50 years ago, Sacheen Littlefeather, an American Indian actress and activist, was booed during the Oscars. Now, the Academy apologized to her.
Littlefeather appeared live on television in 1973 to refuse an Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brandowho had won the best actor award for “The Godfather” for his iconic role as Vito Corleone.
But the actor, known for his activism, did not attend the red carpet and declined to go on stage. He turned down the award because of the misrepresentation and inaccuracy of Native Americans in the American film industry.
In his place came Littlefeather, who was then 26 years old, dressed in Apache garb.
Now, the Academy has said that, during that appearance, the actress suffered “unnecessary and unjustified” abuse.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day I’d hear this”, Sacheen told the Hollywood Reporter.
His speech was, according to the organizers, the first political statement that occurred after the awards ceremony began to be televised. And it paved the way for something that continues to this day.
He introduced himself on behalf of Brando—who had written “a very long speech”—briefly telling the audience “that he unfortunately cannot accept this very generous award.”
“And the reasons behind this are the Treatment of Native Americans Today in the Motion Picture and Television Industry in the movies. Also recent events at Wounded Knee,” she said, referring to a violent confrontation with federal agents at a site of great importance to the Sioux people.
The brief speech was applauded by the audience, but there were also boos and racist gestures, such as the “Tomahawk cut”, a gesture where the hand and arm are held straight and at a right angle, as if simulating an axe, and which is seen as a demeaning gesture by Native Americans.
there was also after jokes by the presenters of the gala, Raquel Welch and Clint Eastwood.
In 2020, Littlefeather told the BBC that immediately after the speech he had to leave the stage with two security guards. But, he said, “it was a very good thing” since the actor John Wayne — icon of western-type cinema — was behind the stage, marked out by six security men and wanted to get her off the stage himself. “He was furious with Marlon and with me.”
Despite the fact that Brando had written a much longer speech, Littlefeather was instructed by the ceremony’s production team to boil it all down to 60 seconds.
“irreparable emotional burden”
85 million people watched it from their home television.
Some journalistic reports after the event they claimed that Littlefeather was not really an American Indian, but rather agreed to give that speech so that it would boost his career as an actress. Some even speculated that she could be Brando’s lover.
Sacheen Littlefeather told the BBC that all of those claims were false.
“The abuse you endured…was unnecessary and unwarranted,” wrote David Rubin, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in a letter to Littlefeather released Monday but dated June 18.
“The emotional burden that you have experienced and the damage to your own career in our industry is irreparable,” the president told the actress.
Rubin said the speech at the 45th Academy Awards was “a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the need to respect and the importance of human dignity”.
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will host an event in September where Littlefeather will speak about her appearance at the 1973 Oscars and the future of indigenous representation on screen.
The actress responded to the apology with a statement.
“We natives we are very patient people, it’s only been 50 years! We have to keep our sense of humor at all times, it’s our survival method,” added the now 75-year-old woman.
For Brando, who already had an Oscar for starring in “On the Waterfront” in 1954, the rejection of the award was not followed by reprisals: the Academy continues to consider him the winner of that edition and nominated him the following year for “Last Tango in Paris “.
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