In the 1950’s, Marlon Brando was one of the most popular and successful actors in the world. His performances in crowd pleasing and critically acclaimed movies like “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront” put him at the forefront of America’s top performers. However, as the fifties turned into the sixties, the shine of Brando’s star began to dim considerably. He was viewed as cranky and difficult to work with by his peers, directors, and producers. His personal life was a rollercoaster of turmoil and trouble, and he did not appear in a successful film for a decade.
When director Francis Ford Coppola began casting for “The Godfather” in 1970, he knew that Brando would be perfect for the lead role of mob boss Vito Corleone, but Paramount wanted no part of him. Executive Charles Bluhdorn told Coppola that Brando would “never appear in a Paramount picture.” Coppola had to beg both sides to agree to a screen test, during which Brando nailed the character so thoroughly that the skeptical executives had no choice but to cast him in the part. They were glad they did, as “The Godfather” was released in 1972, and is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time, at the time it was the highest grossing film in history.
The Academy Awards were to be held on March 5, 1973 and Brando appeared to be a lock to win the Oscar for best actor. In the days approaching the award show, Brando decided he would use his moment in the spotlight to help the cause of people he had been involved with for over a decade, Native Americans. He would boycott the show, and instead send Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. The two had met four years earlier when they participated in a takeover of Alcatraz island as a protest against the treatment of Native Americans. When presenters Roger Moore (James Bond) and Liv Ullman announced that Brando had won the coveted award, Littlefeather approached the stage in full Apache gear. Moore tried to hand her the Oscar, but she waved it away with an open hand.
She set a letter on the podium and began to read:
“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 —”
Many in the crowd began to boo……some cheered. She politely continued:
“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. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando.”
Photo Credit: The Wrap
Click here for two minute video of the speech:
John Wayne was backstage and had to be restrained by security guards. As Littlefeather left the facility, people were yelling slurs at her and mocking her with tomahawk chops. But, the bold and risky moved by Brando worked. The media and citizens of America began paying more attention to Wounded Knee and other issues involving Native Americans. Conversations were held around water coolers and dinner tables about the treatment of the people who were here first. Did it fix everything? absolutely not….but it was a start. Marlon Brando deserves a lot of credit for using this huge moment that every actor and actress yearns for to help others.
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