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'Million Dollar' misrepresentations

May contain spoilers
Happy-happy, punch-punch. Hilary Swank poses in front of the poster for "Million Dollar Baby." Does this look like an upbeat, "feel-good" movie to you?

For more information on the controversies over "Million Dollar Baby," please see the related articles section in the left column. We also recommend Jeff Shannon's pieces for New Mobility Magazine: Maggie, Frankie, and Me Interview with Eastwood (clicking on these links will open a new browser window)

You know the drill. If you haven’t seen “Million Dollar Baby” and don’t want to find out the entire story, read no further.

Meanwhile, you may be getting more (mis-)information about the movie from unreliable sources like Michael Medved than you care to know, as he continues his crusade against Clint Eastwood’s film. Medved has appeared on Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club, Rush Limbaugh, and his own conservative talk radio show, among other places, to voice his disapproval of “Million Dollar Baby.” But what, precisely, are his objections to the film? In typical Medved fashion, he keeps shifting (like a boxer) but won’t quite stand behind the blows he throws. He keeps ducking and skittering away before anybody can land a solid punch in return.

Medved's complaints about the film (they are not substantial enough to be called “arguments”) are more like talk-radio air-swipes than concentrated exercises of reason. It’s illuminating to see how many common misconceptions and distortions he tosses out there – the bait-and-switch logic, the straw man arguments – without quite justifying the poses he strikes. I’ve interviewed the guy, with a copy of his book, “Hollywood vs. America,” in my lap, so I know how difficult it is to pin Medved down, even when you have his own words in black and white in front of you.

Not that Medved or “Million Dollar Baby” are really the root of the problem, but they're emblematic of the overall dumbing-down of political and film commentary in America. The controversy Medved has tried so hard to stir up -- viewed, or distorted, through the prism of the talk-show mentality -- graphically demonstrates how someone with a political agenda can re-interpret an entire movie by choosing to isolate parts of it from their context within the picture itself. Strangely, Medved has not aligned himself with disabled activists’ very different gripes against the film, nor they with him – each appearing to view the other as a philosophical untouchable.

Where to start?

Medved wrote, in a USA Today essay (January 24, 2005): “But in 2005, top [Oscar] nominations went to films that went out of their way to assault or insult the sensibilities of most believers. Both ‘Million Dollar Baby’ (nominated for seven awards, including best picture, best director, best actor and best actress) and ‘The Sea Inside’ (nominated for best foreign-language film) portray assisted suicide as an explicitly and unequivocally ‘heroic’ choice. Their success suggests that if Hollywood ever gets around to making ‘The Jack Kevorkian Story,’ it, too, would become an automatic candidate for major awards.”

Yes, the two movies he cites, and their Oscar nominations, clearly prove that euthanasia is just the hot-hot-hottest thing in Hollywood these days. After all, there’s a Spanish movie – submitted by the government of Spain for best foreign film Oscar consideration – about a famous quadriplegic writer (true story) who fought the legal system to gain the right to die, even though the people around him didn’t want him to. And then there’s this boxing movie that ends with an assisted suicide, and it’s nominated for best picture and six other Oscars. What more evidence do you need? We won’t even mention that the top-grossing movie of the year (though made entirely outside the Hollywood system) was yet another assisted suicide movie, “The Passion of the Christ.” Now everybody’s going to want to make these euthanasia flicks. It’s gonna be the biggest thing since Lambada movies!

In another USA Today story by Susan Wloszczyna (“Million Dollar Mystery”) that was posted on a day earlier, Medved was quoted saying: "I hated this movie, and hate is not too strong a word. It's hackneyed and clumsy, like a flatfooted fighter who would be knocked out in the first four seconds of the first round." I don’t entirely disagree with him about the flaws in the movie – and they’re mainly bad (simplistic, melodramatic, nonsensical) choices in adaptation and direction – things that were not well-distilled from the two F.X. Toole stories, “Million Dollar Baby” and “Frozen Water,” on which the screenplay was based. (More about that in another article.)

And yet, when Medved appeared on The O’Reilly Factor Monday (February 7, 2005), he didn’t talk about what he thought was wrong with “Million Dollar Baby” as a movie – hackneyed, clumsy and flatfooted, as he saw it. And when host Bill O’Reilly and critic David Sterritt from the Christian Science Monitor (both of whom had also seen the picture) disagreed with his contention that it was a “pro-euthanasia” tract, Medved sheepishly retreated to his previously stated untenable position:

“The only point I’ve made about this film is that by handing out seven Oscar nominations to this film, at the same time that ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ which is a far more popular film with the general public, and I think it will be a much more lasting work of art – that film was ignored for major awards.

“This film [“Million Dollar Baby”] swept nominations for all major awards. And I think part of what the Academy is saying is that ‘We are simply out of touch with the religious commitments of a big segment – not everybody, but a big segment – of the population.’”

Whoa, there: “The only point I’ve made about this film”??? Let’s rewind the TiVo for a moment before addressing Medved’s actual arguments. ‘Cause before he said that, he'd already tried to make a lot more than one.

O’Reilly introduced Medved as “the guy who is almost driving this thing” [the euthanasia controversy] and asked what he objected to. Medved started off with two grievances:

1) “What I object to most is the dishonesty in the marketing campaign.... They were promoting it as a feel-good boxing movie, sort of a female ‘Rocky,’ and it’s not that. It’s something very different.

2) “And I also object to the fact that the assisted suicide theme is totally one-sided. Unlike a film that I liked, ‘Dead Man Walking,’ which dealt with the death penalty and you saw both sides, and both sides were argued, this is totally over to one side, where assisted suicide, euthanasia, is a good thing. In fact, it is described by the narrator of the film as a heroic act….”

O’Reilly said he didn’t agree, and that the movie featured a priest who gave Eastwood’s character good advice, telling him that euthanasia was wrong and not a good thing at all. “I thought it was fair and balanced,” O’Reilly said (yes, he really said that), “and then whatever happens in the dramatic narrative happens, but I didn’t think it was a bang over the head and just one-sided. I didn’t think it was a ‘Fahrenheit 9/11.’”

“The reason I disagree with you, Bill, with all due respect,” Medved replied with all due respect and a good deal more, “is because the Catholic priest is such an idiot.” Alas, the two were unable to reach agreement, during vigorous crosstalk, on the priest’s idiocy or lack thereof, vis-à-vis his explanation of the Holy Trinity or the anti-euthanasia advice he earnestly provides to Eastwood’s character.

And what does this have to do with the movie again?

Let’s take another close look at Medved’s points. First (or last, in the "O’Reilly Factor" chronology) there’s the question of another disguised message that the collective membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is allegedly sending by giving “Million Dollar Baby” more nominations than “The Passion of the Christ.” (Question: Since when did the Academy Awards, of all things, become a referendum on religion in America?)

Even if Medved chooses to see it that way, why pick on “MDB”? I mean, why not “Sideways” (about big drinkers who indulge in extra-marital relations) or “Ray” (about an often ill-tempered singer and sometime junkie who notoriously shocked many Christians by irreverently combining gospel music with rock 'n' roll and R&B -- the devil's music!), or “Finding Neverland” (not a good example of a proper marriage, and what was that man’s obsession with little kids about?), or “The Aviator” (Howard Hughes drank lots of milk, and that sets a good example, but then he peed in the empty bottles and went naked and did not trim his nails and used too much kleenex and repeated himself a lot sometimes)?

I’ve addressed this in a previous article (How ‘MDB’ turned political hot potato) by pointing out that, perhaps, it’s not in the best interests of the Academy’s Hollywood-insider membership, who depend for employment on the very mainstream film industry the Oscars are set up to promote and flatter, to go out of their way to reward a movie like "The Passion of the Christ," which was made, financed and distributed entirely outside of that industry.

And what makes Medved think Mel's "Passion" was a religious snuff movie, anyway? Say what you will about “The Passion of the Christ,” it avoided Christian theology entirely, concentrating on Jesus’s last day of suffering rather than his lifetime of teaching or his religious beliefs. In that sense it’s not even a religious movie.

Medved does make a legitimate point about misleading marketing campaigns, and how critics – as the first people to actually see these movies and report on them, independent of how they’re being advertised – have a duty to represent them honestly, as they see them. It’s just that Medved’s gripes don’t apply to this particular movie. (If anything it's "Sideways" that's being deceptively advertised -- a funny but serious film for adults being sold in TV spots as a wacky comedy.)

Please take a look at the posters of the last eight Eastwood-directed movies that appear down the right side of this article, above – and the photo Roger Ebert took of Hilary Swank in front of the “Million Dollar Baby” poster at top. Do any of these look like they’re being sold as “feel-good” movies to you? Even the largely comic “Space Cowboys” looks glum as can be. And any child can see the stills and clips from “Million Dollar Baby” – so dark and high-contrast they’re almost black-and-white, with shadows enveloping the characters – don’t give the impression this is going to be an upper.

From "Play Misty for Me" (killer/stalker!) to "Honkytonk Man" (leukemia!) to "Bird" (terminal heroin addiction!) to "Bridges of Madison County" (tearful separation!) to "Unforgiven" (mutilation and murder!) to "Mystic River" (more murder – plus child torture and molestation!) – Eastwood has never, ever directed a movie that could remotely be called upbeat, so what is Medved talking about? (OK, that’s a rhetorical question – he’s angry because he thinks the movie does not confirm his “pro-life” beliefs, for reasons that don’t really have much to do with how or why the movie does what it does.)

But Medved isn’t done. On “The O’Reilly Factor” he had two more beefs about the ways “Million Dollar Baby” endorses euthanasia -- by: 1) portraying it as "heroic" in the closing narration; and 2) showing death as "glamorous."

This may be the first time that the word “glamorous” has been used in the same sentence as “Million Dollar Baby” (or “Clint Eastwood,” for that matter), but here’s what he said: “The basic glamour of two enormously attractive stars – Hilary Swank and Clint Eastwood – makes their involvement in assisted suicide by definition glamorous.”

Their involvement in assisted suicide? You mean the fact that Eastwood’s character had to utterly destroy himself by making a moral choice he found repugnant after Swank’s character tried to chew off her tongue and choke on her own blood? O, the glamour! I remember how, in that movie Medved says he liked so much, "Dead Man Walking," Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon’s involvement in a state-sponsored execution did so much to glamorize the death penalty.

If Medved had said that Julia Roberts and Richard Gere glamorized prostitution in the Cinderella fable "Pretty Woman," or that Ali McGraw's pristine passing in "Love Story" glamorized romantic collegiate terminal illnesses, he’d have a point. (And America firmly embraced the morality of both of those movies.) But he shows no understanding of the tortured characters or the bleak and harrowing story that are at the heart of “Million Dollar Baby.”

Medved sees the ending this way: “What makes a deeper impression on somebody leaving the movie – and that’s really what you take away – is when the narrator of the film, the character played by Morgan Freeman, comes on and says that a given action, that we have just witnessed, is heroic. That overwhelms everything else.”

Clearly it does for Medved, but I don’t recall the word “heroic” being used, myself. I have a big problem with the use of the voiceover narration – which, in a trite, sentimental, and utterly nonsensical gimmick, turns out to be a letter written by Frankie’s friend Scrap to Frankie’s long-estranged daughter – but not because it says euthanasia is heroic or glamorous or easy or even right. It simply makes no sense at all that the character of Scrap would write this story to the daughter who has returned Frankie’s letters unopened for so many years. What’s she supposed to think about this story, about the father she doesn’t know anymore killing his surrogate daughter, a person she never met?

All of this is the invention of the screenwriter, and is one of the movie’s crucial flaws -- along with the cartoonish portrayal of Maggie’s family, which is ridiculously overblown compared to the original story. Scrap doesn’t appear in Toole’s “Million Dollar Baby”; he’s the narrator of another story, “Frozen Water,” about the characters of Danger Barch and Shawrelle Berry – and old man Scrap does not hokily intervene in their fight to punch the bully with his bare fist, as he does in the movie.

Even so, the movie’s Scrap, who obviously loves and admires his friend, does not make Frankie out to be a heroic figure, but a tragic one -- a good man who was forced by circumstances to make some terrible and shattering decisions.

What he does say in the movie echoes the words of the story’s nameless omniscient narrator. Toole's story ends this way: “With his shoes in his hand but without his soul, he moved silently down the rear stairs and was gone, his eyes as dry as a burning leaf.”

That image (and I wish the movie had ended with it, too), of Frankie as a ghostly silhouette framed exiting the hospital doors, reminds me of Ethan Edwards at the end of John Ford’s great western, “The Searchers.” Ethan, too, has delivered his surrogate daughter from a fate he and his community consider to be worse than death. And, at the same time, his brutal, resolute, and from his point of view necessary actions set him permanently apart from that community . He is, as he says of Comanche folklore, “destined to wander forever between the winds.” That’s what Eastwood is expressing, with arguable success but undeniable artistic ambition, in “Million Dollar Baby.” Would anyone describe Ethan Edwards as an unambivalently “heroic” figure? I hope not.

If Eastwood had wanted to send a message about euthanasia, then he wouldn’t have needed to make this dark and troubling movie. As Samuel Goldwyn once said, he could have just called Western Union. Or Michael Medved.

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