Remember her? Sacheen Littlefeather caused a crapstorm of controversy in 1973 when she declined the Best Actor Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando at the 45th Annual Academy Awards. Brando had won for his portrayal of Vito Corleone in The Godfather – one of the most iconic performances in movie history, and to protest the unfair treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood, he recruited Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather to speak for him at the awards ceremony. It is a moment that lives in Oscar infamy, regarded by more than a few film buffs and Oscar Party armchair critics as a strong indication of Brando’s sanctimony and his growing reputation as an eccentric Hollywood outsider. Often the speech shows up in Oscar clip reels along with moments like the David Niven streaker bit and perhaps that insufferable over-the-top Adrien Brody/Halle Berry podium kiss.
And that’s really too bad, because when I watch the speech today, almost 39 years later, I can’t believe how completely bad-ass it is. I love the way Sacheen Littlefeather waves off the Oscar statue from Roger Moore. Yes, that’s right – she makes James Bond talk to the hand, and she does it in a way that is both incredibly graceful and assertive. Littlefeather keeps it together when she is inevitably booed by an audience made up of the members of the corporate Hollywood power structure. This is the stuff that all legitimate civil rights protest acts are made of – strength, intelligence and defiance.The speech is also warm and extremely gracious to Littlefeather’s (and Brando’s) credit. Click here to watch the speech.
I don’t think that it’s a stretch to say that this speech contributed to our heightened awareness of the plight of the Native Americans in this country. It certainly brought it to center stage, to the world stage, and Hollywood has since learned that they can make more responsible films about Native Americans that entertain and can even turn a profit. The fallout from the event was substantial, especially for Littlefeather, who found herself having to defend against claims that she was not of legitimate Native American descent. She directly answers these charges on her official website, where she also talks about her ongoing work for Native American rights. If you want to see what she’s been up to lately here is a TV news appearance from 2009 and a 2010 interview in Native American Times.