Pathways: Controversy at the Oscars, From Dalton Trumbo to Sacheen Littlefeather

87th Academy Awards - Atmosphere

For the second year in a row, the Oscars are drawing howls of protest over a lack of racial diversity. The nominees for major acting awards are about as monochromatic as a Donald Trump campaign rally (even more so, actually), inspiring Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith and many other prominent African Americans to boycott the 2016 ceremony. Yet the Academy is hardly new to racial and political contention. 

From Hattie McDaniel’s segregated table at the back of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in 1940, to Marlon Brando’s 1973 protest against Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans, to Dalton Trumbo’s posthumous 1993 Oscar for a film he wrote while on Hollywood’s blacklist four decades earlier, the gilded statuette has long been a lightning rod for controversy—and the spotlit stage a soapbox. Let’s explore this history through connections in Mediander Topics.

1. Academy Awards to Dalton Trumbo

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/©Bleecker Street Media/Everett Collection
Bryan Cranston in Trumbo (Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/©Bleecker Street Media/Everett Collection)

Behold the irony: This year Bryan Cranston is nominated for an Oscar for portraying a man who wasn’t allowed to accept his own. Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted by the motion picture industry after he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947, during the nation’s Red Scare. He and nine other actors and writers who declined to cooperate were imprisoned and later denied employment in Hollywood films. To skirt the blacklist, Trumbo used a front—a friend who lent his name to Trumbo’s work—to submit scripts for Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956), both of which won Academy Awards for screenwriting. Trumbo was posthumously given an Oscar for Roman Holiday in 1993.

 2. Dalton Trumbo to Elia Kazan

TrumboKazanScreenshotTrumbo didn’t name names, but Elia Kazan did. When the Academy Award–winning director of On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire was called before the HUAC in 1952 to identify communists in Tinseltown, he named eight people, all of whom were added to the blacklist. Kazan’s reputation as a snitch followed him the length of his career. As he approached the stage to receive his lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999, many in the audience registered disapproval by refusing to stand or applaud. Amy Madigan, Nick Nolte and Sir Ian McKellen all remained seated, as did Ed Harris—who, four years later, played the lead in the original stage version of Trumbo. (Harris’s successor in the role, Tim Robbins, created his own Oscar controversy in 1993, when he shamed the U.S. government for refusing aid to Haitian HIV patients.)

3. Elia Kazan to A Streetcar Named Desire

Kazan’s Streetcar Named Desire (1951) won four of the 12 Oscars it was nominated for, but Kazan and his protégé, 26-year-old Marlon Brando, both lost in their respective categories (best director and actor). The Academy rectified this bungle three years later, when the pair won for On the Waterfront (1954). If not for Brando’s snub, Streetcar would have swept the four main acting categories, a distinction no film has approached before or since. In hindsight, it’s an obvious oversight by the Academy members. Two decades later, Brando snubbed them right back.

4. Marlon Brando to Sacheen Littlefeather

Sacheen Littlefeather holding Marlon Brando's speech refusing to accept his Academy Award for THE GO
Sacheen Littlefeather on Oscar night, 1973 (Everett Collection)

When Brando’s name was announced as a winner at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony, for his performance as Vito Corleone in The Godfather, a proxy in a buckskin gown made her way to the stage. Sacheen Littlefeather, president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, had been conscripted by Brando to refuse the award on his behalf. In a brief speech peppered with some boos from the audience, Littlefeather explained Brando’s stance:

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…and on television in movie reruns and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.

5. Sacheen Littlefeather to Academy Awards

LittlefeatherAcademyAwardsBrando’s 1973 Oscars boycott set the stage for Jada Pinkett Smith’s boycott of 2016. After she posted her video response to the Academy’s nominations, none other than Littlefeather wrote to express support. Pinkett Smith replied the same day:

Dear Sacheen Littlefeather: I am deeply honored that you took the time to write me. I am very aware of who you are, and I have watched your speech at the Oscars many times. Your speech and the position you and Mr. Brando took was a much needed validation for my position. Thank you for being one of the brave and courageous to help pave the way for those of us who need a reminder of the importance to simply be true.

“I’m so happy the conversation is happening,” said Littlefeather of the #OscarsSoWhite boycott, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It’s about representation of everybody, everybody who isn’t being shown right now. And about showing all of the culture.”

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Feature Photo: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP