When Marlon Brando was awarded the Best Actor Oscar for his iconic role in “The Godfather” more than 40 years ago, his absence and rejection of the statuette became perhaps the most famous moment in the history of the Academy Awards.
Delivering the politically charged speech in Mr. Brando’s place was Sacheen Littlefeather, a 26-year-old Native American activist and actress, wearing traditional Apache clothing. As Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann presented her with the award, she refused with an open palm wave.
"I'm representing Marlon Brando this evening and he has asked me to tell you,” Ms. Littlefeather said, in a slow, earnest drawl, “...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.”
The Academy Awards have long been somewhat of a hotbed for political controversy, whether it deals with the film industry itself or matters outside cinema. If anything, the recent call to boycott the show for its lack of minority nominees attests to the award ceremony's prominence in our culture. Oscar winners frequently use their acceptance speeches, broadcast to millions of viewers worldwide, as an outlet of political expression. But the impact of such addresses remains unclear.
In Brando’s case, Ms. Littlefeather was immediately met with heckling. Rumors emerged accusing her of fabricating her heritage. Actor John Wayne was notoriously mad. “If [Brando] had something to say,” he said, “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.”
While there has been a rise of Native American producers and scriptwriters, activists say little has changed in the depiction of Native Americans on screen. Just last May, 12 Native American actors walked off the set of Adam Sandler’s Netflix comedy, “The Ridiculous Six,” which contained jokes that were interpreted to be insulting and stereotypical.
One of the most politically charged moments in last year’s Oscars was when Patricia Arquette passionately called for wage equality and women’s rights in America. Ironically enough, when Forbes’ list of the highest-paid celebrities came out months later, only two film actresses made the list. And the highest-paid actress, Jennifer Lawrence, made $52 million in the 12 months to June 2015, compared to the $80 million raked in by her top male counterpart, Robert Downey Jr.
But even considering the prevailing issues of race and gender in Hollywood, it was a surprise for both advocates and insiders that the 2016 slate of Oscar nominations contained no actors or actresses of color – for the second year in a row.
“How Is It Possible For The 2nd Consecutive Year All 20 Contenders Under The Actor Category Are White?” director Spike Lee wrote in an Instagram post. “And Let’s Not Even Get Into The Other Branches. 40 White Actors In 2 Years And No Flava At All. We Can’t Act?!”
Diversity notwithstanding, the Academy typically draws ire for what critics see as its praising mediocrity and overlooking actual groundbreaking work. The Best Picture nomination for “The Blind Side” in 2010, for instance, came as a shock for many because of its lack of critical acclaim. On the other hand, now-classic films such as “The Shawshank Redemption,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and Scorsese's “Taxi Driver” were never awarded the golden statuette. Cinema icons Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick also represent famous snubs, with neither having won a single Oscar for Best Director.
So, do the Oscars actually matter? History has proven that the awards are not a good indicator of timelessness, or even real quality, and the Academy isn’t exactly an archetype for progress. What's more, television viewership of the awards show has been faltering, hitting a six-year low in 2015.
Still, the Oscar remains the most illustrious award in the film industry. After all, it’s not the Cannes Film Festival that millions of people worldwide tune in to every year.
But in a time of greater social awareness and a high demand for accountability, thanks in part to social media and hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite, it may be essential for the Academy – and the rest of the mainstream movie industry – to finally listen up.
"Not sure if you know this, but the US Census Bureau says by the year 2043, white Americans are going to be the minority in this country. People in positions of hiring, you better get smart. Your workforce should reflect what this country looks like,” Mr. Lee said in his acceptance speech for his honorary Oscar in November, a ceremony that was not televised.
“It’s easier to be president of the United States as a black person than be the head of the studio or head of a network,” he added.