Unlike Bob Dylan, These 11 Artists Flat-Out Refused Their Honors

By
Photo: Getty Images

It's safe to assume the bloom is off the Bob Dylan rose as far as the Swedish Academy is concerned. After the organization made the controversial decision to award Dylan the 2016 Nobel Prize for literature in mid-October, the singer first ignored the honor, leading one academy member to call him “impolite and arrogant.” Once he had finally acknowledged the award, Dylan briefly teased the idea of attending the December 10 ceremony — but not long after, the academy said it had received word that he would not be coming to Stockholm for the event due to “pre-existing commitments.” Late last week, the academy suggested that Dylan could deliver his acceptance speech sometime next year, when he will apparently travel to Stockholm for a concert, but reports of the possibility have traces of wishful thinking about them: Dylan himself has said no such thing, at least not yet.

Leave it to the enigmatic Dylan to be so nonchalant in declining to attend the ceremony for one of the most prestigious honors he’s been awarded in more than a half century of hosannas. (He did show up at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his induction in 1988, at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1997, and at the White House to accept his Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.) But at least the Swedish Academy can find some comfort in knowing that Dylan hasn't outright refused their award, as these artists each did when receiving various other honors of their own.

Sinclair Lewis Refuses Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith (1926)
“All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous,” wrote the American novelist in turning down the honor for his book about an idealistic medical researcher. He may have been influenced by a case of sour grapes: two of his earlier novels, Main Street and Babbitt, had both been recommended for the Pulitzer by the nominating committee but overruled by the trustees of Columbia University. (Lewis did go on to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, and he may be due a posthumous honor for the uncanny predictions of his 1935 novel of populism and demagoguery, It Can’t Happen Here.)

Jean-Paul Sartre Rejects Nobel Prize for Literature (1964)
Naturally, the author of Being and Nothingness questioned the existence of awards such as the Nobel Prize. Fifty years after he declined the honor, the Swedish Academy released a letter from its archives that showed the French man of letters had written one indicating he would not accept the award if it were offered to him. The universe being irrational, the Academy didn’t receive Sartre’s letter until after they’d already made their decision.

John Lennon Returns His M.B.E. (1969)
The moody Beatle and his bandmates were made Members of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (M.B.E.) in 1965, but Lennon gave his title back four years later, citing several reasons — including England’s involvement in the “Nigeria-Biafra thing,” the nation’s support of the U.S. in the Vietnam conflict and the declining fortunes of his new single with the Plastic Ono Band, “Cold Turkey.” In reference to his and Yoko’s new Bag Productions enterprise, he signed his letter of repudiation “Sir John of Bag.”    

George C. Scott Says No to the Oscars (1971)
The formidable actor, who despised what he perceived to be “popularity contests” among artists, tried unsuccessfully to withdraw his nomination for Best Supporting Actor (for The Hustler) at the 34th Academy Awards in 1962. A decade later, he simply stayed away from the ceremony. He was reportedly at home on his farm in New York, watching hockey, when Goldie Hawn announced him as the Best Actor winner for his role in Patton. The snub made Scott the first actor to renounce an Oscar. "I wasn't able to shock the Academy into doing something constructive," he later said of his position.

Marlon Brando Declines Academy Award for Best Actor (1973)
“I’m gonna make him an offer he won’t refuse” is arguably Brando's most classic line as Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 hit The Godfather. But when the Motion Picture Academy awarded him the Best Actor Oscar for that role the following year, Brando refused it. In his place he sent Sacheen Littlefeather, an actress and then-president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. To a smattering of boos, she said Brando “very regretfully” could not accept the award in order to protest the stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans in film.   

Sinead O’Connor Boycotts the Grammys, Refuses Her Award (1991)
The singer called her second album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, and it was both a critical and commercial smash, selling more than seven million copies worldwide and being nominated for four Grammys, including Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. She ended up winning the award for Best Alternative Musical performance, but it turned out those she didn't want that, either: she refused it, citing the extreme commercialism of the awards. Public Enemy boycotted that year’s ceremony as well, protesting the fact that the Academy’s rap-related awards would not be broadcast on prime-time television. 

Julie Andrews Declines Tony Nomination (1996)
Theater lovers were appalled when the Blake Edwards musical Victor/Victoria was shut out of virtually every category in the 1996 Tony Awards. Only the star, Julie Andrews, received a nomination, for Best Performance By a Leading Actress in a Musical — but the snubs didn't sit well with her, either. During a curtain call at a matinee performance, she announced her wish to withdraw her name from consideration. She preferred, she said, “to stand with the egregiously overlooked.” 

Nick Cave Requests Withdrawal of His MTV Video Music Award Nomination (1996)
Nominated by MTV as Best Male Artist for his Murder Ballads album, Cave wrote the network to say thanks, but no thanks. Although he was “grateful and flattered” for the recognition, he wrote, he preferred to leave such honors to artists more comfortable with competition: “My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature.” Someone knight that man.

Gorillaz Resign From Consideration for the Mercury Prize (2001)
Gorillaz’s self-titled debut album was the odds-on favorite to win the award for best album from the U.K. and Ireland in 2001. But the cartoon bassist Murdoc spoke for the virtual band (formed by Blur’s Damon Albarn and graphic artist Jamie Hewlett) when he suggested the committee “nominate some other poor Muppet.” Winning such an award, he said, was “sorta like carrying a dead albatross round your neck for eternity.” PJ Harvey ultimately won the award for her album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.

David Bowie Turns Down Knighthood (2003)
If there’s nothing especially rock ‘n’ roll about accepting an appointment to the Order of the British Empire, David Bowie was too polite to say so. Instead, when he turned down a C.B.E. – Commander of the Order of the British Empire – in 2000, he simply said, “I seriously don’t know what it’s for.” In so doing, he joined a long list of esteemed Brits who have renounced their appointments, including Roald Dahl, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, Danny Boyle, and the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who made his rejection plain in 2003: “Stick it, Mr. Blair and Mrs. Queen.”

Sex Pistols Punk the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2006)
“I’m not here for your amusement,” Johnny Rotten (a.k.a. John Lydon) told an audience in Memphis on his band’s infamous 1978 tour of America. “You’re here for mine.” Nearly three decades later, when punk’s ultimate anarchists were set to be institutionalized in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Lydon sent a handwritten letter accusing the voters of “not paying attention.” Others who have considered the Rock Hall a “piss stain,” in a manner of speaking, include Axl Rose (who sent his own, somewhat more cordial letter in 2012) and Ozzy Osbourne, who, some years before Black Sabbath was in fact inducted, suggested that the voters “save the ink.”