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Stepping into the ring

May contain spoilers

Warning: The following letters discuss plot details of "Million Dollar Baby."

Q: You think that guarding the secrets of "Million Dollar Baby" to preserve a "key plot point" (as you put it) is of the highest importance. In my opinion, it is the teaching of "Million Dollar Baby" that should have been the focus of your review.

Why? Eastwood and all motion picture directors and writers are teachers. They teach us how to dress. How to express ourselves. Whether to smoke or not. Movies teach the public about acceptable and not acceptable behavior. Movies are usually not propaganda. They do, however, express a moral point of view, a teaching. There is no such thing as a morally neutral movie.

"Million Dollar Baby" forces us to think, as you wrote. But it does far more. In "Baby," Eastwood teaches us in a powerful and highly emotional way that sometimes it is morally good to kill a paralyzed person. This teaching is false, and the reasons it is false should be published. You write: "A movie is not good or bad because of its content." I write: A movie is good or bad because of many elements. One of these elements is its content. It's not the ending, nor any "key plot point." It's the teaching.

James A. Colleran, Pastor, St. Mary of the Lake, Chicago

A: Thank you for your eloquent letter. I wrote a little more specifically, "A movie is not good or bad because of its content, but because of how it handles its content."

There is a difference. The movies do teach us, as you observe, but in this case do they teach us to agree with what Frankie does, or to question it? I thought it was a great movie about a man who, given who and what he is, does what he thinks is the right thing, but what I think is the wrong thing. I was struck by the positive portrait of the priest in the movie. I believe he is correct when he warns Frankie that his decision will haunt him for the rest of his days. It's interesting that a point of view opposed to Frankie's is given an eloquent voice in the film.

In all the mail I've received regarding this movie, the most moving message came from someone I have quoted before, the film critic Jeff Shannon of Seattle, a quadriplegic. He writes:

"Would a viewing of 'Million Dollar Baby' necessarily be harmful, if the viewers truly value life? My personal feelings about the first year (or years) of paralysis is that you are, essentially, held in a kind of limbo. You don't want to live, but you don't want to die (at least, I didn't), and so you are stuck in a state of spiritual and philosophical stasis, and it is during this crucial time that options begin to come into focus.

"For every moment of every day for the past 26 years, I have had solid, justifiable reasons for hating my life and wanting to die, but by the same token, I got through that 'stasis' period, as the vast majority of paralyzed people do, and despite all the daily pain and hassles of being quadriplegic I do not hate my life and I do not wish to die.

"I have found, as many people do, a certain grace and benefit from living with the cards I've been dealt. I do not say this out of any kind of personal nobility, because I didn't choose this life and, contrary to many disabled folks, I would prefer to be able-bodied because I am painfully aware, on a daily basis, of all the things that I have lost to paralysis. But as I know, there are options besides death and self-pity, and we forge ahead, leading lives that will, in the long run, reveal the benefits of choosing to stay alive. Maggie Fitzgerald, in 'Million Dollar Baby,' doesn't feel that way, and for all the reasons you state in your think-piece about the movie, she is entitled to her decision."

Q. Re your column about the effort to sabotage "Million Dollar Baby." Not only do the spoiler guys disrespect the audience, they profoundly misunderstand the movie. There is nothing "pro-euthanasia" about it.

As a man who goes to mass every day and kneels down to say his prayers every night, Frankie would believe the priest's admonition that he will be "lost forever" if he helps Maggie die. I saw his action as a stunning self-sacrifice. He literally gave up his soul because he loved her, and could not refuse her. It seemed to me that he never talked himself out of his moral repugnance; he just took the consequences. It reminded me of the sacrifice that Karl makes in "Sling Blade," deliberately sending himself back to psychiatric prison to save a little boy.

Margaret A. McGurk, film critic, Cincinnati Enquirer

A. You help to explain his action despite the remarkable power of the priest's warning. Tracy Brown of Marina Del Rey, Calif., also writes about Frankie's motivation:

"You omitted two important elements in his decision-making process: 1) The trainer resists Maggie's entreaties until after her leg is amputated. For this athlete, her entire identity is tied into her body. 2) After the amputation, Maggie tries to kill herself by biting her tongue to drown in her own blood. She is determined.

"In the end, Frankie's assistance comes across as an act of mercy, love and the weakness of a man who can't bear to watch her struggle so hard to die. It is sad and disappointing that people with an agenda are insisting the movie is taking a stand on an issue, when you are entirely correct that it's a story about these characters, their choices, and pain that doesn't discriminate between action and no action in the face of tragedy."

Q. Why is it that only very recent movies (i.e. less than four months old) usually get nominated for Academy Awards, especially for best picture? The oldest movie this year is "Ray," released in October. In 2001, all five best picture nominees were released in December. Do the members of the academy really have short memories?

Robert Karwacki, Coral Springs, Fla.

A. It's an intersection of two things.

1) Hollywood actually has an "Oscar season," which opens the weekend after Labor Day at the Toronto Film Festival, where this year such nominees as "Ray," "Hotel Rwanda," "Finding Neverland," "Being Julia," "Sideways," "Yesterday" and "The Sea Inside" all had their premieres.

2) The Oscars are regarded by the studios at least partly as a marketing tool. They naturally prefer to promote films that are still in theaters, or about to be released on DVD, rather than films that have already played out in the marketplace.

Q. How important is it when an actor or actress gets an Academy Award nomination? We are longtime admirers of the actress Virginia Madsen. Will being nominated as best supporting actress have an effect on her career?

Susan Lake, Urbana, Ill.

A. Elaine Madsen, the mother of Virginia and her brother Michael (who played Bill's brother Budd in "Kill Bill, Volume 2"), is a Chicago writer and movie critic. She tells me: "We got the happy news a few days ago. And although you have said so kindly 'if there's any justice' Virginia will win, as far as we're concerned, justice happened with that nomination. This puts Virginia on the A-list. She starts a movie with Harrison Ford on Feb. 9 in Vancouver and another movie really dear to her heart is telling her they'll wait for her to finish the Harrison one so she can do theirs. Only time will tell where all this will take her -- but if there is something beyond the nomination, we will name that Grace."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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