There are few things Hollywood loves more than selling myths and legends about itself. Few of these threads have had a longer life than what happened at the 1973 Academy Awards involving Marlon Brando, John Wayne, and a Native American activist named Sacheen Littlefeather.
Movie buffs generally remember brando sending littlefeather onstage to reject his best actor oscar for “the godfather.”
Littlefeather, dressed in buckskin and loafers, read a brief statement of less than a minute, politely stating on Brando’s behalf that he “unfortunately cannot accept this very generous award”, to protest “the treatment the film gives to American Indians today. industry and on television in movie reruns.
he mentioned wounded knee, the south dakota town occupied at the time by native activists commemorating the us massacre of 300 lakota. uu. army at that site in 1890.
littlefeather was once interrupted by a chorus of catcalls, boos and scattered applause from the audience. he closed with the hope that “in the future, our hearts and understandings will meet with love and generosity.”
The entire episode has been in the news again in the past two weeks because the academy apologized last week to littlefeather, now 75, for his reception at the ceremony. The academy also said it would host littlefeather for an evening of “conversation, healing and celebration” on September 1. 17.
“The abuse he endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unreasonable,” the academy’s apology reads. It may have been an allusion to the whistling of the audience, or perhaps to a rude crack of Clint Eastwood, who, presenting the Oscar for best picture, asked himself into the microphone if he should do it “in the name of all the cowboys shot in westerns of john ford over the years.”
but the part of the story that has grown over the years and was unearthed, again, in articles about the apology is the john wayne part. According to legend, Wayne, hearing LittleFeather from backstage, became so enraged that six security guards had to stop him from storming the stage to either assault LittleFeather or drag her offstage.
(The legend has also been invoked when reporting Will Smith’s assault on Chris Rock onstage at this year’s Oscars, often by people who question descriptions of that attack as the “ugliest” moment of the oscars—”what about john wayne and sacheen littlefeather?” goes the typical rebuttal.)
The revival of Wayne’s story caught the attention of one of our most erudite and entertaining filmmakers and film historians, Farran Nehme, who writes an indispensable film blog under the pseudonym self-described Siren.
“once again,” writes nehme, “we’re inundated with the story of john wayne and the six security men, the lousy variety act that many people believe performed at dorothy chandler’s pavilion back in 1973.”
their conclusion, after many reports and investigations, is: “it never happened.” Rather, he says, the story began as an exaggerated story that Oscar telecast director Marty Pasetta began telling interviewers a year after the fact “that got more exciting each time it was told” until it was revealed. became “a persistent urban legend”.
nehme’s effort deserves recognition because it is an excellent model of how to debunk a story that has been grounded in history. historical nonfiction writers have often run into this problem; I know I have in researching almost every one of my own books, I found myself trying to track down a treasured historical “fact” and finding that it has absolutely no basis in reality. it’s a task that almost counts as an occupational hazard.
in this case, nehme has to deal not only with pasetta’s version, but also with the one offered by littlefeather herself on several occasions, including in a 2020 documentary about her. there, as nehme reports, she states: “armed guards escorted me offstage…and luckily, because john wayne was waiting backstage, ready to take me offstage, and he had to be held by six security men because he was very outraged by what he had said.”
nehme begins his research by looking at the evolution of pasetta’s own story. In 1974, he told an interviewer that upon hearing Littlefeather speak, “John Wayne [is] backstage and he’s on a rampage and I had to calm him down.” In 1984, she told another interviewer that “John Wayne was backstage and he was so angry that he wanted to go and throw her offstage.”
The six security men (a suspiciously accurate number, Nehme notes) first appeared in 1988, when he told a third interviewer: “We had a fight, that’s what we had… John Wayne wanted out.” . and physically remove her from the stage. it took six men to stop him.”
Then there’s circumstantial evidence. When littlefeather took the stage, no one knew what she would say, including howard koch, the oscar producer, who had simply told her that she would have 60 seconds to speak and then the stage would go dark and she would be escorted out.
A clip of his appearance shows that he actually appeared on stage for approximately one minute and 20 seconds. she spends the first half minute or so introducing herself as Apache and chair of the Native American Affirmative Image Committee. She only then does she say that Brando is turning down the award and why. She then demurely follows the presenters, Roger Moore and Liv Ullman, offstage.
as nehme notes, that would suggest that in the space of 45 seconds, john wayne heard their words, decided they were being infuriating, rose to mount an attack, drawing resistance from six security guards.
It’s worth keeping in mind, as she points out, that nine years earlier, Wayne had undergone lung cancer surgery that removed two ribs and part of his left lung. he was never quite safe and sound after that. In fact, at the end of the broadcast, when Wayne takes the stage to ask all the winners out for a massive, pale rendition of “You Should Be In The Pictures,” she can tell she’s gasping.
wayne never criticized littlefeather personally; His general comment when asked about Brando’s refusal is that the actor should have gone out and done it in person.
littlefeather suffered years of ridicule, which the academy alludes to in its apology. but she conducted herself with coolness and serenity; After her appearance on stage, Moore took her to the Oscars press room, where she read the lengthy statement that Ella Brando had written.
and of course brando was right to criticize hollywood’s treatment of native americans then and now. the academy has been trying to make amends, in its own way. among other efforts, she created an indigenous alliance whose co-chair, producer bird runningwater, will lead the conversation with her next month. Native Americans have benefited from a slow evolution of inclusion in American movies in recent years, but much more needs to be done to erase this stereotypical treatment of the past.
As for the john wayne story, it is an insult to both the academy and wayne himself. We’ve criticized in the past the tendency to accept Wayne’s on-screen persona of a tough, tough American frontiersman—even, yes, as a killer of Indians—as true to life, especially in the naming of Orange County’s airport. for him and the installation of a large statue of the Hollywood version of Wayne in front of his terminal.
Wayne was a staunch political conservative, but according to his biographer, Scott Eyman, in real life he was a “well-bred Edwardian man” who would never think of assaulting a woman. Nehme got that idea directly from Eyman, noting that he didn’t even mention the episode in his book about Wayne.
“No one I spoke to who knew Wayne,” Eyman told him, “has never referred to or apparently believed that story.” it would be fair to withdraw it forever.