Vito Corleone, ”The Godfather”’s brooding Mafia boss, might have handled things differently if he’d had a dispute with Hollywood. Luckily for the audience at the 45th annual Academy Awards on March 27, 1973, Marlon Brando, who played the don with Oscar-winning calculation, chose a gentler approach — albeit one that caused almost as much controversy as a severed horse’s head under the podium.
Becoming the second performer ever to decline an Oscar — George C. Scott had rejected his Best Actor award for ”Patton” two years before because of his opposition to such competitions — Brando, then 48, refused in order to call attention to Tinseltown’s denigration of Native Americans.
But he didn’t do it in person.
When Brando’s award was presented by Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann, a 26-year-old Apache named Sacheen Littlefeather took the stage dressed in buckskin and explained, above intermittent boos and shouts, that Brando wouldn’t accept the award to protest ”the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.” Littlefeather only got to paraphrase Brando’s statement (she says producer Howard W. Koch had threatened to have guards arrest her if she spoke more than 60 seconds), so she headed to the pressroom to read it in full, leaving a shocked audience to recover its composure.
”They were booing because they thought, ‘Well, this moment is sacrosanct and you’re ruining our fantasy with the intrusion of a little reality,”’ Brando told Dick Cavett in a rare interview a few months later. Before the ceremony, says Littlefeather, now a holistic healer near San Francisco, she ”prayed in earnest for the message to be delivered properly.” But the night soon returned to the traditional airiness, and John Wayne closed the surreal show by leading, off-key, a sing-along of ”You Oughta Be in Pictures,” whose words almost nobody remembered.
What happened next is still in dispute. The Academy story is that Moore took the statue home, then returned it; it was later given to Charlie Chaplin to replace a damaged award. But comic/power broker Marty Ingels says a client he refuses to identify walked off with Brando’s Oscar that night. Recently, Ingels asked Brando about auctioning the statue for charity (Ingels thinks it could reap $500,000). Much to Ingels’ surprise, he says, last September Brando responded that he wants his spurned award back.
Ingels won’t oblige. He has told his client to hold onto the unauthenticated Oscar, noting, ”Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” In any case, he adds, ”Brando should be the last person to get it.”