Million Dollar Baby

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Attack of the movie haters: Political hacks converge on Million Dollar Baby

By Nicholas Stix
web posted February 28, 2005

Do you hate movies, and love to destroy others' appreciation of them, by giving away their endings? If so, a special circle of Hell awaits you. For company, you'll have, along with the usual single-named suspects (Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Cher, Roseanne), Michael Medved, George Neumayr, and Frank Rich.

Who are these people? Well, Hitler accounted for about 50 million deaths … What's that? Not them, you say, but the two-named Mssrs. Medved, Neumayr, and Rich? Well, those heinous criminals ruined millions of people's enjoyment of the movie Million Dollar Baby. For a review of Baby that does not ruin viewers' pleasure by giving away the ending, see here.

WARNING! SPOILERS UP AHEAD!

Clint Eastwood and Hillary Swank in Million Dollar BabyUnless you absolutely can't help yourself, do not read the following, if you have not yet seen Million Dollar Baby.

Michael Medved, an alleged movie critic (I guess there's a reason they don't call 'em movie "friends") with a huge audience -- though maybe not as large as it was a month ago -- decided to call Baby a movie about "euthanasia." But he doesn't think he was spoiling people's moviegoing experience. He thinks betraying moviegoers was a sign of integrity. (Rush Limbaugh also spoiled the movie, for which he should be ashamed of himself. I'm not going to attack Limbaugh as mercilessly as the three hacks I'm concerned with here, because he has never pretended to be an art critic.)

"Maggie Fitzgerald" (Hilary Swank) was a boxer who, in spite of boxing above her weight and against younger, stronger women, was on her way to becoming the women's world champ, until she was felled by the ultimate sucker punch. (Never mind that women's boxing isn't as organized and professional in reality as it is in Eastwood's fictional universe. In the story, however, organized, professional women's boxing exists, and Eastwood makes the notion work.) So, instead of being the world champ, she's a quadriplegic who can't even breathe without a ventilator. "Frankie Dunn" (Clint Eastwood) is her manager.

Keep in mind, that Frankie and Maggie, though not related, have developed a loving, father-daughter relationship. His world revolves around her, and hers around him.

Maggie begs Frankie to kill her. This is a man who, though a pain in the neck to everyone who knows him, especially his young, old school priest, Fr. Horvak (Brian O'Byrne), goes to Mass every morning, and prays on his knees every night. He tells her, "I can't." He talks about it with his priest, who tells him that if he complies with Maggie's wishes, he'll be utterly lost.

Maggie tries to kill herself by biting through her tongue -- her mouth is the only part of her body over which she has any control -- but the nurses and doctors manage to "save" her, and juice her with so many ccs of sedatives, that she's a zombie.

Finally, Frankie relents. He brings a syringe and enough painkillers to end it, tells her what he's going to do, and does it. Before he does, he tells her the meaning of the Gaelic name, "Machushla" (pronounced "ma geeshla") he'd given her to fight under: "My Darling, My Blood."

He's betrayed his faith, he's broken the law.

Writing in the February 17 Wall Street Journal, Medved defended his spoiling of the movie as an act of the greatest integrity. (Hat-tip to Ed Driscoll.) For him, the movie is simply "Clint Eastwood's boxing-and-euthanasia epic," which has enjoyed "deceptive packaging," and the criticisms of himself and other rightwing critics of the film simply underscore the heroic character of their stand. And he issued this dare:

"Eventually, the leading disabilities rights organizations in the country staged protests against the movie's implicit endorsement of the idea that life in a wheelchair or hospital bed can't be worth living, so it became less plausible to blame me for outing 'Baby's' dirty little secret and warning potential filmgoers about its most disquieting elements. Oddly enough, none of the movie's indignant defenders struck back at the disabled activists, concentrating their criticism entirely on conservative 'culprits' and illustrating a glaring double standard." Well, let me meet Medved's challenge: The disabled who have assailed Million Dollar Baby are nothing but shameless political opportunists, just like Medved, Neumayr, Rich, and any number of other blowhards, left and right.

Meanwhile, my Chicago-area writer friend Jim Bowman, the proprietor of blogs on Chicago Newspapers, the Church, and his original one, Blithe Spirit, sent me this February 1 sucker-punch by George Neumayr of The American Spectator:

"Hollywood is set to honor at the Oscars a violent film that culminates in murder. The Passion of the Christ? No, Million Dollar Baby. Hollywood couldn't bear to see Jesus Christ suffer and die for man's sins, but it watches with bated breath and an approving gaze as Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby kills a disabled female boxer with a grim efficiency worthy of Dirty Harry. Criminal euthanasia is an act of gratuitous violence that Hollywood will celebrate. ... A movie that is supposed to glorify friendship and victory shows neither. What it shows is false friendship and the defeat of the human spirit once Hollywood dreams are beyond it. Can't be a female bantamweight anymore? Well, might as well get someone to kill you. Hollywood can't conceive of a human life devoid of vanity and glamour as valuable. And the idea of suffering for sin, as Jesus Christ did, is even more repugnant to its sinless conception of itself, never mind that Hollywood showcases in its own movies the very sinful violence that Christ had to endure in order to expiate it."

Neumayr writes as if he only heard about the movie's story third-hand from some rummy on a barstool. And either the rummy is a liar, or Neumayr is. The only grim efficiency I'm aware of, is in Neumayr's ignoring the movie's story, and going straight to his talking points. It's as if he had a boilerplate ready for any movie or TV show or comic book or Ask Ann Landers column, in which any character ended another's life under circumstances that came anywhere close to "assisted-suicide," and he merely filled in the blanks.

He had a boilerplate alright, but it was actually to attack Hollywood over its lack of respect for The Passion of the Christ (including its lack of major Oscar nominations). The euthanasia/assisted suicide pretext may or may not have been important; I think it's a front.

The character Eastwood plays in Baby is as far removed from Inspector Harry Callahan, as can be imagined. Baby is not supposed to "glorify friendship and victory," but the ultimate spirit of boxers and other people who were supposed to be damned from birth, yet strived for greatness, and the mutual love of a father and a daughter, even if the paternity exists only in their minds. As for Neumayr's euphemism, Maggie isn't "a disabled female boxer." What does that mean? She permanently wrenched her back? Maggie is a quadriplegic who cannot breathe without a ventilator. And Frankie never engages in gratuitous violence against anyone.

In case you think I'm being unfair to Neumayr, he's actually much worse than I have shown.

"That is, Million Dollar Baby presents Eastwood as the wise apostate, making up the rules as he goes along, while the movie treats as a buffoon a Catholic priest who tells him that euthanasia is a sin. The audience knows not to take this priest's counsel seriously -- and to regard Catholicism as a grab bag of incomprehensible doctrines -- because earlier in the film Eastwood has puckishly shown up the priest as a sputtering fool unable to explain basic theology."

The priest is not shown as a buffoon or a sputtering fool. And Frankie didn't show up the priest; he gave him a hard time, as he does everyone. But as the wise priest understands, Frankie is hardest on himself. Would that Neumayr possessed such wisdom.

If Neumayr saw the movie, why is he so crudely dishonest in describing it? He breathes not a word about Frankie's crisis of conscience, much less about his visit to his priest.

Neumayr hates art as much as any Stalinist. A work either advances his ideology or it doesn't. See the movie for yourself, and let me know what you think.

I get mad as hell at people like Neumayr and Medved, because they hate the movies, and try and hide their attitude behind a lot of sound and fury.

And then there's Frank Rich of the New York Times. I think that Rich, who used to hold the Times' endowed Chair in Broadway Theater Criticism, and now writes on culture, fancies himself some sort of philosopher. How a man who hasn't an ironic bone in his body could have been a theater critic … Oh, I remember now, these days, Broadway critic at the Times is a purely political position, having nothing to do with the arts. He cites Eastwood's own protests against being turned into a political ideologue, and attacks Medved for reducing Baby to a political screed, before … reducing Baby to a screed, and Eastwood to an ideologue! He sees Baby as a lecture against American triumphalism:

What makes some feel betrayed and angry after seeing "Million Dollar Baby" is exactly what makes many more stop and think: One of Hollywood's most durable cowboys is saying that it's not always morning in America, and that it may take more than faith to get us through the night.

Rich's message is, 'Don't listen to their talking points! Listen to my talking points!' Of course, he hates art every bit as much as the Neumayrs and Medveds do.

I do not support euthanasia or assisted suicide. However, I am not categorically opposed to suicide. In that respect, I'm closer to the pagans of Greece and Rome, than to Judaism or Christianity. I have contempt for those who kill themselves, leaving behind dependent children. But if a grown person has no children to support, or is in unending physical agony, as say the dying Ernest Hemingway was, or the quadraplegic boxer character Hilary Swank played, I think there is more honor in ending one's own life, than in slowly, helplessly wasting away. And I can't believe that a loving, just God would condemn suicide under such circumstances.

My opposition to assisted suicide is because it isn't suicide, but a euphemism for homicide. The Dr. Death cases I am familiar with, were of people who were cowards. They wanted to die, but were unwilling to do the job themselves. Jack Kevorkian was all too willing to do the deed, and he is now where he belongs.

The Maggie Fitzgerald character was willing to do what it took.

Prosecuting Attorneys Neumayr and Medved will surely say, 'But that is a textbook case of assisted suicide!' Not in the sense of a Jack Kevorkian case, it ain't. It's more like the case of a man whose terminally ill wife is no longer able to end her life, but is able to communicate her wishes to him. If Neumayr and Medved insist that there is no difference between that and what Jack Kevorkian was doing, they will simply expose themselves as moral imbeciles.

A person could be opposed to assisted suicide in principle, and yet acquit a defendant in a case like those I mentioned ("Maggie" and the dying the wife), without contradicting oneself. Two cases may be very like each other in certain essential aspects, and yet have much different moral and legal characters.

But beyond the issues of law and morality, Million Dollar Baby is a work of art. A person could dispute my distinctions regarding assisted suicide as a crime and as a non-crime, and be as gung ho in the real world as "DAs" Neumayr and Medved, and yet still weep and fully sympathize with Frankie. Art gives us that sort of freedom. And as someone pointed out to me the other day regarding Baby, "Art matters."

Nicholas Stix can be reached at add1dda@aol.com.

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