Why Marlon Brando refused the Academy Award for his performance in “The Godfather”

Domagoj Valjak
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Sacheen Littlefeather holds a written statement from actor Marlon Brando refusing his Best Actor Oscar on stage at the Academy Awards on March 27, 1973 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archvies/Getty Images)

Marlon Brando is widely regarded as one of the greatest actors of all time. His sense of on-screen realism continues to inspire actors across the world, and the rebellious personality that pervades his early films will always be associated with the nonconformity of the mid-1950s. Brando rose to international fame when he starred in such Hollywood classics as A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild One, and On the Waterfront.

The 1960s were a tough decade for the actor. He made his directorial debut in 1961 with One-Eyed Jacks, a Western with an astronomical budget that turned out to be a box-office disaster.  In 1962, Brando starred in Mutiny on the Bounty, which was initially so unsuccessful that it almost caused the production company, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, to go bankrupt. By the beginning of the 1970s, Brando was regarded as an actor who despised the film industry and seemed determined to star in unsuccessful films.

An undated portrait of Marlon Brando. Author: Lou Wolf CC BY-SA 2.0

However, 1972 was the year of Brando’s comeback. He was 48 years old when he played the role of Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s immensely successful film The Godfather. His chilling performance as the Don of an Italian mafia family remains one of the most distinct on-screen performances in the history of cinema. The film was an international box-office success, and Brando’s performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. In March of 1973, during the 45th Academy Awards ceremony, no one was surprised when the presenters, Liv Ullman and Roger Moore, declared Brando as the recipient of the prestigious award.

Marlon Brando with Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, Sidney Poitier, and Harry Belafonte at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.

However, everyone was stunned when a young actress named Sacheen Littlefeather came to the stage instead of Brando. Littlefeather’s given name was Marie Louise Cruz, her ancestors were White Mountain Apache, and she was an Indian rights activist. She had agreed to decline the award on Brando’s behalf.  Brando was an activist throughout his career. He protested the portrayal of Native Americans in the American film industry and argued that Natives were mostly portrayed as alcoholics, slackers, and unintelligent criminals. The incident that prompted Brando to refuse the award was the U.S. law enforcement’s violent involvement in the quashing of the protest at Wounded Knee in February 1973. The protesters were Oglala Indians and members of the American Indian Movement who objected to the U.S. government’s failure to fulfill its treaties with Native Americans.

Sacheen Littlefeather was supposed to read Brando’s 15-page-long speech at the ceremony; however, before the ceremony started, the producers warned her that she would be allowed to stay on stage for a maximum of 60 seconds. If she exceeded this time limit, she would risk being forcefully removed by security officers. She then read the shortened version of Brando’s statement and briefly disclosed his reasons for the refusal of the award. L.A. Times reported that, among other things, she stated the following:

Brando with James Baldwin at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.

“It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.”

Read another story from us: Marlon Brando and the education of an American icon

Some people in the crowd booed Littlefeather’s speech while others applauded her and admired her courage to publicly condemn the film industry’s mistreatment of Native Americans. Sadly, Littlefeather’s career in mainstream cinema ended after this incident: not a single major production company wished to hire her due to too much negative publicity. However, she became a role model to many activists for Native American rights and a prominent lecturer on their rights. After The Godfather, Marlon Brando starred in only a handful of films, including Last Tango in Paris and Apocalypse Now. He remained an outspoken advocate of Native American rights for the rest of his life.