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Bringing up Baby

Movies | Does Million Dollar Baby's mini-sweep signify a victory for the left in the culture wars?

Issue: "Big mouth on campus," March 12, 2005

Like the big winner of the night, Million Dollar Baby, the 2005 Academy Awards shifted gears midway through the Feb. 27 proceedings, finishing very differently than they began.

Chris Rock began the evening attempting to break free of the movie industry's fawning obsession with itself with an opening monologue reminiscent of his vulgar stand-up routines. (Of course, since the Oscars aren't aired on HBO, Mr. Rock's language was much sanitized.) His routine was occasionally funny and often weird (the weirdness highlighted by a lengthy homage to Russell Crowe).

The routine dipped into the purely offensive not when Mr. Rock, predictably, began praising Fahrenheit 9/11 (a "beautiful film") and knocking President Bush. Mr. Rock lost credibility, and, I would imagine, a good percentage of his audience, when he then launched into a tired routine comparing President Bush to a GAP employee with a $70 trillion cash register deficit making war on Banana Republic. His callous description of dead GAP employees and "blood on the khakis" hardly jived with Mr. Rock's closing reference to our troops around the world "fighting for freedom." (Hmm . . . does he really believe that?)

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But after Mr. Rock's caustic opening, the ceremony flew by, with few delays for comedy. The ceremony took a surprising turn, leading with a strong start for The Aviator, which topped the evening with five awards. But most of those awards came early, and, with the exception of Cate Blanchett's Best Supporting Actress win, in technical categories like editing and art direction. The evening ended firmly in the hands of Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, which picked up awards for Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman), Best Actress (Hillary Swank), Best Director (Mr. Eastwood), and Best Picture.

Does Million Dollar Baby's mini-sweep signify a victory for the left in the culture wars?

Certainly the controversy surrounding the movie during the build-up to the Oscars might suggest that. But it's not quite accurate. Although the winning films may receive a slight box-office bump, they aren't the films the country watched last year, or are going to watch this year. Combined, the five Best Picture nominees have taken in just over $300 million domestically; compare that to Spider Man 2 or The Passion, each of which has grossed nearly $400 million on its own.

Furthermore, Clint Eastwood is not the poster boy for left-leaning Hollywood. He's a registered Republican (of the libertarian stripe) who's spoken highly of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich. He represents, in many ways, old Hollywood. Each of Baby's winners provided some of the ceremony's most dignified moments, from Mr. Freeman's concise, composed acceptance to Mr. Eastwood's own acknowledgment of his 96-year-old mother. None of them took the opportunity to make speeches about the subtext of their film, or any political subject, for that matter. This was not equivalent to a win for Michael Moore.

It's actually the left that framed the film as if it were a key battle in the culture war, acting as if anyone who takes issue with its message wants to ban the movie from theaters or run Mr. Eastwood out of the country. Mr. Eastwood made a sad, hopeless (if elegantly directed) film that ultimately denigrates the value of human life. But it was Mr. Eastwood's story to tell, and he told it well.

The decision of some reviews (including Michael Medved's and WORLD's) to delve into the film's actual, mostly undiscussed (at the time) content had a lot to do with the combination of a less-than-forthright marketing campaign, an eager and early embrace by mainstream critics, and, most importantly, a profound frustration with the heartbreaking conclusion Mr. Eastwood reaches. Mr. Eastwood has every right to tell the stories he chooses; Hollywood seems to have forgotten that audiences have the same right to reject them.

The Academy also honored The Sea Inside as the Best Foreign Language Film of the year, a much more straightforward celebration of a champion of the "right to die." In that context, Baby's win doesn't say as much about Clint Eastwood and his gloomy film as it does about the insular movie industry and what it chooses to honor as its very best. And that, sadly, tells us absolutely nothing we didn't already know.

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