I'd not like to thank...

Not everyone's happy to win an Oscar. Jennifer Rodger recalls some of the stars who've stuck to their guns and said no
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The award season is traditionally fertile ground for the attention seeker - the red carpets, the dresses, the tears - and nowhere more so than at the Oscars. But some stars grab the limelight by refusing an award rather than by accepting one. It's the gong-giving ritual nobody likes to talk about.

The award season is traditionally fertile ground for the attention seeker - the red carpets, the dresses, the tears - and nowhere more so than at the Oscars. But some stars grab the limelight by refusing an award rather than by accepting one. It's the gong-giving ritual nobody likes to talk about.

Perhaps they don't like what the award represents (the accolade "best actor" is promising, but an honorary Oscar is like your career's premature end credit). Or perhaps it's down to that old favourite, that they don't want to play along with a "media-hyped" event that's completely unrepresentative of their lives on the edge as a highly paid movie star/celebrity.

Whatever their excuse, though, when a star turns down an Oscar it ultimately tells you as much about them as any tearful acceptance speech ever could.

The screenwriter Dudley Nichols was the first to refuse an Oscar, back in 1936, to support a screenwriters' dispute. Few would doubt his sincerity, but it was Marlon Brando who first did it with panache. When Brando sent an Apache girl called Sacheen Littlefeather to turn down an Oscar in 1973 for The Godfather on his behalf, he wanted to draw attention to the plight of the Native American. "You are probably saying: 'What the hell does this have to do with the Academy Awards?'" said Brando, via his spokesperson. "The answer is that the motion picture community as much as anyone has been responsible for degrading the Indian." A heartfelt sentiment, and only slightly undermined when Sacheen Littlefeather was later discovered to be B-movie actress Maria Cruz.

There are easier ways of making your point, as George C Scott demonstrated. He was nominated four times in total and always refused to attend, because he believed that artists shouldn't be in competition with one another. In spite of his remarks that the Oscars were "an annual orgy of self-adulation, a mere meat parade, offensive, barbarous and innately corrupt," so good was his performance in Patton that the Academy refused to strike him from the 1970 nomination list. Fittingly, however, after his portrayal of a great military man, Scott won the stand-off. He stayed at home watching ice hockey while his producer picked up the statuette. The latter returned it to the Academy the next day, and there it remains.

Scott's no-show tactic caught on. In 1978, Woody Allen failed to collect his Oscar for Annie Hall, though the audience in Michael's Pub in New York were lucky enough to have him playing the jazz clarinet for them that night. Dustin Hoffman, too, has sporadically shunned the Oscars, describing them as "obscene, dirty and grotesque, no better than a beauty contest".

Sometimes, though, the stars' impassioned arguments backfire. When the surrealist film-maker Luis Buñuel's Tristana was nominated for best foreign film in 1970, he remarked: "Nothing would disgust me more, morally, than receiving an Oscar. I wouldn't have it in my home." He wasn't forced to make the choice: after that, he didn't win it.

Recently, nominees have developed a less risky method of upsetting the Academy - namely, by causing offence during their acceptance speeches. The documentary-maker Michael Moore used his thank-you time at the 2003 Oscars to condemn the invasion of Iraq, a few days after it was announced. He was greeted by a chorus of boos.

However, it did get the public's attention - arguably his goal. And Moore would later say that his reception motivated him to make Fahrenheit 9/11. He said: "Someone told me that this is the first movie made to justify an Oscar speech. In essence, it's true. When I gave that speech, it wasn't embraced by majority opinion. Maybe I needed to clarify myself. That probably had a lot to do with making this [ Fahrenheit 9/11] film."

In the end, the star who turns down an Oscar has their eye on a bigger prize - that of reminding everyone that their talent and principles are so exceptional they don't bear comparison with anyone else's. But sometimes, doing nothing is the most effective protest of all. Jane Fonda, dubbed "Hanoi Jane" by her detractors for her anti-Vietnam activities, won a best actress award for Klute in 1972, and kept her speech to the point. "There's a great deal to say," she said, "but I'm not going to say it tonight."

When it comes to some of the awards, you can see the refuseniks' point. This weekend, the 81-year-old director Sidney Lumet, who made Dog Day Afternoon and 12 Angry Men, will receive an honorary Oscar.

The bestowing of honorary Oscars is a murky business and not everyone is happy to get one. In 1986, Paul Newman didn't turn up for his. In taped remarks, Newman sarcastically observed how grateful he was that the statuette didn't come "wrapped as a gift certificate to Forest Lawn [a Hollywood memorial park]", going on to complain that his "best work is down the pike in front of me".

Peter O'Toole, too, resisted his honorary award - writing to the Academy in 2003 to say that he was "still in the game and might yet win the lovely bugger outright". He caved in, though, and took it anyway.

The institution is usually a way for the Academy to fill embarrassing lacunae in its voting. Neither Newman nor O'Toole had won any of their nominations. Barbara Stanwyck and Greta Garbo were nominated - and overlooked - four times; Deborah Kerr missed out six times before picking up her consolation prize. Robert Altman - nearly as old as Lumet and with more nominations - is a likely future candidate. Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant only ever got honoraries.

Not everybody is a popular choice, however. In one of the most infamous decisions in Oscar history, Elia Kazan ( On the Waterfront) was given an honorary in 1999. Kazan, a willing participant of the McCarthy purges of the 1950s, remains reviled by the liberal left. TV cameras zoomed in on Nick Nolte, Richard Dreyfuss and Ed Harris conspicuously not applauding during the standing ovation. Theirs was not the only protest.

Luckily for Lumet, his career is not yet over. His last actual nomination may have been back in 1982 with The Verdict, and he's just finished a courtroom drama with Vin Diesel. Find Me Guilty should go on release later this year.