Dubious Conclusions

When reviewers hailed Million Dollar Baby as a virtually perfect little movie, their code of silence guarded the picture’s crucial secret. If you’re not ready to learn the secret, turn the page.

But thanks to that secret, the film’s getting a second wave of press. A headline in last Sunday’s London Telegraph read, “Disabled groups condemn Eastwood euthanasia film,” and a story in USA Today urged readers to see the movie “immediately” because the secret’s about to get out, “a hot-button social issue itching to be debated.”

The debate’s already under way. Kalman Kaplan, a professor of psychology at Wayne State University, wrote a letter of protest to Roger Ebert. He seconded Ebert’s praise for the first two-thirds of Million Dollar Baby, the portion Ebert had described in his review. “My disagreement is with what you haven’t discussed: the 90 degree turn after Maggie’s tragic accident into a naive…factually incorrect, out-of-date and dangerous characterization of a disabled person, and its implicit advocacy…of mercy-killing of the disabled.” He compared Million Dollar Baby to propaganda films made in Germany under Hitler.

Kaplan had seen Million Dollar Baby and written Ebert at the urging of a Chicago-based group of disability rights activists, Not Dead Yet. That was Not Dead Yet picketing outside the Union League Club on January 19 when the Chicago Film Critics Association gathered to honor Robert Altman. Not Dead Yet was angry that Ebert and company hadn’t protested the film’s shocking ending. Paralyzed in the ring, Maggie, the boxer played by Hilary Swank, would rather die than live as a quadriplegic, even with a devoted Frankie Dunn at her beck and call. (Perhaps because Eastwood, who plays Frankie, is 44 years older than Swank, Maggie realized it wouldn’t last.) Though a priest warns him he’ll never forgive himself, Frankie pulls out her ventilator, gives her a lethal shot of adrenaline, then wanders into the night. This plot twist was the film’s foray into moral complexity. How well did it keep its footing? The question was off-limits.

As Ebert said in his Sun-Times review, “I will not spoil the experience of following this story into the deepest secrets of life and death.” Michael Wilmington’s Tribune review described the film only as a “Cinderella story [that] suddenly switches gears, and turns dark and heartbreaking in its final act.” The result of their circumspection is that I sat nervously through Million Dollar Baby’s unlikely but heartwarming first two acts waiting for those gears to switch. It was a lousy way to see a movie, almost as disconcerting as knowing the outcome in advance.

Diane Coleman considers herself lucky to have known what was coming. Coleman, president of Not Dead Yet, has spinal muscular atrophy. She’s been in a wheelchair since she was 11 and is now on a ventilator at night. “I was the only wheelchair user in the theater, which was packed,” she says. “I already knew what I was going to see, and I was pretty much steeled against it in terms of personal pain. But I couldn’t stop thinking about all the people I see at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago who are newly injured and how they would react when they were assaulted by the ending.

“The whole thing is so contrived, because people already have the right to refuse treatment. She was on a ventilator, and she had the legal right to refuse it. The role of everyone else is to convince them that life is worth living.”

The Daily Herald’s Dann Gire, president of the Chicago Film Critics Association, noticed people arriving at the Altman celebration carrying a flyer they’d just been handed. Few of them seemed to know what the issue was, so Gire went out and talked to the Not Dead Yet picketers. “It was the most genteel protest I’d ever seen,” Gire says. “They were very pleasant people.” Later in the evening, when Gire announced that Eastwood had won the Chicago critics’ award for best director, he mentioned them. He called the protesters sincere and well-intentioned but also seriously mistaken. “I said, ‘This is not a movie for the heartless. It’s a movie for people with big hearts.'”

Coleman had tried to reach Ebert by phone and e-mail, but in an e-mail from the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, Ebert told me he hadn’t gotten her messages, hadn’t seen Kaplan’s letter, and hadn’t even been aware of the picketing. He’d thought opposition to the movie was coming from the Christian right (hardly a label that applies to Not Dead Yet). Someone in California had written Ebert to complain that Michael Medved had slammed Million Dollar Baby on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and given away the movie’s “vital secrets and surprises.” In last Sunday’s “Answer Man” column in the Sun-Times, Ebert responded that “Medved knows better, so what he did was deliberate and unforgivable.”

Disability rights activists have always counted Ebert among their allies. He said that if I wondered about his personal views on euthanasia I should reread last month’s review of the Spanish film The Sea Inside, about a quadriplegic who decides to die. “This is simply the story of one man,” he’d written. “Yes, and on those terms I accept it, and was moved by the humanity and logic of the character. But it happens I know a few things about paraplegia.” Ebert’s but turned into a digression on profoundly disabled people he’s known who’ve triumphed in life. “What would I do in the same situation as the man in Spain?” he wrote, getting back to the movie. “I am reminded of something written by another Spaniard, the director Luis Bunuel. What made him angriest about dying, he said, was that he would be unable to read tomorrow’s newspaper. I believe I would want to live as long as I could.”

In 1997 Eastwood was sued by a woman in a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis. Diane zum Brunnen alleged that a hotel he owned in Carmel, California, didn’t meet state and federal access standards for the disabled. A jury found Eastwood guilty of minor violations but refused to award zum Brunnen damages, and afterward Eastwood crusaded for a change in the Americans With Disabilities Act. He argued before Congress that business owners accused of violations deserved 90 days to bring their businesses into compliance before they could be sued. Disability rights groups maintained that this leeway would gut the act.

Now Not Dead Yet and allied groups read a very specific message into Million Dollar Baby. “Clint Eastwood is remembered by many for his national attack on the Americans With Disabilities Act,” said Marcie Roth, head of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association in a statement released by the group. “I’m saddened but not surprised that he uses the powerful vehicle of film to perpetuate his view that the lives of persons with significant disabilities are not worth living.”

The Not Dead Yet flyer declared, “People who actually know something about Eastwood and about disability see this movie for what it is. It’s Eastwood’s revenge and we will not sit by silently while ignorant reviewers further Eastwood’s career on our collective backs.”

Kalman Kaplan, who used to run the suicide-prevention clinic at Michael Reese Hospital, sees a double standard at work in how society weighs the interests of the disabled. “My bias was to keep people from killing themselves,” he says. “It’s not a question of civil liberties. It’s a question of why they want to do what they want to do and what can you help them do to find reasons to live. There’s a dual system. If somebody is physically disabled and has the same psychological problems as somebody who’s not physically disabled, the stance of the therapist might be very different.”

I have my own issue with Million Dollar Baby. It offers the familiar dynamic of a beautiful young woman enthralled with a vastly older hero. Not by coincidence, Eastwood made the movie, and his character is clearly the best thing that ever happened to Swank’s: at the conclusion of every prizefight she leaps into his arms. The last time I saw Eastwood was in Blood Work, in which he and a much younger woman in distress promptly become lovers. Eastwood made that one too. The definitive geezer-babe flick was The Horse Whisperer, in which Kristin Scott Thomas is Robert Redford’s for the taking but he sends her back to her husband. Redford produced and directed.

From things Eastwood’s said to the press since Million Dollar Baby came out, the movie he intended to make is the movie Ebert was imaginative enough to see. “The two characters made a decision,” Ebert told me. “It may have been the wrong decision. It may have been the right decision. The movie invites us to decide.” But Not Dead Yet didn’t see that movie, and neither did I. Thanks to the star power of Swank and Eastwood, the film was an endorsement of Maggie’s death. “Because it’s Clint Eastwood, we tend to accept it as the right thing to do,” Wilmington allows.

The last reel is jammed with dubious plot points that might seem trivial to anyone who accepts the film on its own terms but inexcusable to someone who doesn’t. There’s the absurdly lax security at Maggie’s nursing home; the bedsores that quickly cost Maggie a leg; the way she dies at Frankie’s hands, which Not Dead Yet says would have been excruciating; the fact that she could have simply asked to have her ventilator disconnected; the priest’s warning to Frankie that he’d never forgive himself, which to me was perfunctory and not a serious invitation to the audience to judge him.

All these details were off-limits to critics because they came along in the part of the movie critics forbid themselves to talk about. “There’s an unspoken rule you don’t reveal reversals in the third act,” says Wilmington. Ebert wrote me, “A critic who gives away something like that in his original review will have scorn and hatred heaped upon him by moviegoers. Believe me, I know.” On Tuesday he obliquely weighed in on the debate by applauding the documentary Murderball, which is about quadriplegics who triumph as athletes. Ebert and Wilmington both loved Million Dollar Baby. Diane Coleman despised it, and her duty, unlike the critics’, was to promptly and loudly say why.

News Bites

Doing research on Clint Eastwood’s court case mentioned above, I found these fine samples of the writer’s craft:

From Business Week online: “Now, Dirty Harry is Gunning for the ADA.”

From BBC News: “According to his lawyer the case was about one thing–Mrs. zum Brunnen and those who represented her, wanted a ‘fistful of dollars.'”

From E! Online: “Is Clint Eastwood feeling lucky? The movie star, director and former mayor hopes a jury will make his day.”

More notes on the writer’s craft. Sometimes the wrong word is better than the right one. Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, who’s carried by the Tribune, faced a predicament last week when she wrote about the extravagance of presidential inaugurations. She walked us through history, through the ebbs and flows of pomp. Jefferson “declined a carriage ride and walked to the Capitol for his swearing-in.”

So did Carter, who “instituted business suits instead of tuxedos” and spent only $3.5 million. Lest careless readers think she admired Carter, she immediately dismissed him as a “human snooze.” And on to Reagan, “with the most expensive inauguration in history.”

But her summation returned her to Carter. “With a couple of exceptions–notably Carter’s hokey-pokey–inaugurations have always been rich in snob appeal.”

Parker had written herself into a corner. As even the worst of conservative writers–and Parker’s a contender–don’t want to be caught gushing over snob appeal, she couldn’t afford to insult Carter here. But terms such as “populism” or “thrift” would sound suspiciously like compliments. Parker’s solution–“hokey-pokey.” Gibberish with a dismissive ring. Problem solved.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.