It should come as no surprise that Clint Eastwood (born in 1930) has a somewhat “old school” concept of disability. Like many children of the Great Depression, he uses words like “afflicted” when discussing disability, benignly unaware of their political incorrectness. On the other hand, Eastwood is also a consummate gentleman, cordial, well-spoken, thoughtful, and willing to listen and learn while discussing the more controversial aspects of his acclaimed film Million Dollar Baby.
NEW MOBILITY: You’ve said publicly that Million Dollar Baby was never intended to state any particular position on disability or assisted suicide, politically or otherwise.
CLINT EASTWOOD: That’s right. The picture was never made to make any statement for or against anything, and it wasn’t meant to [depict] the Frankie Dunn character, who I play, as being right [in his decision to euthanize Maggie, the paralyzed boxer played by Hilary Swank]. It was just a decision at the time, and it was a set of circumstances [that] wasn’t trying to make any statement. It was just a story the way F.X. Toole wrote it some years ago, about how fragile life is and how Frankie had had many disappointments, and as an Irish Catholic he was having problems with his religion. After Maggie expresses her wish to die, Frankie goes right back to the priest he’s been playing this cat-and-mouse game with, and the priest is right when he says, “If you do this thing you’ll be in so deep you’ll never be able to recover,” etc. I haven’t heard [complaints] from anybody who’s been afflicted with anything, it’s usually somebody who isn’t [disabled] but thinks he’s speaking for them–the so-called armchair experts.
NM: People seem to want this film to be something it’s not. They want a different film than the one you made. Some people are interpreting it in a one-sided or simplistic way, when in fact it’s very ethically complex.
CE: That’s the whole thing. It’s the complexity that makes it interesting, and the thing I liked about the story is that it does lead you to almost believe that it’s going to be a “Rocky” fairy tale, and then it isn’t. It’s got a certain hardness of life to it, and Frankie is put to the ultimate dramatic conflict. That sort of conflict is the basis of drama going back to the Greeks and Shakespeare, and the film was never intended to make any statements. It was just these two people and how they were feeling under these circumstances.
NM: A major factor in the MDB controversy is that the post-injury part of the film is extremely minimal in style and content. It’s deliberately dark and spare, and the rehab experience depicted in the film is being criticized because it’s not realistic.
CE: I haven’t heard that criticism. I know there are certain quarters that are trying to interpret something into the film that’s not there, but that’s the nature of the beast. I don’t know what else I could’ve done. I’m not an expert in this, I’m just telling the story of these two people–and it’s a love story; I never saw it as a boxing movie. I saw it as a great love story about Frankie and the daughter he never had–or never had a relationship with–and that was the main depth of the story, and the dilemma that she wants him to terminate her life, and he can’t even think about it. I couldn’t go too far with the [rehab aspect] because I didn’t want the technical details to rule over the emotional part. There were quite a few scenes that were not included in the film that were about Maggie’s dilemma, but I just thought at some point that I didn’t want to feature that part of the story. I wanted to feature the great love and respect that Frankie had for this girl, and their relationship, and [the film] ends on the note that it ends with, which is true to F.X. Toole’s original story [EDITOR: for a contrasting view, see “Frankie’s Lemon Meringue Afterlife,” page 40].
NM: But some people justifiably desire a more authentic depiction of the rehab experience, including other paralyzed wheelchair users as described in Toole’s story, the prevention of bedsores, proper physical therapy, and other people who might make an attempt to cheer Maggie up and show her some hopeful options for living.
CE: I do agree that all of those things could’ve been there, but that just wasn’t the story we were telling. I have a friend who was paralyzed when he was 21 years old, but only for a year–he managed to recover–and when he saw the film he said it brought back some powerful memories about that year of his life and how he was feeling then. He had great respect for what we showed in the film, but he wasn’t looking for somebody to do a documentary about what the actual rehab experience is like. That’s what a documentary film is and should be, and it would be very educational for people to learn exactly what it takes to survive after an injury like that. But this film is not a documentary, and I just made it as minimal as possible to focus on the love story, so to speak.
NM: So would it be fair to say that you think people should view the film not in the harsh light of documentary realism, but perhaps as an allegory of some kind?
CE: Yes, I think so. This is just one story. It’s not saying that every story should end this way. In a way it’s kind of flattering that people are saying “we should’ve done this or we should’ve done that,” because it means that people are thinking about the film instead of dismissing it altogether. It was never meant to be any more than it is, and if you refer to the great tragedies throughout history, they weren’t always pleasant.
NM: And yet, some disabled people are very discouraged by the film, because they perceive a potentially harmful image that suggests that disabled people are “better off dead.”
CE: I don’t think that’s the situation [in the film], and it wasn’t the intention at all. The intention was just to tell the story of these two people, and it’s not advocating that at all. Everyone in the picture is telling Frankie that he can’t do this thing [kill Maggie], and he’s telling himself that he can’t, and he goes to his priest and tells him about how he just wants to have Maggie with him, but she had this request. And the priest gives him the proper advice by telling him that he “can’t do this thing,” but he ends up doing it anyway. It’s just his decision, and not the right one, and certainly not the decision I’d be able to make, that’s for sure. It’s not one I could advocate to anybody on this planet, but that’s the decision he makes in this story, and that’s what makes this kind of story unique.
NM: Some people interpret Frankie’s decision as your endorsement of assisted suicide. Are you saying you are dramatizing a decision that is contrary to your own?
CE: That’s right. You could say the same thing about Shakespeare when he wrote about incest in Hamlet, and as a moviemaker you tell different stories that you would not necessarily agree with. If you tell a story about Adolph Hitler it doesn’t mean you believe in Nazism. …
For the complete Clint Eastwood interview, please see the print edition of New Mobility. Order the issue by calling (800) 404-2898 ext. 7260.