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Read Steve Drake's review of Million Dollar Baby

Read Art Blaser's review of The Sea Inside


Killing Us Kindly

by Mary Johnson

JAN. 19, 2005 --THIS PAST WEEKEND, Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, released in December, won Golden Globes for both the director and for Hilary Swank as Best Actress.

The Last Acts Writers' Project, part of the Partnership for Caring, was created to "educate the entertainment industry about end-of-life issues and encourage them to include end-of-life story lines." Five years later, we have The Sea Inside and Million Dollar Baby.

Like The Sea Inside, which won the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film, Eastwood's film carries the message that it's the kind thing to do to kill someone who's become a quadriplegic.

Of course nobody would put it that way. Alter that a bit: only the most rightwing right-to-lifers would put it that way.

At least that'd be the way the remark would be judged: if you said it was about "killing," you'd be labeled a right-to-lifer.

Funny how we've gotten things sorted out here at the start of 2005.

Most folks would consider us spoilsports to rain on a fine Eastwood movie. On our website, Steve Drake does just that, as Art Blaser did last week with The Sea Inside.

While the publicity for The Sea Inside makes it clear what the film is about (no; they don't tell us it's about "killing a quad"; they tell us it's the story of Ramon Sampedro "who fought for his right to end his life with dignity and respect"), only a handful of the thousands of articles about Baby have mentioned that it ends with young boxing sensation Maggie asking, and getting, the same deal. (Her back broken in a horrifying fight injury, she begs father figure Frankie (Eastwood) to help her die, and he reluctantly but lovingly (?) complies. Read Drake's review to get all the gory details.)

The secrecy seems intentional. Perhaps Eastwood's PR machine asked that it not be mentioned. Perhaps critics think... who knows what they think? That it would upset people? That it would ruin the emotional bumper-car ending for the moviegoer? Maybe movie critics just like being coy. Although more may be going on: Eastwood released the film late in the year, and reportedly the film was turned down at a number of film festivals.

These killings are always acts of love, selfless and heroic. "The myth [is that] nothing can be done about the undignified lives of people with disabilities (except to help them die)," wrote Blaser.

Full disclosure: even without its ending, I would not feel kindly toward Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby. It is hard for me to sit in a theater looking up at the man who continues to fight disabled people in his backyard along the Central Coast of California, teaming up with owners howling because people in wheelchairs are suing them when they find they still cannot get into their businesses.

In Eastwood's last directorial effort, Mystic River, the killer is a kid who never speaks -- he uses sign language, I'm told. Deaf? I dunno. Readers would no doubt think I'm stretching things to wonder what it is about ol' Clint and disability. But it is food for thought.

I don't like a man who continues to vow to get Congress to pass a law forbidding people to sue for access without first waiting another 90 days, even if he is a truly great movie actor and director. And forgive me for wondering how Eastwood's feelings about quadriplegics living to fight him over access might conceivably play into his directorial prowess in letting the public know how noble, how loving, how kind it is for a father figure to help a young quad end her life. The script isn't Eastwood's invention. "Million $$$ Baby" -- with its Frankie-kills-Maggie ending -- is from the short-story collection by F.X. Toole. But it was Eastwood who chose it to popularize.

And if you were to say that the two aren't the same thing, that they're not related issues, I'd simply say "checkmate!" You rolled right into that one.

As efforts to gain acceptance for the "right to die" move into the mass entertainment media, it is instructive to observe that the vehicle they are driving in on is the vehicle of severe disability.

If we who label ourselves members of the disability rights movement are so crass, so gauche as to publicly suggest what I have suggested, above, we are typically ignored. Or we may be told, with a kind of hush-hush rolling of eyes, that "helping" a seriously disabled person "end their life" is not related to disability rights and access issue. That it's not the same thing, and that we're fools to be so naive as to think there's any connection.

But I think that as long as we allow folks to convince us of that, we'll see the inexorable march of killing us kindly continue.

Yes, these messy death issues are in fact related to those clean educational issues like "access" and "accommodation": So long as society believes the problem with our lives is the fact that we are disabled, rather than the problem being oppression and denial of rights, society is going to be fascinated by the idea of killing a disabled person as a way of solving her problems. (And, not incidentally, society's problem as well.)

Until we can make this point with clarity and force, we'll continue to be be seen as kind of a sidekick cheering section for the right to lifers. Our ideas, even when acknowledged, will be pushed aside with a "but that's not really what's going on here" kind of dismissal, as San Francisco columnist Joan Ryan did in her column on Sunday explaining why disability activists' opposition to Calfornia's right-to-die bill, once again being considered in its state legislature, was well intentioned but misguided. ("They are clinically and morally different situations,'' she quoted a doctor as saying.)

Drake and Blaser have discussed the motivations driving the characters in these movies, but what interests me is the appearance of both these movies at the end of 2004, bookends, as it were, propping up what is likely the most contentious public issue since abortion. (Drake tells us that at least two movies on assisted-suicide crusader Jack Kevorkian are in the works as well.) Lisa Blumberg said some of it, quite well, back last spring on the Ragged Edge website, although she likely didn't know that both Amenábar and Eastwood were plotting scripts with "right to die" messages.

Blumberg was discussing the media circus that had surrounded Terri Schiavo the previous fall. Today Ms. Schiavo is still alive, her life still hanging in the balance awaiting yet more court rulings, her 10 minutes of fame mostly over, but things have a way of biting us coming and going. That time, the party line was that it was the right thing to do to let someone die when they're disabled and aren't conscious.

This time, the party line, a la Amenábar and Eastwood, is that it's the right thing to do to help someone die when they're disabled and are conscious.

So we're moving right along.

Back in the late 1990s the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded a program and a website called Last Acts. The group had a Last Act Writers' Project as well.

About the time we published Blumberg's article, the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication published "How Pro-Social Messages Make Their Way Into Entertainment Programming." The study, a report for the Carnegie Media, Citizens & Democracy Project, looked at 19 organizations that since the 1980s "have appeared in Hollywood with the purpose of altering or improving portrayals of particular issues in television and film."

One of the programs they looked at was the Harvard Alcohol Project. Launched in 1988 and by now a classic of how to influence entertainment programming, the Harvard project worked to "shift social norms with respect to drinking and driving," promoting the concept of designated drivers; over the course of the project, "the idea of a designated driver worked its way into scripts of popular shows like The Cosby Show , Cheers and LA Law." The campaign, says the study, became a national movement. The phrase "designated driver" is now ensconced in the dictionary and a staple of today's social consciousness.

One of the projects the Lear Center looked at was the Last Acts Writers' Project, which, it wrote, "kept a close watch" on the TV and film industry and held workshops and seminars for writers and directors in the entertainment industry. Last Acts was part of the Partnership for Caring, and its website notes that this "Hollywood-based program" exists to "educate the entertainment industry about end-of-life issues and encourage them to include end-of-life story lines in ... the movies ."

Five years later, we have The Sea Inside and Million Dollar Baby. Coincidence? Don't forget the Harvard Alcohol Project.

Today a UPI story suggests that Million Dollar Baby will likely have a positive influence on women's boxing, encouraging more women to take up the sport. Movies do influence mores; that's what the Lear report was saying. If boxing, why not assisted suicide?

As efforts to gain acceptance for the "right to die" move into the mass entertainment media, it is instructive to observe that the vehicle they are driving in on is the vehicle of severe disability. It is so much more acceptable, of course, to help a severely disabled person die, less fraught with uncertainty than simply helping one's grandma in her 90s, or one's uncle who's been told his cancer will kill him in 6 months. Helping a totally paralyzed person die is so much more obviously kindhearted.

If nothing else, that should tell us something.

Certainly, The Sea Inside and Million Dollar Baby seem to be trying to beam us the message.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Last Acts Partnership is no longer in existence; many of its materials are now on the website http://www.caringinfo.org.

Revised January 19, 2005

Mary Johnson edits Ragged Edge. Her latest book is Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and The Case Against Disability Rights.

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