If you've seen the movie or read the spoilers, you know that at the end of the film, Hilary Swank's tough-chick boxing character gets paralyzed and Clint Eastwood's tough-trainer with a heart of gold character helps her kill herself. I am all in favor of films on the topic of intolerable living conditions and assisted suicide -- The Sea Inside, for instance, another Oscar nominee this year. But I know what that movie's about. I can decide whether to take my kids to it based on that theme. Every single ad and review detailed the subject matter and the controversy.
Until this week, I never heard one word about Million Dollar Baby's ending. None of my friends who had seen it mentioned to me exactly why they found it so upsetting (from the previews I assumed it was because of something terrible from Clint's character's past). If there hadn't been a typical idiotic knee-jerk right-wing protest about the fact of an assisted suicide in a film, which would have happened to any successful motion picture with that subject matter whether it was the main theme or a smaller subplot, I would not have known about it at all.
Now, I am not one of those people who finds death an empowering ending. I was and remain absolutely furious to this day about the ending of Thelma and Louise, which suggests that really the most empowering thing a woman caught on the wrong side of the tracks can do is to throw herself in front of the train -- to me they didn't escape into the sky as the final shot suggests and as a lot of feminist critics read the ending, they lost their lives and their agency and everything but the empty value of being a symbol to the one sympathetic cop who gave a shit. So while I completely favor the right to die for individuals who find life intolerable as cancer patients or quadriplegics, I am vastly more in favor of a focus on how to make life less intolerable for people who are excruciatingly sick or extremely disabled. When the subject comes up in mass market entertainment, I am personally a hell of a lot more comfortable if the focus is on how we as a society have failed people who feel trapped inside their bodies for one reason or another and what can be done to improve the situation short of euthanasing them.
Which, again, is not to say that Eastwood shouldn't have made exactly the film he did -- that's the story they were telling, and all power to them, regardless of what Rush Limbaugh or any other pundit either on the right-wing (protesting the assisted suicide) or the left (protesting the portrayal of a suicidal disabled person as politically incorrect) might say. I am saying that as an audience member and a parent, I do not think it censors the film's creative license to warn audiences that this, more than another gritty boxing story, is the real thrust of the film. I didn't particularly want to see the gritty boxing story and I had inklings that it ended badly -- I thought she died in the ring, Apollo-style from whichever Rocky that was -- and since boxing violence in general upsets me, to the point that I am seriously thinking I may not see Cinderella Man despite Russell Crowe, that was reason enough for me to stay away from the film...certainly not to take my older son, though he is just below the PG-13 cutoff in age and has seen many PG-13 and R-rated movies that I felt he was mature enough for.
I tend to look movies up on sites for parents explaining exactly what their children will be seeing, so there's almost nothing we take our kids to for which we are not spoiled...but as I discovered watching King Arthur last summer, the MPAA now allows a great deal more violence in a less-than-R rated movie than I'd ever seen before, and none of the sites I'd checked mentioned some of the specific gore, so focused were they on Arthur and Guinevere having eve-of-battle unwed sex (which to me as a parent is no big deal unless there's a great deal of explicitness, promiscuity or violence mixed up with the sex). So I already have problems knowing when to trust a film, not only for my kids but for myself, in terms of the amount of violence that will be deemed acceptable. I am one hundred percent in favor of legalized abortion and abortion education, but I would not want my son to see a film in which a woman had an abortion onscreen where I did not know beforehand that this would happen and I wasn't ready to talk about it.
In Million Dollar Baby, had a controversy not erupted, I might never have known what "adult themes" were in the movie, and I'm a pretty conscientious parent when it comes to checking what my kids are going to be watching -- hell, I'm a pretty conscientious consumer when it comes to checking what I'm going to be watching. Yet if it hadn't been for a couple of articles in the left-wing press protesting articles in the right-wing press about the movie, I would not have had any idea what was coming. Is it the filmmaker's right and responsibility to push audiences out of their comfort zone and make them think? Sure. But how does it make me a censor to say I think it's the studio's responsibility to let audiences know when a film is going to portray something that's deeply controversial and painful, so that audiences who don't want some Hollywood director's take on such a personal issue can avoid it?
I probably wouldn't be asking this question had the film been rated R rather than PG-13; I am coming at this more as a parent than as a filmgoer, though there have been a couple of times like Thelma and Louise where I felt blindsided and wanted my money back after seeing ads for what looked like a comedy and turned out to be something else. Everyone I know knew how Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ended before they saw it, and knowing it does not seem to have ruined the movie for them. Million Dollar Baby is not The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense, where knowing what is coming will profoundly alter the way an audience watches the film as it's unfolding -- emotionally, perhaps, but the twist is a plot point, not a secret about a character that's present all along. And I'm not saying I think the ads should have had a big "Yo, this film ends with an assisted suicide!" banner. But I wish there were some way other than luck and painstaking, careful hunting for a viewer to find out something like this about a big commercial film whose previews give absolutely no hint at this subject matter and whose publicists seem to have convinced mainstream reviewers not to talk about it.
I'm talking about this because I've had two conversations this weekend with people going to see the film -- in one case, someone who told me she was going, and went, and then asked me in shock the next day whether I knew what the movie was really about and oh my god why didn't I tell her, who took out her anger on the system at me...which was unfair and she apologized, but at the same time I understand why she did it, and if I'd seen the movie I would probably have asked the people I've known who saw it why they didn't warn me, given that a couple of them know how I feel about this subject and how it's dealt with in films. Then there was another person who told me that she was going, and I sort of choked and didn't know what to say. Is asking someone if she knows of the controversy in and of itself a spoiler? Would it be wrong of me to risk intruding on someone's personal moviegoing experience, by which I mean the whole process of deciding whether or not to read reviews or press or to ask friends about films before making choices about what to see? I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. I only think that personally I am grateful to the people who got the movie publicly spoiled, and I hate hate hate that because some of those people are the most heinous censorious assholes out there, though I'm really glad there's been controversy on the left as well because if I had a paraplegic family member and walked into this film unwarned I imagine I'd be beside myself.
There has to be some better way to let viewers and parents know what's actually going on in movies without "ruining them" for people who consider the knowledge of anything beyond a title and cast to be spoilers. MoviePooper hasn't pooped this film yet; The Washington Post's Family Filmgoer column does not detail this subplot. How is one to know?