Critics raved about Million Dollar Baby, making it one of the front-runners for best picture at this weekend's Academy Awards.
But while Hollywood's rich and famous applaud the film, the Center for Independent Living in Los Angeles will be holding a press conference and rally outside the Oscars on Sunday afternoon, one of many protests taking place across the U.S. in response to what it says is the movie's anti-disability stance.
Stephen Drake, research analyst with Not Dead Yet, a Chicago-area group for people with disabilities, wonders whether the Warner Bros.-produced film would have received the same acclaim if it were anti-gay or anti-woman.
For those who haven't seen the movie, a spoiler is coming. Clint Eastwood plays an aging manager who agrees to train a talented young boxer (Hilary Swank). She takes a sucker punch in a championship fight and sustains a spinal cord injury (SCI). Eastwood later helps her end her life in a nursing home.
The message portrayed here, says Drake, is that life with a disability is not worth living, or that it's better to be dead than disabled.
What's missing, say disabilities groups, is some kind of exploration of why Swank's character was in a nursing home in the first place rather than rehabilitating in an attempt to move back home and salvage a decent quality of life.
Of course, what we see on the big screen doesn't mirror reality, but when people need to make health decisions about their own or a loved one's future, what other experience or knowledge will they have to fall back on?
Unfortunately, many will recall what they saw on film and television.
F.X. Toole, who wrote the story on which Million Dollar Baby was based, had a heart condition throughout his life. His son has said Toole had strong feelings about not wanting to live in a reduced state. He had a vision and a fear of life with a disability but no direct experience.
Eastwood, as the film's director and co-producer, seems uninterested in the reality disabled people like myself face, but he is remembered by many in the disability community for his testimony against the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) before the House Judiciary Committee in 2000.
A patron with a disability had sued him in 1997 after Eastwood refused to include $7,000 worth of accessible bathrooms in his $6.7-million Mission Ranch Resort in Carmel, California. The only accessible guest room was more than double the price of other rooms in the hotel. Eastwood was cited for some of these violations, although the major claims in the case were dismissed.
Angered by the ruling, he went to Congress to lobby for a bill that would have substantially weakened the ADA by requiring a 90-day notification of violations. At the time, Eastwood said that the ADA amounted to "a form of extortion."
"The fight over the ADA reinforced the negative attitude he had toward people with disabilities to begin with," says Drake. "He probably wasn't very concerned with any of the stereotypes or negative portrayal of disability that this movie relies on."
Eastwood told the New York Times that he tried to follow Toole's novel as closely as possible.
Marcie Roth, executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association in the U.S., told the Associated Press that her group has been working to improve conditions for the disabled since 1948. However, many people still equate a spinal cord injury with a fate worse than death. The fact of the matter is that many people with SCI and other disabilities survive, thrive and contribute to our society.
Drake says Eastwood's film builds up to this incredible house of horrors to make sure everybody who's watching the movie -- and who's ignorant about disability -- is going to be emotionally on board with what he does.
Swank's character develops a pressure sore, it goes gangrenous and requires amputation, an unrealistic scenario in a top-flight care facility. Nevertheless, it's at this point that she decides she wants to die.
Drake says the audience's horror at what's happening to her builds to the point that, when the Eastwood character puts her out of her misery, so to speak, the audience's reaction is to say to themselves, "Well, of course he had to do that."
There have been laws in the U.S. for 15 years that allow patients to refuse treatment. A quadriplegic on a respirator could simply ask to be disconnected from the device. Doctors would do so and then administer a sedative so the person could die peacefully.
Instead, Eastwood has his character illegally enter the hospital, disconnect the device and inject Swank's character with adrenalin, a recipe for an agonizing and very painful death.
All seems quiet north of the border, where I'm hard-pressed to find a disability group that made any kind of statement on the film. Sandra Carpenter of Toronto's Centre for Independent Living says her organization won't be issuing any comment. "We try not to set ourselves up as yet another spokesperson for disabled people."
A publicist for Warner Bros. sent NOW the following statement from Eastwood. "I am sympathetic with the concerns of the individuals who have come out against Million Dollar Baby, but they are drawing the wrong conclusions from my decision to tell this story. This film is not a morality tale, nor is it a reflection of my personal view on what is certainly a difficult social issue. It is a story, pure and simple. It looks closely at a deeply personal choice without either endorsing or condemning it. I believe that audiences will leave with many thoughts and emotions after seeing this movie, and that was always my hope."