When Marlon Brando won his second Academy Award in 1973, he famously did not accept it himself. Sacheen Littlefeather accepted it on his behalf and spoke about the poor treatment of Native Americans. What many do not know is John Wayne took this personally and assaulted her afterward. Here’s what went down.
The 1973 Academy Awards
If ever there was a shoo-in for Best Actor, Brando’s iconic performance in The Godfather would be it. As if to shore up his chances of winning, Al Pacino was relegated to a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role in The Godfather. If you believe Burt Reynolds, Deliverance would have won Best Picture had he not posed nude for Cosmopolitan. He may have a point, but The Godfather was and is a legend in its time and since.
Pacino chose to boycott the ceremony over perceived category fraud. Brando, too, decided to protest but for more noble reasons. When his name was read out, 26-year-old Sacheen Littlefeather accepted his Oscar trophy in his stead. Brando was sympathetic to her and the Native American plight and gave her a 15-page speech to read. Since Littlefeather was told she only had 60 seconds, she had to improvise.
These days, political speeches at the Academy Awards are fairly commonplace, but that was not the case in 1973. Littlefeather made history that night, She said her name, and that she was the Apache President of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. She said of Brando that “he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.”
Littlefeather continued, after a smattering of boos and applause, “I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening, and that we will in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando.” She read the full speech, written by Brando, to the press after the ceremony.
Not Well Recieved
It did not go over well in the moment, to say the least. Later in the show, Best Picture presenter Clint Eastwood cracked that he was presenting his award “on behalf of all the cowboys shot in John Ford westerns over the years.” Perhaps Ford’s greatest cowboy star was of course, John Wayne.
Wayne was waiting in the wings when Littlefeather took the stage. She later said, “During my presentation, he was coming towards me to forcibly take me off the stage, and he had to be restrained by six security men to prevent him from doing so.”
Assaulting a Native American would be entirely in line with Wayne’s characters over the years, and his legacy may look a bit different if those guards had not stopped him. Littlefeather went to Brando’s home after the ceremony and has devoted the rest of her life to activism for the Native American community.
The Academy Apologizes
In August of 2022, nearly 40 years after the original incident, the Academy finally issued an apology to Littlefeather for the treatment she endured as a result of her statement:
“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified. 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.”
Just A ‘Hollywood Myth’?
In light of this new development, the LA Times published a story denying that the assault by Wayne ever even happened. The outlet claimed that all evidence pointing to the assault was circumstantial and that Wayne may have had a rough-and-tough persona, but would never do such a thing in real life.
“Brando was right to be critical of Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans, then and now.” the LA Times stated.
“As for the John Wayne story, it’s an insult both to the academy and to Wayne himself. Wayne was a dyed-in-the-wool political conservative, but according to his biographer, Scott Eyman, in real life he was a ‘well brought up Edwardian man’ who would never think of assaulting a woman.”
While the assault is a widely accepted historical fact at this point, the Times‘ opinion piece has caused a resurgence of debates surrounding the topic.