washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Ellen Goodman

An Oscar For Dialogue

By Ellen Goodman
Saturday, February 26, 2005; Page A19

Is it too late to create an Oscar for the Most Politically Controversial Film? It would be awfully handy to have a designated category for controversy so the rest of us could concentrate on what everyone's wearing.

This year, the two most contentious contenders aren't even in the running. "Fahrenheit 9/11" got completely stiffed by the Academy. "The Passion of the Christ" was nominated only for cinematography, music and makeup. At least it didn't get the Miss Congeniality prize.

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That's left an entire industry of culture critics all outraged-up with no place to go. The only focus of their prêt-à-porter anger at Hollywood is "Million Dollar Baby," which garnered seven nominations, including one for Best Picture.

Spoiler alert: Anyone who doesn't want to know how the movie ends should read no further, although I hope you do. "Million Dollar Baby" is a box-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps movie with a father-daughter redemption theme. But just when you've pegged it as Babe Rocky, the plot takes an abrupt turn to the darker side.

Maggie, the boxer, is blindsided in the ring and becomes a quadriplegic who asks her devoted, guilt-ridden, father-figure trainer, Frankie, to help her die. Eventually, in what is not a happy ending, he comes to the hospital room, turns off the respirator, injects her with adrenaline. Let the credits roll.

The portrayals by Hilary Swank as a boxer who desires death and Clint Eastwood as the reluctant instrument of her desire have been roundly condemned by culture critics from Rush Limbaugh to Michael Medved. It's been tagged as "a million-dollar euthanasia movie" and "political propaganda" that portrays assisted suicide as the "heroic choice." In addition, some advocates, such as Marcie Roth of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, condemned the message as "saying death is better than disability." All in all, Clint Eastwood has gotten more grief as tortured Frankie than as Dirty Harry.

Usually, I am reluctant to get into the ring with a fantasy figure. "Million Dollar Baby" is no more about assisted suicide than "The Aviator" is about obsessive-compulsive disorder and "Sideways" is about alcoholism.

In this case there's some plot-wrecking reality. Maggie didn't need to ask Frankie to help her die. Any fully competent patient in this country has the legal right to stop medical treatment. It's true for patients on kidney dialysis or chemotherapy and it's true for a quadriplegic patient with a feeding tube.

But what of the notion that the film is saying "better dead than disabled"? I don't dismiss the impact of culture on individual choices. Our society may well overvalue autonomy and breed a fear of dependence.

When gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide, I was struck by the "understanding" remarks of his lawyer, who said, "He did not want to exist as an invalid or as someone who needed constant care. It wouldn't suit his sense of self." He attributed Thompson's "choice" to chronic pain and the vagaries of aging.

More serious and sudden disabilities can bring on an identity crisis and despair. Those who work with disabled people have learned to be wary of depression among those who say they want to die. These are issues that Eastwood barely skates across in the race to a dramatic finale.

But we are in a ripe moment for public discussion of life and death. The priest in "Million Dollar Baby" tries to persuade Frankie to step aside and "let God take over." In fact, we are now playing God with feeding tubes and respirators. Just this week in Florida, the struggle between people claiming to speak for the severely disabled Terri Schiavo reached a climax. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court took on another challenge to the Oregon law permitting assisted suicide.

People face death and disease as differently as they face life. They don't lose their individuality -- or their individual rights -- when they lose their mobility. What movies do best is tell stories. So an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, "The Sea Inside," tells the story of Ramon Sampedro, a Spanish quadriplegic, and his 30-year struggle for the right to die. On the other hand, the Sundance festival honors "Murderball," a documentary about a quadriplegic rugby team.

If Ramon Sampredo was not a disabled everyman, neither was Christopher Reeve. The inspiring story of conquering adversity is by no means universal. Nor, for sure, is the decision to die.

"Million Dollar Baby" is neither political tract nor propaganda. It doesn't ask whether death is better than disability for you or me, but rather for a character named Maggie. Her choice opens up a conversation rather than closing it. For that, I can only say, the envelope please.

ellengoodman@globe.com


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