Eastwood, the Republican pin-up, is new target for the enemies of 'Hollyweird'

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Four days before the Oscars, one could usually expect the Hollywood studios to be at each other's throats, bad-mouthing each other's best picture contenders and taking out full-page advertisements in the trade papers to defend themselves against the calumnies of their rivals.

Four days before the Oscars, one could usually expect the Hollywood studios to be at each other's throats, bad-mouthing each other's best picture contenders and taking out full-page advertisements in the trade papers to defend themselves against the calumnies of their rivals.

This year, though, is a little different. The attacks are in full swing, but they are coming largely from outside the industry - from right-wing commentators and broadcasters who relish every opportunity to bash the liberal lunatics of "Hollyweird" and feel particularly emboldened in the wake of President Bush's re-election.

Their principal target, oddly, is Clint Eastwood's multi-nominated boxing film Million Dollar Baby, which struck most critics as being seeped in old-fashioned American values - rugged individualism, achieving success against the odds, even going to church and wrestling with big moral dilemmas - but which has unleashed a torrent of rage from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, the rabble-rousing radio host, and the author Michael Medved, self-appointed chronicler of the industry's moral degeneracy.

For the past couple of weeks, the naysayers have been working up a head of steam about something the critics barely mentioned in their reviews because it concerns the unflinchingly downbeat ending, which they felt dutybound not to reveal. ( Independent readers might themselves want to consider pausing here until they have seen the film.) Million Dollar Baby, they argue, is an apology for euthanasia because the crusty old boxing trainer played by Eastwood chooses to carry out the mercy killing of his charge and surrogate daughter Maggie, played by Hilary Swank, after she is reduced to immobility by a dirty punch during a prize fight.

Limbaugh has denounced the film as "liberal propaganda" and "a million-dollar euthanasia movie". Medved, in similar vein, has said it is "an insufferable, manipulative right-to-die movie" and added that "hate is not too strong a word" to describe his reaction to it.

Debbie Schlussel, a conservative talk-show host, said the film, shockingly, advocated "killing the handicapped, literally putting their lights out". Ted Baehr, head of the Christian Film and Television Commission, called it "very anti-Catholic and anti-Christian".

In Chicago, a disability advocacy group called Not Dead Yet picketed cinemas showing the film. And Marcie Roth, the director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, lambasted the ending because, she said, it implied that "having a spinal-cord injury is a fate worse than death". They and others deluged Academy voters with protest e-mails in the hope of deterring them from voting for the film or its participants.

Some kind of protest outside the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood on Sunday night seems almost inevitable. So, too, does the revival of a long-standing grievance against Eastwood held by disabled groups since an elderly woman in a wheelchair sued him five years ago for failing to provide adequate toilet facilities at a hotel he owns in Carmel on the central California coast. (Ms Roth accused Mr Eastwood of continuing a "disability vendetta".)

What makes many of the attacks puzzling is that Eastwood is hardly your stereotypical flaming Hollywood liberal. He is, in fact, a Republican, served as the Republican mayor of Carmel and was appointed years ago to the National Council on the Arts by Richard Nixon. To the extent that it has been faulted at all by professional critics, Million Dollar Baby has, if anything, been deemed too conservative in its view of race relations, in its unflattering portrayal of all women except for Swank's character, and in its swipes at hillbillies and welfare cheats.

The validity of the arguments against the film may be less important, though, than the desire of social conservatives to keep up their barrage of attacks on Hollywood in general. During last year's presidential election campaign, the film industry was repeatedly identified by Republican grassroots activists and the Bush campaign as part of a pro-Democrat liberal elite, and targeted as a source of filth, sexual promiscuity and moral equivocation out of step with mainstream American values.

According to Thomas Frank, author of the most influential political book of the past year, What's The Matter With America?, the attacks on Hollywood (whose products are consumed with equal enthusiasm by right and left wingers) are part of a pattern by social conservatives of picking cultural battles they are almost sure to lose, all the better to stir up the resentment and outrage of their prospective political supporters.

Newspaper columnists have suggested that what Medved and Limbaugh have sought to do is not so much start a conversation on the morality of euthanasia as destroy Million Dollar Baby's box-office chances by giving away the ending. For that reason, some of them suspect the attacks will generate only indignation among Academy voters.

Most years, the conservatives might have had a better target than Eastwood. The 2005 Oscar line-up, however, features no obvious liberal hate-figures such as Tim Robbins (last year's best supporting actor) or Michael Moore (who tried, and failed, to get nominated for Fahrenheit 9/11). Religious conservatives could not even accuse the Academy of ignoring Mel Gibson's controversial Passion of the Christ, since it is up for three awards.

It remains to be seen if their attacks will indeed scupper the chances of one of Hollywood's favourite sons, or whether those bogeyman Hollywood liberals will live up to their stereotyped image and race to Mr Eastwood's defence. All will be revealed on Sunday night.