Thursday, February 10, 2005

Go Ahead. Make His Day.

Frank Rich says that because Hollywood and the Oscars passed over both Michael Moore and Mel Gibson for the Oscars, the righties have to blame somebody for the death of moral values in Hollywood.

So what do you do? Imagine SpongeBob tendencies in the carefully sanitized J. M. Barrie of “Finding Neverland”? Attack a recently deceased American legend, Ray Charles, for demanding that his mistress get an abortion in “Ray”? No, only a counterintuitive route could work. Hence, the campaign against Clint Eastwood, a former Republican officeholder (Mayor of Carmel, Calif., in the late 1980’s), Nixon appointee to the National Council of the Arts and action hero whose breakthrough role in the Vietnam era was as a vigilante cop, Dirty Harry, whom Pauline Kael famously called “fascist.” There hasn’t been a Hollywood subversive this preposterous since the then 10-year-old Shirley Temple’s name surfaced at a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing in 1938.

No matter. Rush Limbaugh used his radio megaphone to inveigh against the “liberal propaganda” of “Million Dollar Baby,” in which Mr. Eastwood plays a crusty old fight trainer who takes on a fledgling “girl” boxer (Hilary Swank) desperate to be a champ. Mr. Limbaugh charged that the film was a subversively encoded endorsement of euthanasia, and the usual gang of ayotallahs chimed in. Michael Medved, the conservative radio host, has said that “hate is not too strong a word” to characterize his opinion of “Million Dollar Baby.” Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a longtime ally of the Christian right, went on MSNBC to accuse Mr. Eastwood of a cultural crime comparable to Bill Clinton having “brought the term ‘oral sex’ to America’s dinner tables.”

“What do you have to give these people to make them happy?” Mr. Eastwood asked when I phoned to get his reaction to his new status as a radical leftist. He is baffled that those “who expound from the right on American values” could reject a movie about a heroine who is “willing to pull herself up by the bootstraps, to work hard and persevere no matter what” to realize her dream. “That all sounds like Americana to me, like something out of Wendell Willkie,” he says. “And the villains in the movie include people who are participating in welfare fraud.”

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen Million Dollar Baby or don’t want to know what happens in it, stop here. Otherwise, read on, Macduff.

Here is what so scandalously intrudes in the final third of Mr. Eastwood’s movie: real life. A character we love – and we love all three principals, including the narrator, an old boxing hand played by Morgan Freeman – ends up in the hospital with a spinal-cord injury and wants to die. Whether that wish will be granted, and if so, how, is the question that confronts not just the leading characters but also a young and orthodox Roman Catholic priest (Brian F. O’Byrne). The script, adapted by Paul Haggis from stories by F. X. Toole, has a resolution, as it must. But the movie has a powerful afterlife precisely because it is not an endorsement of any position on assisted suicide – or, for that matter, of any position on the disabled, as some disability-rights advocates have charged in a separate protest. The characters of “Million Dollar Baby” are complex and fictional, not monochromatic position papers outfitted in costumes, and the film no more endorses their fallible behavior and attitudes than “Ray” approves of its similarly sympathetic real-life hero’s heroin addiction and compulsive womanizing.

[…]

There’s no dream team, either in the boxing arena or in the emergency room, in “Million Dollar Baby.” While there is much to admire in the year’s other Oscar-nominated movies – the full-bodied writing in “Sideways,” the cinematic bravura of “The Aviator,” the awesome Jamie Foxx in “Ray” – Mr. Eastwood’s film, while also boasting great acting, is the only one that challenges America’s current triumphalist daydream. It does so not because it has any politics or takes a stand on assisted suicide but because it has the temerity to suggest that fights can have consequences, that some crises do not have black-and-white solutions and that even the pure of heart are not guaranteed a Hollywood ending. 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.