Published on Saturday, February 12, 2005 by the New York Times
How Dirty Harry Turned Commie
by Frank Rich
THE day the left died in Hollywood, surely, was the day that a few too many Queer Eyes had their way with Michael Moore as he set off on his Oscar campaign. The baseball cap and 1970's leisure ensemble gave way to quasi-Libeskind eyeglasses and spiky hair that screamed "I am worthy of a cameo on 'Entourage.' " But not worthy of an Oscar. "Fahrenheit 9/11" got zero nominations, leaving the Best Picture race to five apolitical movies. Since none of those five has yet sold $100 million worth of tickets, let alone the $350-million-plus of a "Lord of the Rings"-level megahit, the only real drama accruing to this year's Oscar telecast was whether its ratings would plunge as low as the Golden Globes.
But two weeks out from the big night, the prospects for a little conflict are looking up. Just when it seemed that Hollywood had turned a post-election page in the culture wars, the commissars of the right cooked up a new, if highly unlikely, grievance against "Holly-weird," as they so wittily call it. This was no easy task. They couldn't credibly complain that "The Passion of the Christ" was snubbed by the movie industry's "elite" (translation: Jews), since it nailed three nominations, including one for makeup (translation: really big noses). That showing bested not only "Fahrenheit 9/11" but "Shrek 2," the year's top moneymaker. Nor could they resume hostilities against their perennial bogeymen Ben Affleck, Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Barbra Streisand and Whoopi Goldberg. All are nonplayers in this year's awards.
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."
What galls the film's adversaries - or so they say - is a turn in the plot that they started giving away on the radio and elsewhere in December, long before it started being mentioned in articles like the one you're reading now. They hoped to "spoil" the movie and punish it at the box office, though there's no evidence that they have succeeded. As Mr. Eastwood has pointed out, advance knowledge of the story's ending did nothing to deter the audience for "The Passion of the Christ." My own experience is that knowing the ultimate direction of "Million Dollar Baby" - an organic development that in no way resembles a plot trick like that in "The Sixth Sense" - only deepened my second viewing of it.
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.
"I never thought about the political side of this when making the film," Mr. Eastwood says. He is both bemused and concerned that a movie with no political agenda should be construed by some as a polemic and arouse such partisan rage. "Maybe I'm getting to the age when I'm starting to be senile or nostalgic or both, but people are so angry now," he adds. "You used to be able to disagree with people and still be friends. Now you hear these talk shows, and everyone who believes differently from you is a moron and an idiot - both on the right and the left." His own politics defy neat categorization. He's supported Democrats (including Gray Davis in the pre-Schwarzenegger era) as well as Republicans, professes the libertarian creed of "less government" and "was never a big enthusiast for going to Iraq but never spoke against it once the troops were there." In other words, he's in the same middle as most Americans. "I vote for what I like," he says. "I'm not a loyalist to any party. I'm only a loyalist to the country." That's no longer good enough, apparently, for those who feel an election victory has empowered them to enforce a strict doctrine of political and spiritual correctness.
It's a standard tactic for these holier-than-thou bullies to cite movies they don't like as proof that, in Mr. Medved's formulation, "the entertainment industry" is "not in touch with the general public." The industry's profits prove exactly the reverse, but never mind. Even in this case, were Mr. Eastwood's film actually an endorsement of assisted suicide, the public would still be on his side, not his critics'. The latest Gallup poll on the subject, taken last year, shows that 53 percent of Americans find assisted suicide "morally acceptable" as opposed to the 41 percent who find it "morally wrong." (The figures for Catholics are identical).
But the most unintentionally revealing attacks on "Million Dollar Baby" have less to do with the "right to die" anyway than with the film's advertising campaign. It's "the 'million-dollar' lie," wrote one conservative commentator, Debbie Schlussel, saying that the film's promotion promises " 'Rocky' in a sports bra" while delivering a "left-wing diatribe" indistinguishable from the message sent by the Nazis when they "murdered the handicapped and infirm." Mr. Medved concurs. "They can't sell this thing honestly," he has said, so "it's being marketed as a movie all about the triumph of a plucky female boxer." The only problem with this charge is that it, too, is false. As Mr. Eastwood notes, the film's dark, even grim poster is "somewhat noiresque" and there's "nobody laughing and smiling and being real plucky" in a trailer that shows "triumph and struggles" alike.
What really makes these critics hate "Million Dollar Baby" is not its supposedly radical politics - which are nonexistent - but its lack of sentimentality. It is, indeed, no "Rocky," and in our America that departure from the norm is itself a form of cultural radicalism. Always a sentimental country, we're now living fulltime in the bathosphere. Our 24/7 news culture sees even a human disaster like the tsunami in Asia as a chance for inspirational uplift, for "incredible stories of lives saved in near-miraculous fashion," to quote NBC's Brian Williams. (The nonmiraculous stories are already forgotten, now that the media carnival has moved on.) Our political culture offers such phony tableaus as a bipartisan kiss between the president and Joe Lieberman at the State of the Union, not to mention the promise that a long-term war can be fought without having to endure any shared sacrifice or even too many graphic reminders of its human cost.
Last Sunday's was the first Super Bowl in 19 years that didn't feature the "I'm Going to Disneyland" spot for the victor, but maybe that's because it's superfluous. Whether in reaction to the trauma of 9/11 or for reasons that are as yet unknowable, we seem determined to will ourselves into Fantasyland at all times. This cultural syndrome is perfectly encapsulated by Jacques Steinberg's report in The New York Times last week of a new ABC "reality" program with the working title of "Miracle Workers." In this show, in which DreamWorks is also a participant, a "dream team" of physicians will miraculously run to the rescue of critically ill Americans, the perfect imaginary balm for what ails a country spiraling into a health-care catastrophe.
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.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company