Film Studies: And the best picture is...the worst failure of them all

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The Independent Culture

Some say Sideways should win "Best Picture" at the Oscars this evening. They admire the touching failure of its characters, its comic ramble through the sun-drenched wine country, and its modesty of intent. I support all those things, and I like Paul Giamatti in the film very much. But its gentle virtues have been inflated by all those who feel the loss of the American mainstream picture.

Some say Sideways should win "Best Picture" at the Oscars this evening. They admire the touching failure of its characters, its comic ramble through the sun-drenched wine country, and its modesty of intent. I support all those things, and I like Paul Giamatti in the film very much. But its gentle virtues have been inflated by all those who feel the loss of the American mainstream picture. In the end, Sideways has a respect for failure without any of the iron that might understand it. What I mean by that is not simply an uneasiness with un-movie-like people on screen, but a resigned air in the film that risks letting us be more depressed than moved by the limits of these men in pursuit of happiness. Pushed to it, would you want to read both boxes of the novel written by the Giamatti character?

Then there are those who can see no rival to The Aviator, not least because it is directed by Martin Scorsese, who plainly deserves some sort of recognition from the Academy. There is no other way to put the Scorsese case than to say he is a great man of the movies. We would all be so much the less without Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York, New York and Raging Bull. But if that group proves to be his best work then you can see that it was too savage, too beautiful, too startling for the Academy. And if you share the view that there has been a decline since Raging Bull, above all in finding subject matter, then I think you can appreciate the present quandary - that's to say, it's sheer respect that draws many people close to awarding an Oscar to The Aviator, which is a hollow show, a picture that does not grasp Howard Hughes and which finally is not very interested in him.

Which brings me to Million Dollar Baby, the ghost at the Bafta feast simply because it did not open in Britain in 2004. (Bringing the Baftas forward while enduring film openings well after American openings is going to lead to that kind of omission.) I have never been an Eastwood follower: I think he has been a narrow actor, a moderate director, but a great producer. I did not like Unforgiven nearly as much as many people; and I did not like Mystic River at all - I felt that Eastwood had conceded the field to too much studied acting, and so his age was beginning to show.

But Million Dollar Baby is a great American picture. I should warn you that I am going to get into its story development (you cannot assess the film without doing this) and so anyone intending to see the film SHOULD STOP READING HERE, but know they are on their way to something grand.

Million Dollar Baby is in many ways a story of the American drive for happiness and success: Hilary Swank wants to be a boxing champion and to the extent that she gets close to it, she is radiant, while the two men - lifelong failures - who guide her (Eastwood and Morgan Freeman) are ennobled, too. And they are made wretched - all three. Swank is within a touch of glory, and then a hideous alliance of wickedness and bad luck maims her. It is important in the drama that Eastwood, her trainer, a man who has come to love her, is in part responsible for the maiming.

She lies helpless, paralysed in most respects, and she asks Eastwood to terminate her life. He does so - as, all over the world, many humane medical staffs do in hospitals. This is not to suggest that the action he takes is without pain, grief or responsibility. Eastwood plays a Catholic, and a father who has lost contact long ago with a daughter. We do not learn why, but the film never shirks his burden of blame. He has been warped by his failure, and his continued work in a field that seeks success is deeply ironic and tragic.

Now, in America, there has already sprung up a conservative distress because the film seems to approve of euthanasia. Those critics manage to overlook the fact that Clint Eastwood is far more a figure of the right than the left. But that is only to touch on the way in which Eastwood (74 now) stands for a type of Republican not much in evidence these days. I mean a fiscal conservative, believer in law and order, in the strict wording of the Constitution, in not spoon-feeding people, but in allowing as much liberality of thought and word and conscience as the nation can stand. And a film in its particular drama can propose and accept euthanasia without earning the smiting hand of God.

This "radicalism" is far less important than the tolerance that goes with it. Equally, Million Dollar Baby is not a disguised treatise on a controversial practice. It is a film about the failure at the heart of America and the hysterical urge for success that tries to eclipse it. Among other things, I would point out that Eastwood -in my opinion - has never acted before as he does here. Time and again, he has given us "Clint" - the tough loner he and we like to believe in. He plays a wreck here, a man broken down by his life, and naked in front of a strange recreation of his greatest emotional problem. In time it may be clearer, but Eastwood has a few children he has not always been able to acknowledge. He is not the person to admit this in public. But I think the work on screen is filled with the concession of failure. And that is why the film is so good. A famous American tough guy has come clean, and Morgan Freeman's dry narration presides over it in the way some plain voices handle the tragedy in Faulkner.

I would give it best picture, best director, actor, actress and best supporting actor - and best adapted screenplay too (it is by Paul Haggis from stories in Rope Burns by F X Toole). It is best picture this year by a mile, and its tragedy is a kind of harbinger of what may be a century of tragedies for the USA. More than the country can stand without turning violently to the right? Perhaps so. But The Aviator never grasps the root of failure, and Sideways elects to be whimsical about it. Eastwood's picture knows that the failure is a given, granted the obligatory pursuit of happiness.

A week away from my home in San Francisco, visiting England, may make it easier to see these things. And I admit that my sadness is added to in this piece by returning to find two deaths - bizarrely different - in the press: Sandra Dee and Hunter S Thompson. Miss Dee was pretty but no more. She seems to have been an alcoholic, and maybe she was pained to see Beyond the Sea, the film about her husband, Bobby Darin. Hunter Thompson shot himself, and I suspect it will come to be an action with all the echoes that followed the suicide of Ernest Hemingway in Ketchum, Idaho, in 1961.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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