Frankie’s Lemon Meringue Afterlife

In his interview with Jeff Shannon, Clint Eastwood claims he was never trying to make a statement with Million Dollar Baby: “It was just a story the way F.X. Toole wrote it some years ago.” Sorry, I don’t buy it. The original story was exploited. Characters were inserted in the boxing story, the hospital scenes were stripped bare, and the character of Frankie was altered significantly.

In the movie, following her injury, Maggie regains consciousness in a hospital somewhere in Las Vegas, where no one knows how to turn a patient every two hours or perform range-of-motion exercises. There is no Stryker frame, circle bed or “halo” to stabilize Maggie’s cervical spine or prevent bedsores. She is finally moved to a “rehab center” after languishing for two months in a regular hospital bed.

In the original story, the fictional rehab facility in Los Angeles is called “Evergreen Rehabilitation Center.” Toole writes: “Maggie was given first-class treatment with genuine concern for her well-being. She was one of 10 quadriplegics there, but there were many more paraplegics, and amputees of all kinds. Most of the patients were cheerful.” Sounds a little like nearby Rancho Los Amigos, one of the nation’s top spinal cord injury rehab facilities and the one most likely to have been chosen by Frankie Dunn, Maggie’s trainer/manager father surrogate.

But screenwriter Paul Haggis and Eastwood change Toole’s setting to “Serenity Glen,” evoking a nursing home. No gymnasium, no therapy pool, no functional electrical stimulation, no physical therapists, no corridors teeming with activity, no active wheelchair users anywhere, certainly no laughter, absolutely nothing to suggest the reality of a contemporary rehab facility. To expunge any hint of hope for vent-dependent, C1-2 quad Maggie, the script calls for cutting off her leg as well (in the original story it is threatened but does not happen). More importantly, the hospital is emptied of all patients. Maggie is now utterly alone, except for Frankie (Eastwood), who is perfectly positioned to execute her death wish. Maggie, thanks to Eastwood’s direction and the pared-to-the-bone script, has become–borrowing a phrase from a dark page in history–”life unworthy of life.”

Is her death wish believable? Many critics have said yes, but Jim Emerson, Roger Ebert’s Web site editor, disagrees: “I just don’t buy that Maggie would give up as fast or as easily as the movie makes it appear she does. You don’t leave home, wait tables and steal table scraps to eat, and get repeatedly rejected (by her mom and by Frankie, before he takes her on for training) and then just give up once you’ve achieved as much as she has.”

But given the contrived circumstances in which Eastwood places the injured Maggie, moviegoers who know nothing of the reality of the rehab experience are likely to buy Maggie’s death wish. And they are also likely to sympathize with Eastwood’s Frankie when he decides to carry it out.

Interestingly, the killing is “clean” in the movie–Frankie, sober, boldly enters the rehab center and disconnects the ventilator before injecting adrenaline into Maggie’s IV. Not so in the original story: Toole’s Frankie hides in a broom closet, then tiptoes into Maggie’s room, reeking of whiskey. He first strangles Maggie until she loses consciousness, applying pressure with both thumbs to her carotid arteries. Then he injects adrenaline beneath her swollen tongue (which she has nearly bitten off in an attempt to bleed to death) so the injection point won’t be visible, covering his steps like a murderer. When the adrenaline-induced stroke hits Maggie, her face contorts and one eye sags open. Can you imagine how that climactic scene would play on the giant silver screen, with Eastwood as the killer?

No producer in his right mind would have underwritten it.

In the movie, after the “mercy killing,” Eastwood/Frankie disappears, but Morgan Freeman’s character (who did not exist in the original story) tells us that he likes to imagine Frankie living on in a romanticized diner, eating lemon meringue pie, perhaps with his estranged daughter–a situation which Frankie has referred to earlier in the movie as being like a “little slice of heaven.”

In contrast, the concluding sentence in Toole’s story shines an ominous light on Frankie as he sneaks out of the “rehab center”: “With his shoes in his hand but without his soul, he moved silently down the rear stairs and was gone, his eyes as dry as a burning leaf.”

No tears? Right, and no soul. In his interview with Jeff Shannon, Eastwood agrees that Frankie has no soul left, but he equates this condition with “not having anything left in his heart.” Eastwood wants us to believe that Frankie has given all that he has. But Toole’s Frankie is more concerned about what he has lost.

In the movie, the character of the priest makes Eastwood’s metaphoric concept of “soul” palatable to nonbelieving moviegoers. He is much younger than Frankie, uses four-letter words, and is impatient with Frankie, refusing to respond to his taunting questions about the trinity and the immaculate conception. In short, he doesn’t seem much like a priest at all.

In the original story, Father Tim is a much older character who has known Frankie since they were young boys: “He knew Frankie from childhood in Ireland. Both had been schooled by the hard Christian Brothers.” Toole’s Father Tim is a traditional “man of the cloth” who believes in the afterlife and the eternal soul. Most importantly to Toole, who was a devout Catholic himself (his first line on the dedication page reads “For God, the Eternal Father”), Frankie and Father Tim share the same belief.

Eastwood and Haggis have stripped Toole’s story of eternal consequences. Frankie is still a tragic character, yet his actions are not seen as an affront to God. In Toole’s story, however, soul-less Frankie, having taken a human life, may be in for a lot worse than stale lemon meringue pie.

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