Marlon Brando's Stink-Bomb at the 1973 Oscars
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April 5, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 14
films in focus
by Andrew Sarris
OSCAR WILES (IX): In all the years I have been covering Oscar orgies for The Village Voice, I have never known a single incident to dominate with such paralyzing irrelevance every post-mortem conversation as has Marlon Brando's stink-bomb of a gesture this year. From the moment Apache Sacheen Littlefeather began doing her little thing for Marlon, the remainder of the festivities, before and after, faded out of the national consciousness like a bad dream. Hence, until I can exorcise Brando's ghost from this gala evening, I cannot even begin describing how the 45th annual award ceremony of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences came over on television two Tuesday nights ago -- March 27, 1973, to be precise, a night that will live in infamy for its sordid spectacle of unbridled ego, bad taste, and worse timing.
It was a night fully worth of the growing nastiness of the Nixon years -- but first the Brando business. What follows is a series of sententious one-liners to which I respond with all my legendary compassion and common sense. These one-line set-ups reflect partly what I've read and heard on the subject, and partly what I sense is straining to be uttered.
1. Marlon Brando demeaned the Indian cause by reducing it to an old-fashioned Hollywood ego trip. Nonsense, of course. At this point in their history as a distinct ethnic and racial group, the American Indians have nothing much left to lose, and least of all a sense of decorum.
2. Marlon Brando is not sincere about his feelings for the Indians. This position is a corollary of the axiom that no movie star is ever sincere about anything. I'd say that Brando is as sincere as anyone in the interlocking and nowadays incestuous fields of showbiz, politics and the pulpit, the arts and academe, and the media. He has been involved in a relatively dangerous confrontation with armed authority at least once in recent years, and his credentials on the Indian Question were verified long before the current fracas at Wounded Knee made the subject unusually newsworthy. Of course, there are always those who may demand as a proof of one's sincerity the giving up of all one's worldly goods and even one's life for the Cause, but these are usually the hypocritical counsels of the envious.
3. Marlon Brandon may not have been sincere, but his central-casting surrogate was, and the audience should not have booed her. This is a manifestation of Big Star-little starlet, Big Chief-little Indian mythology on the presumed moral superiority of the weak over the strong. That Apache Sacheen Littlefeather was reportedly once a contestant for Queen Vampire in a move publicity gambit some years ago, and is now beginning to make the rounds of the talk shows, should not diminish her reputation for sincerity, but it probably will.
4. Marlon Brando should have used a less photogenic specimen of the Indian people, perhaps a fat old sow of an Indian woman, to counter the Hollywood aura of the casting. The argument here is less moral than tactical, and incipiently neo-Godardian in its penetration of an aesthetic crust with a political thrust. I disagree. Brando's casting had the merit of preserving a certain suspenseful ambiguity as to the lady's possible status as the latest of Brando's aboriginal amours before the polemical trap was sprung on the stage.
5. Movie stars should not take public stands on political issues. This attitude is seldom applied equally to all shades of the ideological spectrum. Thus people who think Bob Hope is just peachy tend to find Jane Fonda too preachy, and vice versa.
6. This was not the time or place to talk about the Indians and Wounded Knee. Again I disagree. The evening was a shambles already. At the very least, Brando can be credited with introducing some surprise and spontaneity to a dismal procession of programmed cue-card squinters.
7. Brando showed rank ingratitude to an industry that was honoring him. To the industry Brndo owes little or nothing. To the medium perhaps much more. It is a bit silly and even hypocritical for Brando to blame Hollywood movies for the plight of the Indians when he himself has recently raked in a cool million and a half for a movie which, many ethnic critics contend, vilifies the Italians in much the same way that westerns are supposed to have vilified Indians. Besides, Indians were massacred long before the invention of the motion picture. Even so, the American Cinema has been infinitely kinder to the American Indian than to the American Black. As a film historian, I sense the stirrings of ideological censorship as much from idealistic pronouncements like Brando's as from sinister stratagems of Clay Whitehead.
8. Brando should have appeared in person to reject the award. This criticism contains both moral and tactical elements in that both Brando's courage and his judgment are in question. Was Brando afraid to confront the Academy audience in person, or was he afraid instead of being accused of grandstanding? It was a classic example of his being damned if he did and damned if he didn't. I suspect that what was at work here was a multi-layered murkiness of self-hatred. There are ample precedents for not showing up to accept an award, and even for rejecting it outright. Back in 1936 both John Ford and Dudley Nichols stayed away from the Oscar ceremonies which honored them for the direction and writing of "The Informer." Why? Simply because they wished to display their solidarity with the Screen Director's Guild and the Screen Writer's Guild against the Academy, a studio-sponsored guild-busting company union at that time. In recent years, the no-shows at Oscar time have become a running joke, and only two years ago George C. Scott went Marlon Brando one better by rejecting his Oscar in advance. The point is that if Brando had threatened to refuse his award long before the balloting, he might not have won at all. Also, Scott never cast into question the value of his work. What he objected to was all the cynical promotion that accompanied the granting of the Oscars. Once before he had raised similar objections on the occasion of his being nominated for a supporting award, and he was written off by some people in the industry and its kept press as a sorehead publicity-seeker who would never win an award anyway. But it was Scott in 1970, and not Brando in 1972, who gave Hollywood a performance they couldn't refuse. It was always clear that it had been Scott who had made "Patton" and not "Patton" that had made Scott. By contrast, Marlon Brando was simply the highest-priced ornament of a commercial phenomenon. Although it was Brando who frisked about on the covers of Time and Newsweek, it was Pacino, Duvall, Caan, Castellano, Lettieri, et al., who did the really heavy work. There was something almost scandalous in Brando's receiving an acting nomination while Pacino, with a role twice as large, was being consigned by Paramount to the supporting category. Significantly, Brando did not receive an award from either the National Society of Film Critics or the New York Film Critics, whereas Pacino was named best actor by the former group and Robert Duvall best supporting actor by the latter. Hence Brando was never all that much of a leadpipe cinch even with the trumpetings of the mass media behind him. Whether by design or inadvertence, Brando's outrageous gesture effectively stilled any discussion of the performance itself. No longer was it pertinent to compare Brando's congealed characterization in "The Godfather" with his fire and music in "Streetcar," "Zapata," "The Wild One," "On the Waterfront," and "The Last Tango in Paris." Now the only pertinent question was whether one was for or against the American Indian. There were stories that Brando was on his way to Wounded Knee. Perhaps he may still wind up there or at one of its symbolic equivalents. Not that he should have to prove himself in that way. Brando is an inspired actor, not a gifted guerrilla warrior. Great actors are rare and precious, and therefore it is depressing when they degrade their gifts with the guilt of failed politics. As it happens, Brando's simplistic statement failed even in the very elementary task of clarifying the complex alignments and antagonisms operating at Wounded Knee. But then the great limitation of the Method was always its habitual sacrifice of thought and feeling.
From the point of view of The Village Voice, what was saddest about the Brandomaniacal bent of this year's Oscar orgy was its causing to be overlooked the first Oscar ever for our own Howard Smith, who, along with co-producer and co-director Sarah Kernochan, walked off with a prize for the documentary feature "Marjoe," which I naturally panned when it came out. Ms. Kernochan, attired in a tuxedo of sorts, noted that she was the first woman film-maker ever to win an Oscar, and no one yet has been able to refute her. Neither Ms. Kernochan nor Mr. Smith chose to mention Marjoe himself, with whom they are reportedly feuding, but that was par for the evening. All sorts of people were not mentioning other people. Thus, though "Cabaret" picked up eight awards in an apparent mini-revolt of belated moral revulsion against the sheer gruesomeness of "The Godfather," the name of Christopher Isherwood never passed anyone's lips. Some years ago screenwriter Edward Anhalt managed to mention almost everyone connected with "Becket" except Jean Anouilh, and at this year's Tony Awards, Hugh Wheeler managed to pick up an award for the book of "Night Music" without mentioning Ingmar Bergman's name -- though Stephen Sondheim later did acknowledge the Swedish film-maker very gracefully. The Godfather "team" seemed especially suspicious of each other, with only Peter Bart from the front office serving as a common meeting ground between director-scenarist Francis Ford Coppola, who is now in on the sequel, and producer Albert Ruddy, who is out.
All in all, no Oscar spectacle in history left me feeling so alienated and indifferent. I was moderately relieved that Luis Bunuel's "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" managed to prevail over "I Love You Rosa" and three nondescript nominees that only the Academy can dredge up as alleged contenders from the wide, wide world beyond Beverly Hills. Later Bunuel repudiated the Oscar in spirit if only to remain consistent with his classical baiting of the bourgeoisie. The songs were the worst ever, and the mind boggles at the aural abyss thereby evoked. Certainly Curtis Mayfield's, "Super Fly" could have taken any of the nominated songs even if it were sung sideways, but this was not the year for black crime as far as the Academy was concerned. That is to say that if "The Godfather" were about blacks, it would have been attacked even in the black community as irresponsible. By the same token, if "Sounder" had been about whites, it would never have obtained a distributor. I was slightly amused to note that the film clip taken from "Sounder" -- the father returning from prison -- is a straight, though crude, steal from the scene in "Gone with the Wind" in which Ashley returns from the war to Melanie. But of course none of the defenders of "Sounder" is conditioned to acknowledge a stylistic rip-off across the chasm of race and ideology even when said rip-off is staring them in the face...
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