Hollywood loves few things more than selling myths and legends about itself. Few of these yarns have lived longer than what happened at the 1973 Academy Awards, which involved Marlon Brando, John Wayne and a Native American activist named Sacheen Littlefeather.
Movie lovers generally remember that Brando sent Littlefeather on stage to turn down his Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather.
Littlefeather, dressed in buckskin and moccasins, read a terse statement of less than a minute, in which he politely explained for Brando that he “very regrettably cannot accept this very generous award” to “against the treatment of American Indians by today.” the film industry and so on to protest television in reruns.”
Once again, we’re inundated with the story of John Wayne and the Six Security Men, the lousy variety act many people believe played at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1973.
— Film authority Farran Nehme
She mentioned Wounded Knee, the South Dakota town that was then occupied by Native activists to mark the 1890 massacre of 300 Lakota by the US Army at that location.
Littlefeather was once interrupted by a chorus of catcalls, boos and scattered applause from the audience. She concluded with hope that “love and generosity will meet our hearts and understandings in the future.”
Get the latest from Michael Hiltzik
Commentary on Economics and More by a Pulitzer Prize Winner.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
The whole episode has been back in the news in recent weeks because the Academy apologized to Littlefeather, now 75, for welcoming her at the ceremony last week. The academy also said it would be hosting Littlefeather on September 17 for an evening of “conversations, healing and celebration.”
“The abuse you suffered because of that statement was unjustified and unjustified,” the academy’s apology read. Maybe it was a nod to the whistles from the audience, or maybe a blatant crack of Clint Eastwood wondering into the mic at the Oscars for Best Picture if he should do it “on behalf of all the shot cowboys” John Ford -Western over the years.”
But the part of the story that has grown over the years and has been unearthed again in articles about the apology is the John Wayne part. According to legend, while listening to Littlefeather backstage, Wayne became so angry that he had to be prevented from storming the stage by six security guards, either attacking Littlefeather or dragging her off the stage.
(The legend has also been cited in the coverage of Will Smith’s attack on Chris Rock onstage at this year’s Oscars, generally by people challenging descriptions of that attack as the Oscars’ “ugliest” moment — “What about John Wayne and Sacheen Littlefeather?” goes the typical rebuttal.)
The revival of the Wayne story caught the attention of one of our most learned and entertaining cineastes and film historians, Farran Nehme, who writes the indispensable film blog under the pen name Self-Styled Siren.
“Once again,” writes Nehme, “we are deluged with the story of John Wayne and the Six Security Men, the lousy variety act many believe played at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1973.”
Her conclusion after extensive reporting and research is, “Never happened before.” Rather, she says, the story began as an over-the-top yarn that Oscar show director Marty Pasetta began telling in interviews about a year later, “that every times it got more exciting when it was told” until it became “an enduring urban legend”.
Nehme’s efforts deserve credit for being an excellent model for debunking a story that has been cemented into history. Authors of historical non-fiction have often encountered this problem; i know i have In researching almost every one of my own books, I have found myself trying to track down a cherished historical “fact” and discovered that it has absolutely no basis in reality. It’s a chore that’s almost considered an occupational hazard.
In this case, Nehme not only has to contend with Pasetta’s version, but also one that Littlefeather herself has offered on numerous occasions, including in a 2020 documentary about herself. There, as Nehme reports, she says: “I became escorted off that stage by some armed guards… And luckily for that, because John Wayne was waiting in the wings, ready to pull me off the stage, and he had to be held back by six security guards because he was so outraged by my words was.”
Nehme begins her investigation by noting the development of Pasetta’s own story. In 1974, upon hearing Littlefeather speak, he told an interviewer: “John Wayne [is] backstage and he’s upset and I had to calm him down.” In 1984, he told another interviewer, “John Wayne was in the wings and he was so angry he wanted to get her off the stage.”
The six security guards (a suspiciously accurate number, Nehme notes) first surfaced in 1988, when he told a third interviewer, “We had an argument about what we had … John Wayne wanted out of there and physically yanked them off the stage.” It took six men to hold him back.”
Then there is the circumstantial evidence. When Littlefeather took the stage, no one knew what she was going to say – including Oscars producer Howard Koch, who merely told her she had 60 seconds to speak and then the stage would be blacked out and she would be escorted .
A clip of her performance shows that she was actually on stage for about a minute and 20 seconds. She spends about the first half minute introducing herself as Apache and President of the Native American Affirmative Image Committee. Only then does she say that Brando is declining the award and why. She then reluctantly follows hosts Roger Moore and Liv Ullman backstage.
As Nehme observes, this would indicate that within 45 seconds, John Wayne heard their words, decided they were infuriating, got up to launch an attack, and met resistance from six security guards.
Recall how she points out that Wayne had undergone lung cancer surgery nine years earlier, which removed two of his ribs and part of his left lung. After that, he was never quite alive and well. In fact, Wayne gasps noticeably during the final set piece of the television show, when Wayne comes onstage to invite all of the winners to a sallow mass performance of You Oughta Be in Pictures.
Wayne has never personally criticized Littlefeather; His general comment when asked about Brando’s rejection is that the actor should have come out and done it in person.
Littlefeather has been mocked for years, which the Academy alludes to in its apology. But she behaved with poise and calm; After her stage performance, Moore took her to the Oscars press room, where she read the lengthy statement Brando had written.
And of course, Brando was right to be critical of Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans then and now. The academy has tried to make amends in its own way. Among other things, an indigenous alliance was formed whose co-chair, producer Bird Runningwater, will be interviewing her next month. Native Americans have benefited from a slow development of inclusivity in American films in recent years, but much more needs to be done to erase their stereotypical treatment of the past.
As for the story of John Wayne, it is an insult to both the Academy and Wayne himself. We’ve been critical in the past of the tendency to accept Wayne’s on-screen personas of a rough-and-tumble American frontier, including, yes, as a Native American killer, as lifelike — particularly when naming Orange County Airport for him and installing a large statue of the Hollywood version of Wayne in front of his terminal.
Wayne was a die-hard political conservative, but in real life, according to his biographer Scott Eyman, he was a “well-mannered Edwardian man” who would never consider assaulting a woman. Nehme elicited this insight 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 said, “ever referred to that story or seemed to believe it.” It would only be fair to retract it entirely.
https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2022-08-23/column-did-john-wayne-try-to-assault-sacheen-littlefeather-at-the-1973-oscars-debunking-a-hollywood-myth Hiltzik: Rescuing John Wayne’s reputation as a bully