I’m old enough to remember the Oscars night when Sacheen Littlefeather took to the stage and declined the Best Actor Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando as a way to protest Hollywood’s depictions and treatment of Native Americans.
Brando’s turn-down of the award followed by a couple of years George C. Scott’s nix of it. Scott, though, thumbed his nose at the statuette because he didn’t like the idea of competition among actors. He’d won the Oscar for his portrayal of World War II Gen. George S. Patton in the eponymous biopic. Which, BTW, was co-written by Francis Ford Coppola who, of course, directed The Godfather, for which Brando was being celebrated — or at least scheduled to be — that fateful evening.
Marlon Brando, though, was a noted advocate at the time for Native Americans, and so came the appearance of Littlefeather.
The New York Times yesterday ran a piece on the event that took place nearly a half century ago. Sacheen Littlefeather now is an old woman and the photo the paper ran of her was certainly jarring. About as jarring as the face that looks back at me from the mirror every goddamned morning. No matter how much we acknowledge that time flees, its flight freaks us.
Littlefeather was a White Mountain Apache. In keeping with the whole Hollywood thing, she was breathtakingly beautiful, her Native American accoutrements seemingly straight out of the costume department. Despite that, she spoke honestly and with real emotion about the film industry’s depiction of Native Americans through the years. It seemed she might break down in tears at any moment during her minute-long speech. Only a creep would be failed to be moved by it.
Well, the Oscar audience that night 49 years ago was filled with creeps.
I was 17 years old at the time and still in thrall to things like the Academy Awards broadcast. I watched as Littlefeather spoke and was aghast at the boos emanating from the crowd. Of course, not everybody booed. The cheers for her balanced out the jeering but it was the negative reaction that stuck with me. Even then I was baffled that anyone could be so…, well, assholish as to boo someone speaking from the heart about the racist portrayals and treatment of her people.
What I didn’t remember, and learned of in the NYT article, is many in the audience actually started doing the tomahawk chop while Littlefeather spoke. If you’re not a sports fan, you may be unfamiliar with the tomahawk chop. In places like Atlanta and universities whose team names are some variant of the Native American thing, fans launch into rhythmic faux-Indian calls, chopping with their right hands in time, mimicking warriors wielding their savage weapons. You know, the way they’ve seen Indians in old Hollywood movies behave. Cop a peek at the fans of the Florida State Seminoles doing the chop:
As an aside, this is a prime illustration of why I shun, as much as humanly possible, going along with the crowd. I steadfastly refuse to do a thing for the simple reason everybody else is doing it. Do you blame me?
Anyway, the Oscars, then as now, is not a sporting event. This despite that fact that, as George C. Scott pointed out, it’s a race between competitors. You’d figure an Academy Award night crowd would be rife with creative, sensitive, progressive, caring folk who’d at least wish to listen to the plaint of a young, frightened woman standing up for her people.
Sadly, the crowd on the night in question was (il)liberally sprinkled with, um…, assholes.
I’m no babe in the woods. I know there’s been a broad current of hate running through the American bloodstream since this holy land’s very inception. I know about lynchings and institutionalized racism and block-busting and red-lining and homophobia and misogyny and every other kind of emotional and spiritual cancer that afflicts far too many of our fellow citizens. Still, I was shocked to learn about many in the Oscars crowd doing that stupid chop during Littlefeather’s speech.
And it gets worse. Apparently John Wayne had to be restrained from charging the stage and stopping Littlefeather from speaking. And Sacheen herself claims she was shot at — with guns, mind you — in the aftermath of the event.
Another aside, this one about John Wayne. His career and legacy largely were made by his roles in all those gorgeous John Ford westerns like Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Stagecoach, and Rio Grande. During World War II, Ford served as a commander in the US Navy, heading the service’s photographic unit. He actually participated in the D-Day landing at Normandy, witnessing the carnage and suffering a wound himself. For his part, John Wayne, the movie tough guy, stayed home during the war, increasing his reputation and bank account while many other Hollywood actors and directors sacrificed years of their careers for the war effort. Ford never forgave Wayne for avoiding service. In fact, acc’d’g to accounts, Ford repeatedly harangued Wayne about it during filming of their last picture together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.
Have we gotten better over the years? President Truman ordered the integration of the armed services in 1947. Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey gave his rousing “bright sunshine of human rights” speech in favor of integration and full civil rights in America in 1948. In the 1960s, Ernie Banks, the biggest sports star in my hometown, was compelled to live in the all-black Chatham neighborhood. Thirty years later, the one-time lily-white suburb of Highland Park was proud to claim as its resident Michael Jordan. Today, no one bats an eye when a black and white couple walks down the street hand in hand. The year Littlefeather spoke, I was in a car with an older co-worker when he spied a black man and a white woman walking on Grand Avenue. “Lookit that,” he said, his voice dripping with contempt, “a nigger and a white chick.”
I’d like to think we’re better than that today. We can’t say the word nigger in a public setting now. And the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has issued an apology to Sacheen Littlefeather for her treatment that night in 1973.
But they’re still doing the tomahawk chop in Atlanta.