Oscars Apology Comes Nearly 50 Years After Marlon Brando Protest

Native American actor and activist Sacheen Littlefeather stepped in for the Godfather star at the 1973 Oscars.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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A woman in Native American dress standing in front of a statue of an Oscar, holding a speech.

Sacheen Littlefeather speaks to press after declining an Academy Award on behalf of Best Actor winner Marlon Brando.

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The organizers of the Oscars have formally apologized to Sacheen Littlefeather, the actor who took to the stage to decline Marlon Brando's Academy Award for The Godfather in 1973.

Brando was the favorite to take the gong for Best Actor, but asked Littlefeather to take his place and read a speech criticizing Hollywood's depiction of Native American characters in movies and TV shows. The speech also drew attention to a protest that  was then taking place as Native American activists occupied the historically symbolic South Dakota town of Wounded Knee.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this week announced plans for an event celebrating Native American filmmakers on Sept. 17 at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The announcement includes a statement of reconciliation posted on the Academy's website. The letter is signed by David Rubin, who was president of the Academy at the time of the protest.

"As you stood on the Oscars stage in 1973," reads the letter, "to not accept the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando, in recognition of the misrepresentation and mistreatment of Native American people by the film industry, you made a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity."

"The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified," the letter continues. "The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable. For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration."

Littlefeather was also quoted in the announcement, saying "We Indians are very patient people -- it's only been 50 years! We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It's our method of survival."

"I never thought I'd live to see the day for this program to take place," added Littlefeather, regarding the Academy Museum event, which also will feature television and film producer Bird Runningwater, who curated films created by Indigenous filmmakers at the Sundance Film Festival and now has a deal with Amazon Studios.

During Littlefeather's appearance at the 1973 Oscars ceremony, Western actor John Wayne is reported to have been held back from forcing her off stage.

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