Warner Brothers knows how to roll with the punches—it's the not-so-secret secret to their success.
When talkies were invented in the 1920s, Warner Brothers was one of the first studios to hop onboard and ditch silent films for sound. America's getting tired of splashy musicals? "That's cool," Warner Brothers said in the '30s. "We'll give 'em gritty gangster flicks." When TV started to challenge movies for people's entertainment attention in the '50s, Warner Brothers got in that game, too.
The studio was founded in 1923 by four brothers named Warner—hence the clever name—and it's been a constant, forward-thinking force in the film industry ever since. Warner Brothers is the home of Looney Tunes, Harry Potter, Hobbits, and Hangovers, and their films have brought home buckets of Academy Awards—including a shiny gold Best Picture statuette for Million Dollar Baby in 2005.
Not Exactly "the Feel Good Movie of the Year"
Warner Brothers' road to Oscar gold wasn't without obstacles, though. First things first, there's Million Dollar Baby's controversial subject matter: assisted suicide. Predictably, a lot of people had a problem with Maggie wanting to die, and an even bigger problem with Frankie wanting to help her. Some disability rights advocate groups argued that Maggie's decision implied that it's better to be dead than to be disabled. Disabled members of anti-assisted suicide groups like Not Dead Yet staged protests.
Others felt that Maggie's decision was true to her character, and that's all that matters. We'll let Roger Ebert explain:
"At a moment of crisis, the characters arrive at a decision. I do not agree with their decision. But here is the crucial point: I do believe that these characters would do what they do in this film. It is entirely consistent with who they are and everything we have come to know about them. That is one reason the film is so good: It follows the characters all the way to the limit, and plays true to them." (Source)
Those who shared Ebert's view were quick to point out that Million Dollar Baby is a work of fiction. It may be emotionally wrenching, but it's just a story.
Spoilsports Spoiling Sports Movies
Still other critics let their views on assisted suicide color their reviews of the film itself, raising fascinating questions about the purpose of art. If you're vehemently against assisted suicide, is it possible to like, or even love, a movie that's all about it? Pundits like Michael Medved and Rush Limbaugh all said no. Medved and Limbaugh dubbed Warner Brothers' film "an insufferable manipulative right-to-die movie" and "a million-dollar euthanasia movie," respectively.
Other critics argued that movies should be judged on their artistic merits, not their subject matter. "Most movies have no issues and inspire no thought," Ebert writes in his article "Critics Have No Right to Play Spoiler." "A movie like [Million Dollar Baby] forces you to think about its issues. If you leave it and discuss what Maggie should have done, what you would do, and what you would wish for your loved ones, then the movie has served a purpose, whether you agree with it or not. A movie is not good or bad because of its content, but because of how it handles its content" (source). In other words, personal and political views need to be checked at the door when you review a film.
And what about director Clint Eastwood? What was his position on the controversy?
He didn't see the movie as controversial in the first place. In Patrick Goldstein's Los Angeles Times article, he writes, "Judging 'Baby' by its politics is just artless." Eastwood explains that all the movie was supposed to do was "make you think about the precariousness of life and how we handle it" (source). It wasn't political; it was powerful, and it portrayed three complex characters coping with the terrible, complicated, utterly difficult circumstances thrown their way.
"Rocky in a Sports Bra"
Thought we were done?
Not even a little.
Some moviegoers, including some movie critics, also took issue with the way that Warner Brothers marketed the movie. None of the movie's promotional materials hinted at the shocking plot twist that happens when Maggie fights for the title. So when Maggie gets sucker punched and the movie's tone abruptly changes, some viewers were all, "OMG! What just happened? I thought this was a movie about an inspirational lady boxer!" They felt they were promised "Rocky in a sports bra," as conservative blogger Debbie Schlussel put it, and instead got, at best, a forty-tissue tearjerker or, at worst, a piece of pro-euthanasia propaganda (source).
Warner Brothers and Eastwood didn't see it that way. In fact, Eastwood himself pointed out that the film's poster is dark, somber, and more than a little bit gloomy, and that trailers and TV spots for the movie feature precisely zero people "laughing and smiling and being real plucky" (source). He's got a point there. The trailer isn't exactly puppies and rainbows. The Warner Brothers logo at the beginning of the film itself is even modified to reflect the grim feel of the film: instead of the studio's usual 3-D animated version, it's completely still, and, aside from a green tint, it's almost completely de-saturated. Nothing "real plucky" about that.
The thing is, critics who felt they were on the receiving end of a bait-and-switch didn't really care. Ditto for those critics like Schlussel, Medved, and Limbaugh who took moral offense at the film's content. They made it their mission to spoil the movie by detailing Maggie's tragic fate in their reviews.
Unsurprisingly, this angered many film fans. It also outraged other critics who wrote about the film without ruing the ending. Just as the film's content raised questions about the purpose of art, the hubbub over spoiler-happy reviewers raised all sorts of questions about what a movie critic's job is. Is it ethical for a critic to give away the ending of a movie that might be upsetting to some people? How about if it's politically charged?
Warner Brothers took a big chance on Million Dollar Baby. Here's a fun fact for you, Shmooper: originally, the studio didn't want to make it. According to critic Christopher Borrelli of The Toledo Blade, Eastwood—himself a producer on the film through his own production company, Malpaso—offered several reasons why: "They said boxing movies don't make money; they said the script was wrenching, too tough, too subtle for audiences to appreciate" (source). The perpetually forward-thinking studio was being cautious.
The irony, as Borelli points out, is that Million Dollar Baby is completely accessible. It deals with heavy, heavy themes, but it's not sentimental. It's "the kind of movie they don't make anymore: movies that are timeless in storytelling and tone, universal in aesthetics and emotions, straightforward in their plotting," he writes. "It's the kind of studio picture that…is as easily loved by a parent as a teenager, as profound to a Republican as a Democrat, as entertaining to a grandfather as it is to Eminem" (source).
To put it another way, when Million Dollar Baby brought home four of the seven awards for which it was nominated on Oscar night, we're willing to bet Warner Brothers was glad that it changed its mind and, as U.S. Today's Susan Wioszczyna puts it, "placed faith in the power of their movie" (source).