"Million Dollar Baby" has become a million dollar brouhaha.
Clint Eastwood's newest film, basking in critical praise and its seven Oscar nominations, also has become ensnared in widening uproar among advocates for the disabled.
Nearly all critics have taken pains in their reviews of "Million Dollar Baby" not to reveal its wrenching plot twist, but the controversy has disseminated that twist far and wide.
(This story will do the same, so readers who don't want to know how the film unfolds should stop reading now.)
"Million Dollar Baby" tells the story of an aspiring boxer, played by Hilary Swank, who is taken under the wing of an aging trainer played by Eastwood. After an initial string of successful bouts, the boxer is felled by a sucker punch that leaves her paralyzed from the neck down.
She pleads with Eastwood's character to help her die, which he ultimately does.
Advocates for the disabled have called on moviegoers to boycott the film on the grounds that it is insensitive to the physically impaired and tacitly encourages acceptance of euthanasia as a morally justifiable act.
"Not Dead Yet," a Chicago-based disabilities advocacy group, has branded Eastwood a "Million Dollar Bigot" and has handed out leaflets outside some theaters where the movie is showing.
"A growing number of people with disabilities -- who are just now getting to see the movie as it is released nationwide -- are outraged by the factual inaccuracies and the praise it is receiving," the flier reads.
"Any movie that sends a message that having a spinal cord injury is a fate worse than death is a movie that concerns us tremendously," said Marcie Roth, CEO of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association. "I'm saddened but not surprised that [Eastwood] uses the power of fame and film to perpetuate his view that the lives of people with disabilities are not worth living."
No protests against the film have been staged in the Twin Cities, where the movie is showing throughout the metro area, but angry disabled people have been calling the Minnesota State Council on Disability.
"They're mad as hell about it," said Margo Imdieke Cross, an accessibility specialist for the council who uses a wheelchair herself. "If this was a movie about any other category of minority, you'd have rioting in the streets."
She said the advocates' protests "are absolutely on target. It's an incredibly insulting film. It's an incredible film until she breaks her neck. Then it goes right into the toilet. Sure, you could see if your whole identity was wrapped up in being a boxer, you might be depressed. But that doesn't mean pulling the plug."
For his part, Eastwood said last week that the protests don't surprise him, but that the film is not about the right to die. "The film is supposed to make you think about the precariousness of life and how we handle it," he said. "How the character handles it is certainly different than how I might handle it, if I were in that position in real life."
He added: "You don't have to like incest to watch Hamlet. But it's in the story."
Spoiling the story
The controversy intensified after conservative commentators Rush Limbaugh and Michael Medved revealed the plot's secret on nationwide broadcasts. That prompted the Chicago Sun Times' Roger Ebert, the nation's best-known film critic, to blast Limbaugh and Medved in a column last Saturday.
"They object to it," he wrote. "That is their right. To engage in a campaign to harm the movie for those who may not agree with them is another matter. ... To actively attempt to sabotage a movie with its intended mainstream audience, as Medved, Limbaugh and others have done, is not justifiable."
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which regularly reviews movies, branded "Million Dollar Baby" with its harshest rating: "Morally objectionable."
The review says, in part: "The [assisted suicide] itself is presented as an act of reluctant heroism. And given the dire circumstances, our sympathies and humane inclinations may argue in favor of such misguided compassion, but our Catholic faith prohibits us from getting around the fact that, in this case, the best-intended ends cannot justify the chosen means: the taking of a life."
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has stayed out of the fray, but the outgoing chair of its commission on bio-medical ethics said the condemnation of the film squares with the Catholic belief that "any direct attack on innocent human life is morally reprehensible."
Paul Wojda, a theology professor at the University of St. Thomas, also said disability advocates "are scared to death -- literally. ... Disability advocates see the writing on the wall, when a loved one is in intensive care, or terminally ill, the response can be, 'Let's get it over with.'
"It's a cultural convention to think the way to end suffering is to end the sufferer. That's deeply disturbing to members of the disabled community."
Protesting and calling for boycotts of films are as old as "Birth of a Nation" in 1915 and as recent as "Fahrenheit 9/11" last year.
"It's part of our system, to advocate boycotts," said Clay Steinman, chair of the Humanities, Media and Cultural Studies department at Macalester College. "It's not censorship, because you're not asking the state to step in. It's a good way to begin debating an issue."
And while the protests illuminate an advocacy group's cause, "even while it gets the group's issue aired, it paradoxically tends to increase a film's box office," Steinman said. "At some level, it just provides free publicity."
The New York Times contributed to this report.
Bob von Sternberg is at [email protected]