At the Academy Awards on February 27, Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" was the big winner, taking home Oscars for best picture, best director, best actress and best supporting actor. What does this tell us about Hollywood?
Prior to the Oscars being awarded, some commentators had noted that both "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "The Passion of the Christ" did not receive best picture nods, arguing that this was Hollywood rejecting a movie of the left and one of the right. Of course, such a comparison was specious. Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" was a sloppy piece of leftist political propaganda. However, Mel Gibsons "The Passion of the Christ" was in no way a political movie; it was a religious one.
The more appropriate comparison is between "The Passion of the Christ" and "Million Dollar Baby."
But isn't "Million Dollar Baby" a boxing film? Boxing is suffering a long decline into cheap exhibitionism and irrelevance. "Million Dollar Baby" focuses on a female boxer, and some truth can be found when Eastwood's character, a trainer, labels female boxing as "the latest freak show." Nonetheless, Hollywood still loves boxing films. This movie, though, is used to say something that reaches far beyond the limited world of boxing.
Did "Million Dollar Baby" warrant its accolades at the Oscars in terms of its story, characters and artistry? Obviously, evaluating movies is a highly subjective venture, but I fail to see much to support the lavishing of awards on "Million Dollar Baby." It's a plodding story with lots of holes that not only lacks substantive character development, but also, particularly for a film involving sports, lacks compelling action.
In contrast, "The Passion of the Christ" excelled across the board. The story was nothing less than gripping. In fact, it was perhaps the most emotionally charged film in the history of cinema. I've watched the movie four or five times now, and have been moved to tears in each instance. The characters, familiar to practically all of mankind, were portrayed with skill and compassion. And the artistry was brutal and beautiful at the same time, which, of course, perfectly fits the story being relayed.
So why was "Million Dollar Baby" provided with widespread praise and Academy Awards, while "The Passion of the Christ," an enormous box office success, received mixed reviews and only three more technical Oscar nominations -- for makeup, cinematography and musical score -- while winning none?
It seems to me that the answer to this question comes down to the bottom line of storytelling. That is, what's the moral of the story? Both of these stories ultimately are about death, and therefore, the value of life.
In "Million Dollar Baby," the female boxer winds up being paralyzed from the neck down, and eventually asks her trainer to kill her. After reaching great heights as a boxer, she deems that life after this drastic disability is no longer worth living. The trainer agonizes some over the issue, but the story is manipulated in such a way that his final decision to murder the woman, who has become just like a daughter to him, is portrayed as the right choice. The moral of the story is that only certain kinds of lives have value.
In contrast, the moral of the story in "The Passion of the Christ" is the central point of Christianity. That is, that God sent his only Son to redeem all of mankind by suffering and paying the price for our sins, and offering forgiveness and love, and eternal life for those who believe. At the opening of the film, part of Isaiah 53 is noted on screen: "He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; by His wounds we are healed."
It's been a long time since Hollywood has been comfortable with Christianity. For example, consider that two fine and unabashedly Christian films released recently, "Luther" in 2003 and "The Passion of the Christ" in 2004, had to find financing outside of the industry's major studios. Gibson put up his own money to make "The Passion," and Thrivent Financial for Lutherans funded "Luther."
The contrast between "Million Dollar Baby" and "The Passion of the Christ" does come down to the moral of the story. It's the difference between death without purpose and death with purpose. Hollywood, probably to the surprise of few, is more comfortable with a story endorsing euthanasia for lives deemed of less value, than with the Christian message regarding the preciousness of all life, sacrifice and salvation.
Raymond J. Keating is a columnist with Newsday, and a regular columnist for OrthodoxyToday.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.