I Coulda Been A Contender, Charlie!

Marlon Brando In 'On The Waterfront'

On March 27th 1973, the actor Marlon Brando declined the Academy Award for Best Actor for his career-reviving performance in The Godfather. The Native American actress, Sacheen Littlefeather, attended the ceremony in Brando’s place, stating that the actor "very regretfully" could not accept the award, as he was protesting Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans in film.

Regarded by many as the greatest actor of his generation, Brando earned his first Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the brutish Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Nominated again for roles in Viva Zapata! (1952) and Julius Caesar (1953), he won his first Academy Award for On the Waterfront (1954) where he spoke the memorable lines of the title of this blog. However, his career took a serious nose dive after this and he became a virtual pariah in Hollywood before The Godfather restored his tarnished reputation and made him, once again, a bankable star.

Brando had been involved in social causes for years, speaking publicly for African-American civil rights and the Black Panther Party. His Oscar statement expressed support for the American Indian Movement (AIM) and referenced the (then) ongoing situation at Wounded Knee – the South Dakota town had been seized by AIM members the previous month and was currently under siege by U.S. military forces. Wounded Knee had been the site of a massacre of Native Americans by U.S. government forces in 1890 – a subject covered in one of my earlier blogs.

In 1973, Native Americans had virtually no representation in the film industry and were primarily used as extras. Native American studies scholar Dina Gilio-Whitaker wrote "Leading roles depicting Indians in several generations of Westerns were almost always given to white actors." But they weren’t just neglected or replaced in film; they were disrespected, degraded and demonised – a realisation that crippled Brando’s image of the industry.

A tsunami of criticism toppled over Brando and Littlefeather following the Oscars, from peers in the industry and the media. Still, Brando lent the Native American community a once in a lifetime opportunity to raise awareness of their treatment in front of 85 million viewers, leveraging an entertainment platform for political justice in unprecedented fashion. His controversial rejection of the award (which no winner has repeated since) remains one of the most powerful moments in Oscar history.

The lines spoken by by Terry Malloy – Brando’s character in On the Waterfront – are the lament of a promising boxer who bitterly regretted his lack of honour and his act of selling out by deliberately throwing a fight he could have won on the instructions of a mob boss. Brando could have followed a similar, easy option in real-life but showed the importance of acting according to your conscience.

Ray Henshaw