Oscar Politics: Brando, Marlon

In 1973, a major controversy erupted at the Oscars, when Marlon Brando was named Best Actor for The Godfather. Brando's contempt for Hollywood had been a known fact for a long time. Upon arrival for his first film, The Men, Brando shocked the press when he stated that his only motive for being in Hollywood was his lack of courage to reject the tremendous amounts of money he was offered to make films.

Somehow people got used to Brando's eccentricities, viewing them as part of his genius and personality. Besides, Brando was such a brilliant actor that he could get away with such outrageous statements. Brando's derisive attitudes toward Hollywood didn't damage his career at all; they made him even more alluring and mysterious to the press, an image that he forcefully encouraged.

Prior to The Godfather, Brando was nominated five times for Best Actor, the last of which for Sayonara, which he made because he identified with the film's plea for racial understanding. In the 1960s, looking for interesting vehicles, Brando appeared in Candy, in which he played a guru; Reflections in a Golden Eye, playing a gay serviceman; and The Countess from Hong Kong (directed by Chaplin), as an American diplomat. Most of these films failed artistically and commercially.

Just when filmmakers and Hollywood mavens were declaring Brando a has-been, he delivered a brilliant comeback performance, as Don Corleone in The Godfather, for which he was forced to take a screen test for the first time in his career. Paramount was at first reluctant to cast Brando in the lead, holding that he had lost his boxoffice power, but his test was so convincing that he could hardly be recognized.

Brando's performance got rave reviews and numerous awards. However, he turned down his sixth Oscar nomination with a short telegram: “There is singular lack of honor in this country today.” The Oscar, according to columnist Bob Thomas, was an emotional gesture, “a sense of reaffirmation of an admittedly great, but wayward actor who had become alienated by and with Hollywood.” It was a strange signal, to say the least, a welcome home extended to an actor who in no way wished to be welcomed home.

At the Oscar ceremonies, applause followed when Brando was announced the Best Actor. Thereupon, as noted earlier, a Native American girl named Sacheen Littlefeather walked to the podium and read a statement from him. Brando voiced his protest against the treatment of Indians, on and offscreen, through an Apache member of the Native American Affirmative Image Committee. He wrote: “I, as a member of this profession, do not feel that I can as a citizen of the United States accept an award here tonight. I think awards in this country at this time are inappropriate to be received or given until the condition of the American Indian is drastically altered.” And he closed his speech with “if we are not our brother's keeper, at least let us not be his executioner.”

Brando was criticized by those who felt he should have at least refused the award in person, not use an innocent girl. Brando later explained that he was on his way to Wounded Knee to support the Oglala Sioux's protest against discrimination. At the same time, Brando's rejection of the Oscar did not surprise those who knew him–and it didn't meet with unanimous criticism.

In the same show, Oscar-winning writer Jeremy Larner, who wrote Robert Redford's political drama, The Candidate, could not resist the temptation of ridiculing President Richard Nixon, then in the midst of the Watergate scandal. Said Larner, “I would like to thank the political figures of our time, who have giveen me terrific inspiration.”

If you would like to know more about this issue, please read my book, All bout Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards(NY: Continuum International, paperback 2003).