Frankie, Maggie and Me: Inside the Million Dollar Maelstrom

As a freshly injured C5-6 quad in the early ’80s, I was angry at the world, slamming doors and punching walls until my knuckles were bloody. My relationship with paralysis was new and confusing, and I hurled my spiteful wrath at those who least deserved it: my parents.

You just don’t understand, I’d yell, convinced that the physical and emotional complexity of disability was incomprehensible to Mom, Dad and everyone else in the nondisabled world. The frustration was almost unbearable: You just don’t understand.

Cut to January 2005: The anger is gone, but some of the frustration lingers. I’ve been a quad for 26 years and a film critic for 20. I’ve never seriously considered suicide. I chose to live and never regretted that choice. It’s been a life worth living, spiced with fascinating developments I could never have anticipated.

Take Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, for example. Over this one controversial movie, my personal and professional lives clashed as never before. Suddenly I was confronted with difficult questions, complicated answers. How could a quadriplegic film critic praise a movie that seemed to suggest that quadriplegics were better off dead? How could I admire a respected filmmaker and movie star who had lobbied to compromise the Americans with Disabilities Act?

These questions arise in a climate of persistent ignorance and potential enlightenment, where black and white is replaced by infinite shades of gray. The answers are found in a maelstrom of mixed emotions and clashing ideologies. At a stormy crossroads of art and politics, a passion for movies collides with punditry and vitriol, where incompatible agendas breed perpetual cycles of conflict. Proceed with caution, I warned myself, because people just don’t understand.

I first saw Million Dollar Baby at a public preview in mid-December 2004. A fellow reviewer hinted of a death in the plotline. Apart from that, I knew nothing of the movie’s so-called “pro-euthanasia” theme, or that it ended with the “mercy killing” of a quadriplegic. Like most people, I felt devastated by the “dark turn” of the film’s controversial third act. Not shocked. Not appalled. Not outraged. Just devastated. Deeply affected.

Wheeling out of the theater, I wondered how I was being perceived by the other filmgoers. Did they think I was better off dead? Was I angered by what I’d seen? We filed out in pensive silence.

As a quad, I realized that Million Dollar Baby gave rise to profoundly disturbing implications. But I also knew I’d seen a beautiful, brooding, deeply moving drama that arrived organically and honestly at one of the most compelling moral dilemmas I’d ever seen on film. It was a raw, uncompromising tale of tenacity, love and triumph that led to devastating tragedy and the willful sacrifice of a good man’s soul. I’d seen an admirable woman’s dream come true, only to see her arrive at a torturous crossroads where life, for her, seemed not worth living. This was powerful filmmaking.

Now I understood what the early critical buzz was about. I’d seen a fine, substantial film, very good if not great, gracefully performed and brilliantly directed by a filmmaker whose work I admired. I was impressed as a critic, but as a quadriplegic I sensed an imminent debate over the climactic connection between disability and assisted suicide. What I didn’t expect, quite honestly, was the magnitude of the uproar.

In Chicago, activists from Not Dead Yet protest Million Dollar Baby in January 2005. Photo by Jim Newberry

In Chicago, activists from Not Dead Yet protest Million Dollar Baby in January 2005.
Photo by Jim Newberry

It didn’t take long for the protests to begin. Disability-rights advocates, having perceived–whether they’d seen it or not–a different film than I had, began attacking Eastwood and Million Dollar Babyas an anti-disability “snuff film.” Disabled members of the anti-assisted suicide group Not Dead Yet staged a civilized protest in Chicago on Jan. 19, where the Chicago Film Critics Association (including well-known critic Roger Ebert, with whom I had corresponded frequently via e-mail) had gathered to pay tribute to veteran filmmaker Robert Altman.

The activists politely distributed leaflets explaining their concerns about Eastwood’s film. But they also carried signs with propaganda slogans that, as far as I was concerned, pushed an alarmist agenda with distorted interpretations of Million Dollar Baby and its rapturous critical reception.

“Thumbs Down to Eastwood’s Revenge” stated one sign, referring to Eastwood’s anti-ADA reputation among disability activists. Another sign read “Ebert Says Thumbs WAY Up to Killing Disabled,” an ugly and malicious misinterpretation of Ebert’s glowing review. The word “vendetta” was repeated by numerous disability spokespeople, and the chasm of controversy widened.

Viewing photos of these signs, my heart sank. The disabled protesters had a legitimate complaint, but they–we–were picking the wrong fight. The activists were embarrassing themselves with protests that the nondisabled majority would dismiss as the inaccurate outrage of knee-jerk reactionaries.

Something was seriously wrong here. Unquestionably, there were deeply disturbing ways to interpret Eastwood’s movie. In a widely-circulated quote, National Spinal Cord Injury Association executive director Marcie Roth stated that “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.”

Roth was right, of course, but to me at least, her interpretation of the movie was politically charged and not entirely justified. Million Dollar Baby lent itself to a variety of complex interpretations, but the movie I had seen did not suggest that disability was a “fate worse than death.”

As a community, those of us with disabilities must always be “tremendously concerned” with anything containing words or images that appear to promote an anti-disability message. But we need to be careful about how we voice that concern. What I saw, in Chicago and across the Internet, was a divisive clash of political agendas.

Meanwhile, the disability viewpoint was getting bulldozed under by the media’s rush to cover the latest buzz-worthy issue. Within days, it seemed the entire planet had learned of Eastwood’s “million dollar secret.” (“My God! He kills a quad! It’s Rocky with an assisted suicide!”)

Numerous reports on the controversy cited Eastwood’s previous conflict with the ADA and disability-rights activists, adding suspicious history to the Million Dollar Baby backlash. Conservative pundits like critic-turned-morality-watchdog Michael Medved rallied against the “false marketing” of the movie and its “right-to-die” agenda. Op-ed columnists emphasized the euthanasia angle, frequently referring to another current film, The Sea Inside, the highly praised, fact-based Spanish drama about quad poet Ram—n Sampedro’s 30-year right-to-die campaign.

In defense of Million Dollar Baby and its closely-guarded “dark turn,” critics defended their mandate to avoid plot-revealing “spoilers” in reviews, prompting counterarguments favoring a “moral responsibility” to alert filmgoers to potentially offensive material. By now Million Dollar Baby was in wide theatrical release, appearing on hundreds of top-10 lists and gathering award-season momentum with Golden Globes–most notably for Hilary Swank as Maggie–and seven Oscar nominations.

Somewhere in all of this hot-topical fury, the disability perspective was de-emphasized, overlooked, or lost altogether. The mainstream media swept it under the rug, as it had on many previous occasions. Just what were those cripples whining about, anyway?

In The Sea Inside, Javier Bardem portrays Ramon Sampredo, a Spanish Poet with quadriplegia who fought for 30 years to be allowed to end his own life.

In “The Sea Inside”, Javier Bardem portrays Ramon Sampredo, a Spanish Poet with quadriplegia who fought for 30 years to be allowed to end his own life.

As a critic and a journalist, I did what I could to express “our side” while avoiding anti-Eastwood rhetoric. While acknowledging his rancorous history with the ADA, it seemed to me that Eastwood was the unwitting emblem of a larger societal malaise, and that suggested we had bigger fish to fry.

I published an interview with the director of The Sea Inside in The Seattle Times on Jan. 30 that included my own perspective of having chosen life over death. I had a letter published in USA Today on Feb. 8 stating that the “problem” wasn’t Eastwood’s film, but the destructive and seemingly perpetual lack of understanding between the disabled and nondisabled populations of America and the world at large. There was no open dialogue, and never really had been. Eastwood and Million Dollar Baby were glaring evidence of this disconnect, and they were symptoms, not the cause, of a much bigger problem.

As it happens, someone far more informed about disability rights than I am had already examined this problem in a book that should be required reading. As a journalist and longtime editor of Ragged Edge magazine and its Web site, Mary Johnson was in a unique position to write Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve, and the Case Against Disability Rights (Advocado Press, 2003). Johnson had covered disability rights issues for decades, and her book is a maddening yet inspirational time bomb primed to explode into our collective national consciousness.

Like most of us, I only knew the basic facts about Eastwood’s ADA battle. Johnson’s book examines the case in its broader sociopolitical context–Eastwood, in fact, plays a relatively minor role in the book–and arrives at the same conclusion I’d reached about the Million Dollar Baby controversy: the nondisabled majority suffers from a fundamental misperception of what it means to be disabled, and that can only change if we open consistent and constructive channels of communication. It’s no mistake that one of Johnson’s subsequent Ragged Edge essays is titled “We Need to Talk.”

“Society needs to talk–really talk,” Johnson writes, “about what it is that makes life unbearable when you’re severely disabled. This conversation would need to go on for years, as the conversation about gayness has gone on for years, and the conversation about race has gone on for more than a century.”

In other words, we’ve got ourselves a tough row to hoe.

To the extent that Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside suggest a “better dead than disabled” attitude, that mindset is perpetuated by a deeply-rooted societal conviction that the “disability problem” relates to our physical bodies–bent, broken, disfigured–and not from the nondisabled public’s failure to adopt a fully inclusive, genuinely nondiscriminatory awareness of disability rights.

So if they just don’t understand, who bears the responsibility for opening the dialogue? Certainly not Eastwood and Million Dollar Baby. From where I’m sitting, Eastwood’s allegedly pernicious “disability snuff film” could be a catalyst for positive change. Unintentional, perhaps, but Eastwood’s so-called “vendetta” could provide a pivotal opportunity for revolutionary improvement in the relationship between the nondisabled majority and the most neglected, misunderstood minority on Earth.

When Eastwood cites “opportunism” as the reason for protest against Million Dollar Baby, he betrays his own misunderstanding of the disability perspective, but it’s hardly his fault. He may be uninformed, but that only makes him one among several hundred million who would benefit from a crash course in Disability 101.

Of course, disability rights activists can rightly argue that Eastwood was anything but ignorant about ADA requirements when he disputed them in court, but this isn’t an ADA discussion. We’re talking about stubborn, persistent, deeply-rooted societal ignorance about disability as a day-to-day lifestyle. And that, my friends, is our problem, not Eastwood’s.

Even if Eastwood hadn’t granted a lengthy interview with New Mobility [see page 36], his published statements to other journalists would have made his position sufficiently understood. While none of us can presume to know Eastwood’s innermost thoughts about disability and how they relate to the making of Million Dollar Baby, accusing him of an alleged “vendetta” is presumptuous and counterproductive to our cause. Let Eastwood’s words speak for themselves:

“I never thought of the political side of this when making the film,” Eastwood told New York Times columnist Frank Rich in a column published on Feb. 13. In earlier statements, Eastwood said he was “not a pro-euthanasia person,” and “I’m just telling a story. I don’t advocate. I’m playing a part. I’ve gone around in movies blowing people away with a .44 magnum. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s the proper thing to do.”

Those who cling to anti-Eastwood sentiments are welcome to disagree, but I see no reason to doubt Eastwood’s sincerity. In my 20 years as a film critic and admirer of Eastwood’s career, I’ve seen and read enough interviews with Eastwood to believe that he’s not my enemy, as a film critic or a quadriplegic. When Million Dollar Baby co-star Morgan Freeman was asked about Eastwood on the Jan. 26 broadcast of The Charlie Rose Show, his hushed reverence (“I like him–a lot”) was obviously sincere. Should we now label him an anti-crip sympathizer?

In my professional opinion, Eastwood, who turns 75 on May 31, is now making the best, most challenging films of his career. More than any film Eastwood has made, Million Dollar Baby lends itself to complex and conflicting interpretations, which is a mark of masterful filmmaking. Nearly unanimous critical praise can’t be casually dismissed; it arises from carefully considered assessment of a praiseworthy film.

Critiquing Million Dollar Baby from a purely moral perspective, Christianity Today reviewer Jeffrey Overstreet called it “Eastwood’s most accomplished film” in his thorough and well-written review, stating that “just because a character commits a sin does not rob a story of all of its virtues, and even a misguided tale can create opportunity for rewarding discussion.” Are you sensing a recurring theme here? Like, We need to talk?

Just as Overstreet called Million Dollar Baby “misguided” from a Christian perspective, the disability community has a legitimate complaint against the film’s “misguided” images of disability. We have every right to cry foul, as Not Dead Yet activist Steve Drake did in a widely quoted and potently argued attack against the film:

“This movie is a corny, melodramatic assault on people with disabilities,” Drake wrote in his essay, “Dangerous Times,” in Ragged Edge. “It plays out killing as a romantic fantasy and gives emotional life to the ‘better dead than disabled’ mindset lurking in the heart of the typical (read: nondisabled) audience member.”

But here’s the problem: A simplistic, disability-rights assessment of Million Dollar Baby reduces a complex film to the only interpretation that accommodates the anti-Eastwood agenda. That’s unfortunate, because these blunt critiques, however valid from a disability-rights perspective, were easily dismissed by the mainstream media as the ranting of malcontents. And the opportunity for open dialogue was short-circuited.

There’s another point worth making here: If we’re going to attack the potentially harmful content in Million Dollar Baby, we must be equally wary of the positive, upbeat depiction of disability in films like the recently released Irish comedy Rory O’Shea Was Here (originally titled Inside I’m Dancing), a conventional and somewhat condescending tearjerker that has as many “feel-good” flaws as Million Dollar Baby has “feel-bad” ones.

As a quad, I acknowledge and appreciate the litany of complaints against Million Dollar Baby, but as a critic, where others saw only vendetta, I saw an ethically complex drama, “stripped to the hardwood” (to paraphrase a memorable line from the film) and bereft of the feel-good comforts we’ve come to expect from the Hollywood mainstream. I saw a film that powerfully explored a heart-rending moral dilemma, ending with an assisted suicide that could not, in my mind, be reduced to a crude charge of “Eastwood’s Revenge.”

As of this writing, I’ve seen Million Dollar Baby three times. My opinion hasn’t changed.

Dark, brooding themes of morality and mortality have been particularly consistent in Eastwood’s most recent films, especially in Unforgiven, Mystic River, and Million Dollar Baby. If we apply the French auteur theory of criticism and declare Eastwood the primary “author” of Million Dollar Baby, while acknowledging that its screenplay was adapted from two short stories by F.X. Toole, it’s fair to ask why Eastwood made this particular film, and whether any connection exists between its problematic depiction of disability and Eastwood’s experience with the ADA and disability activists.

It’s fair to ask why the film’s controversial third act depicts a “death fantasy” rehab experience including solitary confinement, festering bedsores and infection requiring amputation, inept staff, nonexistent security, legally unnecessary euthanasia, a “peaceful” death that would in fact be agonizing, and a quad presented with few if any options that would suggest a life worth living.

You’re free to call this “Eastwood’s Revenge,” but I’ve chosen not to. That’s a cynical opinion I simply cannot share. While Million Dollar Baby is seriously flawed and disturbing from a disability perspective, it’s also true to its characters, rich in humanity, and daring enough to let viewers think, in Eastwood’s words, “about the precariousness of life and how we handle it.” Eastwood may be uninformed about the day-to-day reality of disability, but it’s irrational, if not irresponsible, to suggest that he’s deliberately malicious toward our cause. Likewise, I believe that mostly ignorant, insensitive people will draw a “better dead than disabled” conclusion from Million Dollar Baby, in which case they need to be enlightened.

If Eastwood’s film motivates us to do some teaching, will it have damaged our cause or served it? Rather than provoke ourselves into the same dead-end debate between “us and them,” wouldn’t it be better to initiate meaningful conversations between two groups who, let’s face it, have never been properly introduced?

Who knows? Some people might begin to understand.


Why the Million Dollar Deception?

Million Dollar Baby‘s controversial ending was kept largely under wraps until Not Dead Yet and the National Spinal Cord Injury Association spoke out against the movie. Film critics had purposefully avoided it out of fear of “spoiling” the ending for moviegoers, and Warner Brothers, no doubt mindful of marketing strategy, focused exclusively on boxing scenes in their ads. New Mobility’s attempts at securing a cover image of Maggie sitting in her power wheelchair were flatly rejected.

Roger Ebert posted a defense of the film critics’ zip-lipped practice–“Critics Have No Right to Play Spoiler” (www.rogerebert.com)–on Jan. 29, and Ebert’s Web site editor, Jim Emerson, issued the following statement:

“A movie is a shared experience, and the questions it raises (whether the filmmakers intended to raise them or not) are an essential part of that experience. Movies are invariably political; they are products and reflections of the time and place in which they are made and released. But they’re also movies–open to interpretations, implications, and ambiguities beyond those of ideological reductionists, even beyond the stated intentions of the filmmakers themselves. What’s there on the screen is there–and people will see and respond depending on their individual sensibilities.”


Re-Shaping the Negative Disability Image

By Jean Dobbs

The National Spinal Cord Injury Association’s SCI Summit (May 9-11) could offer a forum for taking the Million Dollar Baby debate to the next level–a chance to strategize about educating journalists, film critics and even screenwriters.

But, says NSCIA executive director Marcie Roth, first things first. Before delivering any message to the nondisability media, Roth says the disability community must first develop a more cohesive and cooperative movement. The lack of universal outrage over Million Dollar Baby signals to Roth that the disability community remains splintered.

“How is it possible that a guy who made it his mission to gut the ADA goes on to make a movie that sends a ‘better dead than disabled’ message and he isn’t being held accountable for that? If he had been sued for discrimination on the basis of gender or race or sexual identity and then he went on to make a movie that was disparaging toward women or gays or people of color,” those groups would have been up in arms, she says. “The disability community has not strongly stepped up.”

The problem, Roth says, derives from the “competing” agendas of cure, disability rights and quality of life. “Our agenda at the summit is to try to get everyone involved in spinal cord injury into the same sandbox and sharing our toys. We’re not really ready to step out because we’re not all talking to each other really nicely yet.”

Roth says the factious nature of the community is further complicated by some misunderstandings about end-of-life issues. “There is ongoing confusion about the assisted suicide issue. People don’t understand that you have a constitutional right to refuse treatment. And the assisted suicide legalization debate is not that. People simply have not gotten it that if somebody like Maggie in Million Dollar Baby doesn’t want to be on a ventilator, she could have said to her doctor, ‘Give me a shot of something to relax me, and turn off my ventilator.'”

“The worst thing about this film,” says another disability leader, is not the “mercy killing” but the suggestion that disability fundamentally changes who you are:

“Maggie was a fighter, and some people have said that her character is consistent because she fights to die. But I don’t buy that. She was a tiny baby who had to fight for life, she pulled herself out of poverty, and she fought her way to the top, so she would have fought to live. That disconnect is a more serious, egregious fault. It’s a more insidious, negative thing” than the actual euthanasia.

How do we remedy the disconnect? “I don’t feel that public demonstrations are effective in changing anybody’s underlying biases,” says Karen Hwang, a Ph.D. in counseling psychology and C3-4 quad. “What is needed is more visibility of disabled people in everyday situations: working, going to school, parenting, etc. [see Carole Herbster's My Spin, page 10]. “I think disability advocacy organizations would do better to focus on supporting disabled writers and directors (this includes financially) and others to develop more disability-positive projects.”

It is hard to say whether the NSCIA Summit will help unify the SCI/D community’s response, but one event–the media panel–will address the issue. Says Roth: “The goal from a media perspective is to learn from our media experts–both disability media and popular media–about how to better convey our shared message that having a disability isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a different thing. You know: better disabled than dead.”

 

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