Since the Academy Awards were inaugurated in the late 1920s, Oscar refusals have been vanishingly rare. First of all, who doesn’t love getting recognized? Only the very biggest stars can afford to shun something as career-making as a golden statuette. Katharine Hepburn, who was nominated 12 times, never attended a single ceremony — but she never said no, either. Marlon Brando’s statement was probably the most memorable: In 1973, he sent Apache actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather to the stage to refuse the award for him, in a bid to raise awareness about the mistreatment of Native people in the film industry.
But the first person to turn down an Oscar didn’t do so out of self-satisfaction, and he didn’t do it to change the diversity of the industry. No, it was a good old-fashioned beef between unions and management.
Though his refusal didn’t cause the kind of shock waves more modern kiss-offs have — perhaps because the Oscars weren’t yet televised — his refusal to accept the award was revolutionary.
The Oscars were only in their eighth year in 1936 when screenwriter Dudley Nichols got the nod for Best Screenplay. His film The Informer was set during the Irish war of independence, and it was a hot ticket that year. Along with Nichols’ award for writing, the film won Best Actor, Best Director and Best Score.
While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was set up in 1927 to honor excellence, “it was also intended to be a union,” explains Dennis Bingham, director of film studies at Indiana University. But it represented the studios, rather than serving the members’ best interests. “[Nichols] refused the Oscar because he didn’t want to cooperate with the Academy at a time when the Academy was trying to represent the studio position.”
Nichols, who would later gain immortality by penning the classic screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby and proto-Western Stagecoach, was also one of Hollywood’s highest-paid writers and a founding member of the screenwriters guild. Though his action didn’t cause the kind of shock waves more modern kiss-offs have — perhaps because the Oscars weren’t yet televised — his refusal to accept the award was revolutionary, and a serious salvo in the fight between studios and guilds in Hollywood’s formative years.
After the ceremony, Sonya Levien, another screenwriter, sent a jubilant telegram to Nichols: “Hooray to you for winning the prize, and hooray to you for giving it up.” The Academy sent the award to his home the following day, and Nichols sent it right back. They sent it to him again, and again he returned it.
Nichols was elected president of the Screen Writers Guild — now the Writers Guild of America — the following year. The year after that, when the dispute between the guilds and studios had died down, Nichols accepted his delayed Academy Award and attended the Oscars, alongside representatives from the actors and directors guilds. His side had won a seat at the table. But was it because of his bold, public act?
Maybe not. “Change happens when power acts … But when you’re an individual and you don’t have economic power and you’re not the head of a large movement, you don’t tend to have much of an impact,” says Harry Chotiner, a film historian and adjunct assistant professor of film studies at New York University. While Nichols was respected by other writers, he was no household name.
But to other writers, he was an inspiration. “Nichols saw an opportunity to make a point by turning down his Oscar, which at that time came from the Academy, a company union,” says Bingham. Unions in the film industry were facing an existential threat. But Nichols — both through grandstanding and through old-fashioned leadership — saw his nascent guild through that storm. His acceptance in 1938 was less a capitulation, says Chotiner, and more an olive branch.
Nominees and winners this awards season have been expressing their own dissatisfaction — witness Joaquin Phoenix’s didactic speech about the industry’s responsibility to include people of color when he won the BAFTA this year. But standing up and refusing the award could have had an even bigger impact.
That impact, unfortunately, might be on the careers of the principled. Though Nichols’ best work was ahead of him when he refused that Oscar, and he was nominated three more times, he never won again.