What did Clint Eastwood say after Sacheen Littlefeather's 1973 Oscars speech?

Bruno Cooke August 16, 2022
What did Clint Eastwood say after Sacheen Littlefeather's 1973 Oscars speech?
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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In accepting the Academy Museum’s “statement of reconciliation,” which it offered her in June this year, Sacheen Littlefeather noted the patience and “sense of humor” of Indians, or Native Americans. She didn’t mention John Wayne, who reportedly needed restraining by six security guards, or Clint Eastwood, who presented the Best Picture Award that evening.

*Sacheen Littlefeather died aged 75 from breast cancer on October 2, 2022. Her death came weeks after she received an apology over how she was treated at the Academy Awards.

Sacheen was in her mid 20s when she delivered Marlon Brando’s speech at the Academy Awards in 1973. 

Shortly after she left the stage, Eastwood took to it. He was delivering the Best Picture Award to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. But he also commented on what had just happened. What did he say that’s proved divisive now, 50 years down the line?

At the 1973 Academy Awards, Sacheen Littlefeather refuses the Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando who won for his role in The Godfather. She carries a letter from Brando in which he explains he refused the award in protest of American treatment of the Native Americans.

What did Clint Eastwood say after Sacheen Littlefeather’s 1973 Oscars speech?

Eastwood’s way of addressing Littlefeather’s speech was to consider making a joke. Or rather, to present as if he was considering making a joke.

“I don’t know if I should present this award,” he said, “on behalf of all the cowboys shot in all the John Ford westerns over the years.”

The joke landed well enough, or at least appears to have done. 

Watch the clip in question below. You can hear laughter and applause immediately after Eastwood’s remark. Although it’s worth noting that the reaction it garnered was muted in comparison to that which followed Littlefeather’s speech.

Why are people talking about it now?

That all happened in 1973 – nearly 50 years ago. But two or three recent developments mean it’s topical again today.

The first is that last year, Twitter user @rafaelshimunov shared clips of Sacheen Littlefeather and Clint Eastwood back to back. His tweet fetched nearly 200K likes.

This raised the 1973 Oscars in the public consciousness. This year’s Oscars ceremony had ups and downs of its own, which generated more interest in Littlefeather’s speech.

Then, in June this year, David Rubin, who is the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, sent Sacheen a letter of apology entitled Statement of Reconciliation.

Photo by Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Red Nation Film Festival

Littlefeather responds to apology

Rubin stressed the fact that an apology from the Academy was long overdue. He also noted how important a “commitment to facilitating the broadest representation” is to the Academy’s mission to “inspire imagination and connect the world through cinema.”

In other words, the Academy sought to make amends. It mentioned only Sacheen herself and Marlon Brando, whose Oscar she declined on his behalf.

Sacheen issued a statement in response. In it, she talks about an upcoming program of oral history projects she and the Academy have been working on together. It’s due for release in September 2022.

“Regarding the Academy’s apology to me,” she says, “We Indians are very patient people – it’s only been 50 years! We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It’s our method of survival.”

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Discussions have arisen regarding Eastwood’s back catalogue

In the wake of the Twitter post that directed attention to the remark Clint Eastwood made after Sacheen Littlefeather’s speech in 1973, a debate emerged about the role his films might have played in shaping attitudes towards different ethnic groups.

For his part, OP @rafaelshimunov linked to several articles or forums discussing the way Eastwood’s films present Asian Americans (in Gran Torino); Muslims (in American Sniper); and abuse (in High Plains Drifter).

Fox News jumped on the Twitter thread, too. The outlet reported in October 2021 that “woke activists” had “tried and failed” to “cancel” Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood. 

Shimunov celebrated it had done so, thanking the organisation “for the additional 300,000 viewers” and adding: “You’re a legend for this one.”

If you have found this article disturbing, the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia offers advice on dealing with racial trauma, which you can access here. The Counseling Center at the University of Illinois offers counseling on coping with race-related stress, which you can access here.

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Bruno Cooke has been a freelance journalist since 2019, primarily with GRV Media. He was an early contributor to The Focus, and has written for HITC, Groundviews and the Sheffield University newspaper – he earned his MA in Global Journalism there in 2021. He’s the Spoken Word Poetry Editor for The Friday Poem, and self-published his debut novel Reveries in 2019, which his mum called both a “fine read” and “excellent Christmas present”. Bruno has lived in China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines and likes, among other things: bicycle touring, black and white Japanese films, pub quizzes, fermentation and baklava. In 2023, Bruno will set off with his partner on a round-the-world cycle.