Academy apologizes to Sacheen Littlefeather for 1973 Oscar incident

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It was 1973. The location: the Oscars. Marlon Brando had just been named Best Actor for his portrayal of Vito Corleone in ‘The Godfather’. But he did not walk on stage to receive the award.

Instead, a 26-year-old woman wearing moccasins and a Native American buckskin dress stepped up the stairs. After waving away the gold Oscar statuette, she introduced herself as Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache, and said Brando declined the award.

“And the reasons for this are the film industry’s treatment of American Indians today,” she said to a mixture of applause and boos from the audience, adding that the ill-treatment extended to television, as well as a tense stalemate at Injured Knee in South Dakota.

Actor Will Smith punched presenter Chris Rock on March 27 at the 94th Academy Awards. The award ceremony has a history of unpredictable moments. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

She clearly remembered seeing the gaping mouths as she looked out at the predominantly white audience. John Wayne was ready to run onto the stage but was stopped by security personnel, she said in a recent interview published in A.Frame. And at Brando’s house after the ceremony, Littlefeather claimed she was being shot at.

The moment has made history. According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it was the first time a Native American woman had appeared on the Oscars stage, and her statement on behalf of Brando sent shockwaves. Littlefeather, an aspiring actress, said she was blacklisted by the industry and harassed.

Now the academy is publicly apologizing to Littlefeather. In June, it sent her a “declaration of reconciliation”.

“The abuse you have suffered because of this statement was unjustified and unjustified. The emotional burden you have endured and the cost to your own career in our industry is irreparable,” reads the June 18 letter, signed by then academy president David Rubin. “For too long the courage you have shown has not been acknowledged. For this we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.”

The statement will be read on Sept. 17 during a “program of conversation, reflection, healing and celebration” with Littlefeather, the academy announced in a press release Monday.

In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Littlefeather said she was stunned by the apology.

“I never thought I’d live to see the day I’d hear this, experience this,” she said. “When I was on stage in 1973, I was there alone.”

The apology comes as the academy has taken steps to be more inclusive of groups traditionally underrepresented in the film industry. In 2020, it introduced diversity and inclusion standards that movies must meet to qualify for a Best Picture nomination, after criticizing the Oscars for being dominated by white actors and filmmakers.

Despite the best efforts, Hollywood continues to struggle with representation of women and ethnic minorities. Stereotyping in film persists and white actors continue to be criticized for playing members of ethnic groups who are underrepresented on screen. While people of color are increasingly being included in movie casts, certain groups — including Asians, Latinos and Native Americans — remain underrepresented, according to a 2022 UCLA “Hollywood Diversity Report.”

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In her interview in A.Frame, an online publication of the academy, Littlefeather explained that the 1973 Oscar moment came about after she befriended Brando, whom she said she had met through her neighbor, director Francis Ford Coppola. . Shortly before the March ceremony, Brando asked her to represent him and read a 739-word speech if he won. He specifically told her not to touch the statue, she recalled.

Littlefeather came to the ceremony at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles just minutes before the Best Actor category was due to be introduced, she recalled. She said she was there representing Brando. She was let in, but the show’s producer said she couldn’t read the speech. He threatened to arrest her if she spoke for more than a minute, Littlefeather recalled.

Then, after Littlefeather sat down to await a commercial break, the category was announced. “Of course my heart raced. And then they called his name,” Littlefeather recalled. “So I took a few deep breaths and said a prayer.”

She introduced herself and explained why she was there. She said she would make a brief statement in lieu of Brando’s speech, and she began talking about the mistreatment of Native Americans in Hollywood. She paused as the crowd applauded and whooped, then went on to mention a standoff between Native American activists and federal agents at Wounded Knee.

“It was interesting because some people gave me the tomahawk cutlet,” Littlefeather recalled. “I thought: this is very racist. Very racist indeed.’ ”

She walked off stage and ignored them.

In the aftermath of the ceremony, she said she was banned from talk shows even when people were “talking about me.”

“I couldn’t and shouldn’t speak for myself,” she said. “It was like being silenced.”

In an interview on “The Dick Cavett Show” several months later, Brando said he was ashamed of the way Littlefeather was treated. “They should have at least had the courtesy to listen to her,” he said.

But he said he didn’t regret his decision to send her there, adding that stereotyping of ethnic minorities continued to be a problem in Hollywood. (Brando himself earned an Oscar nomination for playing a Mexican revolutionary in the 1952 western “Viva Zapata!”, despite having no Mexican or Latino heritage.)

Littlefeather also acknowledged that it was an important step to take.

“All we asked, and I asked, was, ‘Let’s be employed. Let’s be ourselves. Let’s play ourselves in movies. Let’s be part of your industry, produce, direct, write. Don’t write our stories for us. Let’s write our own stories. Let’s be who we are,” she said. “This is all I said.”

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