My 'Million Dollar' Answer

Posted: Feb 17, 2005 12:00 AM

As the Oscar campaign comes down to its climactic concluding days, I've been amazed to see much of the ferocious battle for Best Picture improbably and irrationally focused on . . . me.

In recent weeks, some of the nation's most influential cultural observers have chosen to concentrate their Academy Awards commentary on my harsh reaction on radio and TV about the deceptive packaging of Clint Eastwood's boxing-and-euthanasia epic, "Million Dollar Baby." Roger Ebert raised the issue in several columns, attacking my decision to mention the movie's crucial assisted-suicide theme as "unforgivable." Maureen Dowd portrayed me as a witless censor (and even coined a new word, "Medvedized") while suggesting that consistency demanded my objection to classic suicide scenes in Shakespeare. Frank Rich berated me as a leader of "the usual gang of ayatollahs" in a column titled "How Dirty Harry Turned Commie," comparing my criticism of Eastwood's film to the lunacy of the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating 10-year-old Shirley Temple in 1938. In more than a dozen other commentaries, from the Los Angeles Times to the Houston Chronicle, outraged observers expressed not only disagreement but denunciation of my unpopular position as a skeptic regarding one of the most absurdly over-praised movies in recent Hollywood history.

Initially, the condemnation centered on my alleged role as a "spoiler," suggesting that I had maliciously damaged the commercial prospects for "Million Dollar Baby" by "describing its plot in great detail" (according to Roger Ebert). As a matter of fact, I never disclosed specifics on the movie's dark surprise, nor indicated which of its endearing characters chose to exercise "the right to die."

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.

More recently, some of the film's most conspicuous promoters have taken another tack entirely, insisting that the movie never tilts one way or another on the death-with-dignity debate, even when it portrays premeditated murder as the ultimate gift of love. "Michael Moore and Mel Gibson aside," wrote Ms. Dowd, "the purpose of art is not always to send messages. More often, it's just to tell a story, move people and provoke ideas. Mr. Eastwood's critics don't even understand what art is."

Perhaps a discriminating sophisticate, like Ms. Dowd, can discern some all-important distinction between "sending messages" and "provoking ideas," but for the rest of us it ought to be obvious that every work of art or entertainment, from "Romeo and Juliet" to "Will and Grace," influences the audience in some way--at times, very subtly, and at times with heavy-handed intentionality. The sympathetic treatment of assisted suicide in "Million Dollar Baby" isn't subtle, and is a world away from Shakespeare, where the Bard emphatically avoids endorsement or glamorization of a pathetic death like Ophelia's (specifically cited by Ms. Dowd).

Underlying all of the assaults on those of us who have dissented from the near-unanimous praise for "Million Dollar Baby" is a tone of exaggerated horror that well-known conservatives could dare to question the work of a right-wing icon like Clint Eastwood, pointedly described by Frank Rich as "a former Republican officeholder" and "Nixon appointee to the National Council of the Arts." I would have thought that a willingness to criticize even a onetime political ally would demonstrate integrity rather than insanity, evincing our determination to evaluate films without fear or favor. On a similar note, I stand proudly by my harsh reviews of the violent movie excesses by a fellow Republican (and former actor) who currently serves as governor of California. Criticizing onscreen work by Mr. Eastwood (or Arnold Schwarzenegger) isn't the equivalent of indicting their character or politics, any more than my previous praise for, say, Tim Robbins as an actor or director amounts to an endorsement of his character or politics.

My main objection to "Million Dollar Baby" always centered on its misleading marketing, and effort by Warner Brothers to sell it as a movie about a female Rocky, with barely a hint of the pitch-dark substance that led Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer (hardly a right-winger) to declare that "no movie in my memory has depressed me more than 'Million Dollar Baby.' "

Obviously, that mournful impact has contributed to the movie's feeble box-office performance, with only $45 million in its first nine weeks of release (barely half of the proceeds for its chief Oscar rival, "The Aviator"). In this context, it's perhaps possible to discern a method in the mad rush to discredit and defame the movie's conservative critics at the very moment that Academy voters fill out their Oscar ballots. The aggressive apologists for "Baby" imply that all right-thinking members of the entertainment elite can register their distaste for "Medvedism" by casting their Best Picture ballots for a film that they strain to describe as under unfair assault. The saddest aspect of the whole manufactured controversy is that on Oscar night (Feb. 27) this inventive strategy on behalf of a sad, undeserving film could very easily succeed.