(Spoiler alert: The rest of this story could ruin the movie for you.)
Some conservative critics and groups representing the disabled say "Million Dollar Baby" is a sucker punch against the notion that people with paralyzing infirmities can lead lives worth living.
The film's harshest detractors say it's little more than propaganda supporting legalization of assisted suicide. Director and star Eastwood says the characters' choices are rooted in the story and that the movie is not about euthanasia.
"Million Dollar Baby," which is in a neck-and-neck race with the Howard Hughes epic "The Aviator" for best picture, stars Eastwood as old-school boxing trainer Frankie Dunn, who becomes mentor to peppy fighter Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank (search)).
A father-daughter relationship blossoms between the two as Frankie coaches Maggie through a meteoric rise to champion status in the film's feel-good "Rocky"-like first two acts.
The closing chapter presents a cruel twist, however.
(The next paragraph gives it away.)
An opponent blindsides Maggie, leaving her paralyzed from the neck down. Maggie decides she would rather die, and she asks Frankie to help end her life. After some moral agonizing, Frankie does.
Marcie Roth, executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, said her group has been working to improve conditions for the disabled since 1948, "yet lo these many years later, many people still think having a spinal-cord injury is a fate worse than death.
"Unfortunately, a message like the one in `Million Dollar Baby' just perpetuates exactly what we work so hard to dispel."
The film earned directing prizes for Eastwood at the Golden Globes and last weekend's Directors Guild of America Awards, positioning him as the front-runner for the same honor at the Oscars Feb. 27. Swank received the Golden Globe for best dramatic actress, and she, Eastwood and co-star Morgan Freeman earned Oscar acting nominations.
Fans of the film disagree that it favors assisted suicide. Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert ranked "Million Dollar Baby" as his No. 1 film of 2004 even though he disagrees with Frankie's actions.
Maggie's desire to die and Frankie's decision to help were choices consistent with the nature of the characters, Ebert said.
"It's a movie for grown-up, mature audiences in which people do things we don't necessarily agree with," Ebert told The Associated Press. "What kind of movies would there be if we expected everyone in them to do what we think they should do?"
"Million Dollar Baby" also has come under fire from such conservative commentators as Rush Limbaugh, Michael Medved and Debbie Schlussel, who predicted on her Web site that Eastwood's film will triumph at the Oscars "because it's Hollywood's best political propaganda of the year. ... because it supports killing the handicapped, literally putting their lights out."
Eastwood declined an interview request but told The New York Times that the film stuck closely to its source material, a story by F.X. Toole.
"How the character handles it is certainly different than how I might handle it if I were in that position in real life," Eastwood said. "Every story is a `what if.'"
Eastwood's critics say the movie is his latest salvo against the disabled community. In 2000, Eastwood testified before a U.S. House subcommittee asking that the Americans with Disabilities Act be amended to allow businesses such as his hotel in Carmel, Calif., more time to comply.
His testimony came after a disabled woman sued him because his historic inn lacked wheelchair access. A jury sided with Eastwood on all but two minor violations.
While "Million Dollar Baby" has drawn the harshest reaction, many of the same critics are bothered by the Spanish film "The Sea Inside," starring Javier Bardem as Ramon Sampedro, who fought a 30-year campaign for his right to die after a paralyzing accident. The film is among Oscar nominees for best foreign-language picture.
Both movies draw on stereotypes that disabled people cannot lead worthwhile lives, said Stephen Drake, a researcher for Chicago-based Not Dead Yet, a group that has held protests at theaters showing "Million Dollar Baby."
"I really can't imagine this kind of awards attention for somebody who put out a film that relies on the worst stereotypes the audience holds about homosexuality," Drake said.
The high profile of Oscar contenders often brings out the critics.
"A Beautiful Mind," the 2001 best-picture winner, drew complaints for omitting unflattering aspects about the life of mathematician John Forbes Nash. Similar gripes were aimed at 2000's "The Hurricane," which earned a best-actor nomination for Denzel Washington, who played boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, imprisoned nearly 20 years for three murders before the convictions were overturned.
Tobacco companies criticized the whistle-blower drama "The Insider," a 1999 best-picture nominee, saying the film took liberties to place their industry in a harsher light. "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace also said "The Insider" painted an unfair picture of how he and the news show handled a confrontation with the tobacco industry.
"The Academy Awards are a huge platform for all kinds of people with all kinds of agendas, some worthy and some not so worthy," said Peter Rainer, contributing editor for New York magazine and past president of the National Society of Film Critics, which picked "Million Dollar Baby" as best film of 2004.
"It's an irresistible force for people to try to piggyback on to, to try to walk in that spotlight and get something out of it for themselves," added Rainer, who said he liked "Million Dollar Baby" but that it was not one of his top film choices of last year.