This week the Academy Awards apologised to Sacheen Littlefeather after she was shunned following a speech she gave against the film industry in 1973, criticising it over the misrepresentation of Native Americans in the US film industry. The actress, who was 26 at the time, was supported by Hollywood star Marlon Brando, who let Littlefeather speak in his place after he refused to accept his Best Actor gong for The Godfather. He rejected the award in support of Littlefeather and the plight of her people in the industry.
In apologising, the Academy noted that Littlefeather had received “unwarranted and unjustifiable” abuse as a result of her speech.
Reflecting on their apology, some 49 years after the original event, Littlefeather told the Hollywood Reporter: “I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this.”
The incredible moment was brought back into focus after Oscars fans dived through the archives to look at other controversial awards ceremonies, following Will Smith’s slap on Academy Awards host Chris Rock earlier this year.
But among the abuse Littlefeather endured was the tale of how western legend, and Hollywood royalty, John Wayne reportedly was close to dragging her off-stage as she gave her speech.
Speaking to The Guardian in 2021, Littlefeather noted how furious Wayne was at her speech and how the True Grit star had to be restrained.
She 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.”
Marty Pasetta, who was tasked with directing the Oscars’ broadcast between 1972 and 1988, noted how people “should have seen what was going on backstage”.
In a 1988 interview with the Chicago Tribune, he said: “We had a fight is what we had. It’s a piece of cake.
”John Wayne wanted to go out there and physically yank her off the stage. It took six men to hold him back.”
A 1994 New Yorker piece by Drama critic John Lahr also told of how the drama unfolded, and why Wayne had got so involved.
He wrote: “The shock of winning and losing—the iconic drama of the American sweepstakes which the Academy Awards annually act out—was nothing compared to the backstage shock suffered by John Wayne in 1973, when he heard a woman who called herself Sacheen Littlefeather of the Apache tribe, explain why Marlon Brando could not accept the Best Actor award for The Godfather.
“[Wayne] The Duke, who had dispatched many an Apache on film, didn’t take kindly to Brando’s protest against Hollywood’s depiction of Native Americans.
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“Wayne had to be restrained by six men from yanking Littlefeather off the stage.
“The Academy Awards ceremony, after all, is one American show that must go on, and on.”
After the incident, Wayne reportedly discussed the altercation, claiming that if Brando had “something to say, he should have appeared that night and stated his views instead of taking some little unknown girl and dressing her up in an Indian outfit”.
Brando defended his decision in the aftermath during an interview with talk show host Dick Cavett.
He said: “I was distressed that people should have booed and whistled and stomped, even though perhaps it was directed at myself. They should have at least had the courtesy to listen to her.”
More recently, Littlefeather spoke passionately about finally receiving an apology from the Academy, noting how “we Indians are very patient people… it’s only been 50 years”.
She said: “I never thought I’d live to see the day for this program to take place, featuring such wonderful Native performers and Bird Runningwater, a television and film producer who also guided the Sundance Institute’s commitment to Indigenous filmmakers for twenty years through the Institute’s Labs and Sundance Film Festival.
“This is a dream come true. It is profoundly heartening to see how much has changed since I did not accept the Academy Award 50 years ago. I am so proud of each and every person who will appear on stage.”
In a statement, the Academy Museum’s director and president, Jacqueline Stewart, praised Littlefather for wishing to engage and discuss the incident.
She added: “We are delighted and humbled that Sacheen has so generously chosen to engage with the museum and Academy to reflect upon her trying experience at the 1973 Academy Awards.”