Marlon Brando, a Rebel With a Lot of Cause
Marlon Brando has been one of the few actors to reject an Oscar due to political solidarity.
There have only been two actors in the history of North American film that have had sufficient composure to reject the ultimate prize of the industry: one was the magnificent George S. Scott and the other Marlon Brando. The first repudiated the much-deserved Oscar for his interpretation of the furious General Patton claiming he did not believe in an absurd competition among equals; but for the second, the prize implied accepting a corrupt system that discriminated the indigenous Native American population. It seems that Scott remained tranquilly at home watching a hockey game while the statuette was being awarded to him. We don’t know where Brando was at the time of the ceremony. What we do know is that he took a series of measures so that the act did not go unnoticed in case he was awarded the prize.
The prize to the Best Actor was announced by Lozano Roger Moore and a newly arrived to Hollywood, Liv Ullman. The uneasy look on the Swedish actress seemed to foretell the controversy that would follow the announcement of the winner. When Brando’s name was pronounced, the audience erupted in a generous applause. Among the audience, however, and before the perplexity of the attendees, the fragile figure of a woman, dressed in Apache dress, stood up and walked towards the stage. She was Sacheen Littlefeather, an unknown Native American actress that Brando was able to get into the ceremony.
Before the general bewilderment, and to Roger Moore’s surprise, who saw how his gesture to give the woman the statuette rejected, Littlefeather took the stage to explain why she was there and the reasons why Brando was giving a radical no to the award.
Demonstrating a wholeness that contrasted with her fragile and fearful appearance, the actress, also the president of the National Native American Committee of Affirmative Image, denounced, on behalf of Marlon Brando and herself, the unfair treatment given to Native Americans in the film industry. Immediately, thumping and booing was heard from part of the audience, which was silenced, to a great extent, by another part of the audience that celebrated and supported the denunciation. Littlefeather’s stoic face leaned forward for a moment to bare the public humiliation, but without losing her composure she finished her speech by alluding to the events happening in Wounded Knee, which at the time was reliving one of the greatest tragedies that the Native American population had ever suffered under the law of colonizers in 1890 (and whose denunciation made the media move to the location immediately, thus evincing the abuses committed by the authorities).
This was how Marlon Brando (who, by the way, was later incarcerated and even threatened to death) made clear his rejection of an industry that from the very beginning redrew the image of the Native American people at whim, presenting them to the world as a primitive and sanguinary population. But it was not just that: actors of Native American origins were always used by the American industry as extras, giving the most significant roles of their race to white men.
The imperialist mentality of North American people, their capacity to make film a means of propaganda and ideological colonization, was paradoxically questioned by a star of the Hollywood establishment. Littlefeather’s moist look suggested that an entire population, massacred and humiliated by the brutality of an unjustifiable colonization continued to be humiliated in fiction, reduced to a caricature and a shadow, mistreated and unjustly projected as a symbol of the execrable.
We will not only remember Brando as a leather-clad rebel in The Wild One, a noble boxer come to less in On the Waterfront or the tormented and sweaty face in Apocalypse Now; on that day, Brando proved he was more than a simple figure from the star system —he proved that if one believes in justice one must denounce its absence wherever need be, whether it is a simple desk or the microphone in the Oscar’s sparkling gala.
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