It’s become cliche for actors, writers, and directors to say that they don’t care about winning an Academy Award, even if they do. But in the 90-year history of the Oscars, there have been very few people who won a golden knight statuette and then told the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to keep it.
One of the most famous instances was in 1973, when Marlon Brando won Best Actor for his role in The Godfather. When the presenters announced that he’d won, the camera panned to an Apache actress named Sacheen Littlefeather, who the announcer stated would accept the award on Brando’s behalf. But Littlefeather, who was the president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, soon clarified that she was actually rejecting it for him.
“[Brando] very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” she said. “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.” (The federal government was then waging armed conflict against Native American activists in Wounded Knee, South Dakota.)
The backlash was swift. Midway through Littlefeather’s speech, audience members booed. Later that night, Clint Eastwood mused about whether he should present the Best Picture award “on behalf of all the cowboys shot in John Ford westerns.” After the ceremony, many people falsely claimed that Littlefeather was not really Apache. John Wayne, for instance, told the New York Times that “[Brando] should have appeared that night and stated his views instead of taking some little unknown girl and dressing her up in an Indian outfit.”
It was the first time an actor had sent someone to reject an Oscar in person, but it wasn’t the first time someone had refused the award. George C. Scott also famously rejected his Best Actor Oscar for the 1970 film Patton. Yet unlike Brando, whose snub caught the Academy by surprise, Scott had actually been saying he wouldn’t accept an Oscar for years.
Scott received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder without much fanfare. But when he received another Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Hustler two years later, he told the Academy he didn’t want it, since he disagreed, on principle, with a competition that pitted actors against each other. He didn’t receive another nomination until 1971, when the Academy was forced to recognize his role as General George S. Patton.
“Patton was such a universally praised performance, and he was such a shoe-in to win that year, that he had to be nominated,” says Dennis Bingham, the director of the film studies program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Scott once again informed the Academy that he didn’t accept the nomination and wouldn’t accept an award. This made it all the more surprising when he won—causing presenter Goldie Hawn to exclaim “Oh my god” when she opened the envelope.
Bingham thinks this stunt actually worked out in the Academy’s favor. “They were in one of their periodic spells where the public was questioning their legitimacy,” he says. In the late 1960s, actor Cliff Robertson’s successful advertising campaign had raised questions about whether actors could essentially buy their awards, alerting to the public to the practice of Oscar campaigning.
“So they took the Oscar to George C. Scott as an opportunity to say, ‘Well, no one buys these awards, sometimes people don’t even want them; we’ll give it to George C. Scott because we just simply thought he was the best,’” Bingham says. “And so it actually did something to re-legitimize the award in the public’s eyes,” even as Scott publicly derided the ceremony as “a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons.”
Scott’s accusation of “contrived suspense” may have been about keeping the winners a mystery until the ceremony, which the Academy hadn’t always done before the Oscars were televised. The advent of TV also made it more imperative for stars to show up to get their awards, rather than stay home and collect them later like Katharine Hepburn, who skipped all 12 times she was nominated, including the four times she won.
But even in the early days of the Academy Awards, you could still make a statement with your absence if you did it right. Screenwriter Dudley Nichols did this when he became the first person to decline an Oscar for the 1935 film, The Informant.
Nichols boycotted the Oscars to protest the Academy’s refusal to acknowledge the Screen Writers’ Guild, among other unions. At the time, the Academy opposed independent unions on the grounds that the Academy itself already served as a union for workers. Nichols was the only winner to boycott the event and reject his award, even mailing it back twice when the Academy tried to send it to him.
In 1938, Nichols’ boycott payed off, when the National Labor Relations Board certified the Screen Writers Guild as the representative of film industry writers. Once the reason for his protest had passed, Nichols finally accepted his Oscar.