off with authorities over the government’s treatment of their people.
Half an hour before the Best Actor award was to be revealed, Littlefeather was at Brando’s house, where he was finishing an eight-page speech for her to read on stage. Rushing to the theatre, Littlefeather arrived minutes before newly anointed Bond, Roger Moore, and Liv Ullmann opened the envelope. Despite being up against Laurence Olivier, Peter O’Toole and others, the winner was never in doubt. The person who approached the stage was a surprise though.
Even the oh-oh-so smooth Moore was momentarily flummoxed as Littlefeather, dressed in buckskin, held up her hand to refuse the statuette and began to speak. Told she’d only have one minute, she had to ditch Brando’s ramblings and improvise.
“Hello. 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 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 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 future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity.”
There was a mix of cheers and jeers from the crowd. John Wayne, standing in the wings allegedly had to be restrained by six security men to prevent him dragging her off stage. Ahead of presenting Best Picture (to The Godfather), Clint Eastwood quipped that he was presenting “on behalf of all the cowboys shot in John Wayne westerns over the years”.
Littlefeather was smeared as a “Mexican actress” and “stripper” because she posed for Playboy. She was blacklisted or, Littlefeather says, “redlisted” by the industry. That minute on stage influenced the rest of her life.
In later years, she became a health worker helping indigenous communities. She worked with Mother Theresa caring for Aids patients. Last summer, aged 74, she gave what she said might be her final interview to The Guardian, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. She came across as reflective, positive, still sparky despite her hardships: “I’m very tired all the time because cancer is a full-time job: the CT scans, MRIs, laboratory blood work, medical visits, chemotherapy, infectious disease control doctors, etc, etc. If you’re lazy, you need not apply for cancer.”
This week, the Godfather films will grace big screens once again, as heralded and handsome as ever, to celebrate the golden anniversary. While the film is timeless, Native American causes have moved with the times.
Littlefeather may have had a mixed reception in the auditorium but 1973 was the first year the ceremony had been broadcast by satellite and 85 million people around the world listened to Littlefeather’s speech.
Her voice is now one of many pushing for positive change. Land is being repatriated – such as 500 acres of Californian redwood forest returned to tribes who were displaced generations ago.
Representation in Hollywood, especially in fare deemed awards-worthy, is still an issue but there is no more thoughtless slaughtering of scores of Native Americans on screen.
Just as a coda, what happened to Brando’s unclaimed statuette? Last seen being clutched by Roger Moore as he walked off stage, it accompanied the newly anointed Bond to Oscar after-parties – where it no doubt had the time of its life – and was later recycled and awarded to Charlie Chaplin the following year.
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