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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Between Rock and a hard place

Only another week and a half until the Academy Awards! Aren’t you totally jazzed and excited??!

Me neither.

The media are doing their best to work up some interest in the ceremony, but it’s not working for me. Maybe I am too far removed, not only emotionally but also literally and geographically. The entertainment press, which (let’s face it) has a vested interest in people being interested in the whole awards thing, is playing its usual gambit of trying to manufacture some controversy. Apparently, this year that translates into ceremony host Chris Rock (who seems to have been chosen expressly for the likelihood of some Whoopi Goldberg-style controversy cum publicity) making some kind of statement that only gays watch the Oscars. Well, duh!

While I haven’t specifically thought about it before, there is something very gay about the Oscars. But you know what? Anymore, seemingly anything that is fun, lively and interesting seems gay. Let’s face it. Gay people just seem to have more fun than straight people. That would explain why most popular trends and styles usually start in the gay community and then migrate to the straight community. This pattern is so well established that television executives decided finally to expedite the process and air programs like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy just to speed things up.

But back to the controversy at hand. Only gays watch the Oscars? Puh-leese! I watch them. Lots of straight people I know watch them. Case closed. Or maybe we’re all closet cases. Chris Rock probably knows best.

The other bit of controversy seems to come from a strange quarter. That would be the apparent right-wing flap over the movie Million Dollar Baby. I say “apparent” because I haven’t heard or read these criticisms directly. Since I am about to discuss them (anyway), I have to ask you to think carefully about reading further if you have not seen that film. Spoilers lie ahead, and they might detract from your appreciation of the movie when you see it, if you haven’t see it already.

Apparently, conservative talk radio pundits Rush Limbaugh and Michael Medved have attacked Million Dollar Baby on the grounds that it promotes the left-wing agenda of euthanasia. Since I have not heard either of these commentators actually say this, I am relying on reports on the editorial page of The New York Times. Recently, both Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich (both of whom, attentive readers will have noted, figured in last week’s Valentine diatribe as well) have responded to these attacks. Limbaugh and Medved’s problem with the movie derives from the final act, in which Hilary Swank’s character winds up paralyzed after a mishap in the boxing ring and asks Clint Eastwood’s character to end her life. Which he does.

The right-wingers’ attack spurs Dowd into a litany of all the events in Shakespeare’s plays that would not pass muster with the religious right. Rich labels the film’s critics as “holier-than-thou bullies” who are emboldened by their electoral gains last November.

Of course, Dowd and Rich are correct in their essential point, which is that this is after all a movie that is telling a story. It shouldn’t have to pass a political litmus test. In the best passage of his piece, Rich quotes an exasperated Eastwood asking, “What do you have to give these people to make them happy?” as he points out that the story is a classic pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps yarn that conservatives tend to lap up. And the villains are even welfare cheats!

The two columnists are right to resist any tendency for art and entertainment to be forced to adhere to an arbitrary moral code. It didn’t work out great in the 1930s when the American motion picture industry established the Production Code. And it worked even less well in the old Soviet Union, when art was required to serve the aims of the state. So, yes, Dowd and Rich are correct in their view of the film as art. On the other hand, Rich paints a rather sinister portrait of the right wing trying to “censor” this film by creating a negative buzz about it, through the mere act of discussing it on AM radio. This makes the leap that discussion on the airwaves is tantamount to censorship, which is a bit overwrought. Besides, as we (and directors like Michael Moore and Mel Gibson) know very well, there is no such thing as bad publicity, so being attacked by right-ring radio is for movies pretty much akin to Br’er Rabbit being thrown into the briar patch.

In the end, the whole flap is less interesting for the substance of the political debate than for what it demonstrates about political discourse in America these days. The political left and right continue to talk right past one another without actually hearing what the other is saying. So, as a public service, I will now give you a translation of what each side is saying about this movie and what the other side is hearing.

What Limbaugh and Medved are saying: We are against mercy killing and we don’t like movies that we think promote it.

What Dowd and Rich hear Limbaugh and Medved saying: We want to shut down any studio that produces a movie we don’t like.

What Dowd and Rich are saying: Art is art, and it shouldn’t have to pass a political litmus test.

What Limbaugh and Medved hear Dowd and Rich saying: We are in favor of killing old people—and babies too!

There, now that I’ve performed that public service, it is time for me to go shopping for the ball gown that I am going to wear while watching the Oscars!

-S.L., 17 February 2005

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