It’s 2019 And Hollywood Finally Awarded An Oscar To A Native American For The First Time
In 1973, Marlon Brando famously declined his Oscar for his role in “The Godfather,” to take a stance against Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans. Actor and activist, Sacheen Littlefeather famously went on stage to refuse the award on Brando’s behalf at the ceremony. It’s only taken a mere 46 years since that day, but this year, a Native American actor finally received the recognition he deserves and was awarded an Oscar for his talent.
Hollywood’s complicated relationship with Native Americans goes back to the industry’s earliest movies set in the Wild West.
Nearly 50 years ago, Marlon Brando decided to make good use of his privileged position to decline the Academy Award as a way to protest the mistreatment of Native American actors in the film industry. When Sacheen Littlefeather came to deliver the speech, she told the listeners of the program about the racially-based aggression she experienced including how actor John Wayne was held back by security because he was outraged by Littlefeather.
It only took Hollywood nearly 50 years, but this weekend, the Academy finally recognized the first Native American actor with an award.
During Sunday’s Governors Awards, a special ceremony that hands out honorary Oscars for lifetime achievement and humanitarian causes, the Native American actor and Vietnam war veteran was given an honorary award for career achievement.
Wes Studi’s career has spanned nearly 30 years and it hasn’t always been easy.
Studi, a Vietnam War veteran who was an advocate for Native American issues before he pursued a career as an actor, first appeared in a small role in Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves,” but made a searing impression as the villain Magua in Michael Mann’s 1992 epic “The Last of the Mohicans.” His casting as the leading character in Walter Hill’s “Geronimo: An American Legend” (1993) was a milestone for Hollywood —some studios at the time demanded that Hill cast a white actor in the lead role.
Though Studi was featured in many films, he had never been nominated for an award over the course of his career.
Though Studi has featured in many projects centered on Native American history (“Into the West,” “The New World,” “Hostiles”), he has also been one of Hollywood’s most reliable and memorable character actors for a generation, with a varied portfolio of work, including a role as a grizzled cop in “Heat” (1995), a mysterious superhero in “Mystery Men” (1999), and an alien patriarch in “Avatar” (2009). Studi, who this weekend became the first Native American actor to win an Oscar, had never even been nominated over the course of his long career.
Christian Bale, who presented Studi with the award, put a finer point on the issue and called out all the people in the room.
“Too few opportunities in film have gone to Native or indigenous artists, and we’re a room full of people who can change that,” said Christian Bale, Studi’s Hostiles co-star, who presented him with the Oscar. “I’d simply like to say, it’s about time,” said Studi, who delivered much of his speech in Cherokee. “It’s been a wild and wonderful ride, and I’m really proud to be here tonight as the first indigenous Native American to receive an Academy Award. It’s a humbling honor to receive an award for something I love to do.”
The Governor Awards were ideated as a standalone ceremony —separate from the Oscars, to create a free space for winners and presenters to speak and be celebrated with no time restraints.
The honorary Oscar used to be given out as part of the main ceremony. It was a stately portion of the broadcast that required a long introduction, a grand video montage of the honoree’s work, and usually a rambling speech from the winner. In 2009, concerns about long-running times led to the creation of the Governors Awards, a non-televised ceremony held at the Grand Ballroom of the Hollywood and Highland Center.
Taking the special awards out of the hugely televised ceremony —and the hands of aggrieved network-TV executives— has actually been a benefit for the Oscars, lending the Governors Awards their own atmosphere of genuine acclaim where the winners and presenters can speak a little more candidly and without commercially motivated time restrictions.
Meanwhile, fellow honorees Lina Wertmüller and Geena Davis called for gender parity in Hollywood.
“She would like to change the Oscar to a feminine name,” Isabella Rossellini said, translating Italian director Lina Wertmüller’s acceptance speech for her honorary Oscar. “She would like to call it ‘Anna.’ Women in the room, please scream, ‘We want Anna, a female Oscar!’”
Wertmüller’s speech was the capstone of a night devoted to upending some of Hollywood’s most exclusionary traditions and celebrating some of its outsiders. Not only was Studi the first Native American to be recognized by the Academy, but Lina Wertmüller became the first woman ever to receive a best director Oscar nomination when she was recognized for 1976’s Seven Beauties.
“How do you correct centuries of patriarchal domination?” the screenwriter, producer, and director, Jane Campion asked. “It started with Lina Wertmüller.”
Campion, together with Little Women director Greta Gerwig, spoke on the history of women nominated for best director by the Academy. “It’s a very short history, more of a haiku,” Campion said, noting that 350 men have been nominated for best director, versus five for women —including herself and Gerwig, who called Wertmüller “a godmother to us all.”
‘Thelma and Louise’ star Geena Davis called out the industry on the very few opportunities of empowerment given to women.
Also during the black-tie dinner, Geena Davis, became the 39th recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, which celebrates “outstanding contributions to humanitarian causes” for building upon her acting career in films like “The Accidental Tourist,” “Beetlejuice,” “Thelma & Louise,” and “A League of Their Own” to become an advocate for gender equality in media.
Davis delivered a version of the gender-parity pitch she has made in recent years, speaking this time to the industry group gathered in the Dolby Ballroom. “Thelma and Louise made me realize how few opportunities we give women to come out of a movie feeling excited and empowered by the female characters,” Davis said. “The message we are sending is that men and boys are far more valuable to us than women and girls. Whatever you’re working on right now, boost the number of female characters…and then, cast me!”
Each year there is a lot of debate over who should receive these Honorary Oscars, as well as the Hersholt and the Irving J. Thalberg Memorial Award (which was not given this year). Governors come prepared to the meeting to advocate for their choices and a well-researched and delivered presentation can make a big difference. Afterward, candidates must receive a certain threshold of votes. No matter the process, one can’t argue that the achievements of this group of filmmakers meet the criteria of what appeared to be the prevailing sentiment at the Governors Awards—that the event was a chance to right past wrongs, to fill in the many gaps of Academy history, and all we can say is; at long last.