Yes, Million Dollar Baby sucked up the most Oscars last night, and my sister-in-law may be up for a free trip to Vegas. I was in Los Angeles last week, and the two of us went out to lunch with my 2-year-old nephew in tow. The restaurant was hosting a contest with the grand prize–a weekend in Las Vegas, or maybe just a bunch of free meals–to go to whoever came closest to accurately guessing who or what was going to win the top categories of the Academy Awards.
So, while the 2-year-old ran his train set around the rim of the table, my sister-in-law and I filled in all the slots on our contest entry cards with nominees from “Million Dollar Baby.” Actually, I filled in all the slots–Best Picture, Best Director, and so forth–with “Million Dollar Baby” nominees, but my sister-in-law, more perspicacious than I, decided to throw one entry to Jamie Foxx for Ray. That?s why I think she?ll soon be on her way to Vegas, or a least chowing down quite a bit at our restaurant, and I won?t.
Neither my sister-in-law nor I had actually seen “Million Dollar Baby.” In this, we are in line with most Americans; “Baby” has so far done only so-so at the theaters, and according to Box Office Mojo, the family-friendly Because of Winn-Dixie has already nearly caught up with “Baby”‘s weekly gross, although “Winn-Dixie” has been out for only 10 days. But both of us knew our Hollywood, and we predicted, quite accurately, that the cinema elite would find irresistible this oh-so-serious Clint Eastwooder with its doubly politically correct whammy of female boxing and plug for euthanasia. For 1999, Hollywood handed a “Best Actor” award to Michael Caine for playing a friendly neighborhood abortionist in The Cider House Rules, another picture that hardly anyone wanted to see either before or after the Academy Awards show but that pushed a cause dear to West Coast liberals’ hearts. That’s the way Hollywood is. So, sis, you have a great time on the Strip.
And I still have no intention of seeing “Million Dollar Baby.” But if biblical scholar Paula Fredriksen could make a second career out of trashing The Passion of the Christ without ever having viewed it (and indeed refusing to do so), I feel entitled to get my licks in at “Baby.”
There’s the assisted-suicide thing–who wants to see a movie about that? There’s the girl-boxing thing–ouch! I’m sorry, but my father was an amateur boxer (and South Bronx champ) in his youth and an air-jabbing aficionado of the “fights” that were practically all there were on Friday night television when I was a young ‘un. So I know the Marquis of Queensbury rules fairly well, and the Marquis of Queensbury says that the the entire upper torso is a free-fire zone. I know the gals put a lot of tape over their breasts, but you can’t tell me that it still doesn’t hurt. And I don’t want to see women pommel each other in the face and wreck each other’s looks. A guy with an eye swollen to a slit looks like someone you might want to kiss the hurt away on; a gal looks like (and is, in my book) an abuse victim.
But the real reason I refuse to see “Million Dollar Baby” is that it’s essentially a Sixties movie. It belongs to a plot-genre that spawned a zillion films during that decade: the Outsider (or Outsiders) Done In by the Evil System. You remember those movies: “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Easy Rider,” “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” “Midnight Cowboy.” The plots were always the same: attractive young loners (played by the likes of Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda) doomed because they couldn’t buck the corruption of either capitalism or American/Western society in general. There was never a happy ending in those movies. Yet they weren’t genuine tragedies, either, because the protagonists’ downfalls were never precipitated by their own human failings. Nor were they object lessons in the triumph of human evil if left unchecked, because the villains were never genuinely bad people but, rather, faceless operatives of some sort: bankers, prison guards, dime-a-dance entrepreneurs, and so forth. The System was the villain, not people.
In the Sixties such movies went over big. To millions of middle-class, prosperous, suburbia-nurtured young people back then, “Butch Cassidy” was a way to rebel against their dullard, conformist, Depression-choked parents and all the teachers and Kiwanis-clubbers who told them to study hard, get a steady, safe job, and settle down to raise a 2.5-child family in yet more suburbia. So what if the movie glorified bank robbery (or “Shoot Horses” glorified getting shot in the head if you lost a dance marathon)? Newman and Redford and Fonda were so…cool. The glamorized nihilism those movies preached sounded just fine to a generation that, for the first time in American history, didn’t have to worry en masse about where their next meal was coming from or whether they could afford college. Don’t trust anyone over 30, they were told, and they bought the message that death is more appealing than the setbacks and limitations of living in an adult workaday world.
“Million Dollar Baby” is cut to the Sixties template: attractive young heroine with every card in the deck carefully stacked against her: poverty, rotten family, no friends (except for the equally down-on-his luck Eastwood), rigged fight, dank, disease-ridden hospital with not a caring attendant in sight. Even the priest is a drone–so much for the moral authority of religion. It’s the System, and you can’t beat the System. The heroine can’t win–and doesn’t. It’s the audiences that are different 40 years later. Today’s young people–and their elders–have more realistic and hopeful attitudes toward adult life. So they mostly don’t want to see a cynical movie that informs them that struggling isn’t worth it and the society they live in is beyond redemption. The Sixties are over, folks, and Hollywood can plug its favorite brand of nihilism with every Oscar on the shelf, but I predict that not many people are going to buy it.