They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

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 Last Wednesday, a 93-year-old Kansas City man was arrested for murdering his 95-year-old wife. According to the account I read (CBS St. Louis/AP), Harry Irwin and his wife Grace had been married 70 years. Despite the longevity, Harry is quoted as saying he “couldn’t take it anymore” because Grace, who had health issues, had been “arguing and screaming at him all night.”

So here’s a couple that weathered life’s trials and difficulties together for seven decades with seemingly just a small amount of time till death do them part. I don’t know about you, but to me this story is beyond tragic. However, some in Hollywood, I believe, would like us to view Harry differently than I (and most people) do—not as a cold-hearted killer, but as a misunderstood, courageous hero.

Sure, she argued and screamed and got on his nerves. But don’t forget, she was in poor health!

Here’s what I mean: If Harry was an actor whose homicidal actions had taken the life of his onscreen wife (let’s just say Harry in this fictitious movie I’m envisioning had smothered Grace with a pillow), it is quite possible we might even be nominating this film for Best Picture of the year. We might even nominate it for five Academy Awards.

Spoiler warning: By now, if you’ve read our online review of the Oscar nominated film Amour, you know what I’m getting to. In Amour, Georges, a man in his mid-80s, gently cares for his wife, Anne, who has experienced a stroke, partial paralysis and shows signs of dementia. We watch as he tenderly lifts her off the toilet and learns how to apply a diaper. We nod affectionately as he helps her walk—almost as if they’re dancing at times—around their apartment. We smile as he tells Anne a childhood story while softly stroking her hand. And then we stare in horror (or at least I did) as Georges grabs his wife’s pillow and smothers her with it, all the while watching her legs thrust repeatedly as she struggles for the oxygen that never comes.

And then we walk out of the theater with a “new” view of “mercy killing,” or at least I believe that’s what director/writer Michael Haneke wants us to do. Doesn’t it make total sense, we’re supposed to ask ourselves, to put someone out of their misery if the quality of life is so diminished, especially if they’re facing sickness and possible mental decline? I mean, c’mon, we euthanize old and sickly dogs and cats. Race horses get put down when they stumble on the track and break a leg. Certainly it makes sense to do the same to people, doesn’t it?

We saw a somewhat similar theme play out in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, a film that in 2004 won an Oscar for Best Picture. Rarely was a word then uttered in cultural disapproval. So, naturally, we’re getting another film with the “put-her-out-of-her-misery” message.

Amour further accelerates what I believe is already a very slippery slope toward openness about accepting euthanasia. If you doubt that the media wields such power, just consider one aspect of how TV and film quickly shaped how society viewed something once considered morally wrong: Until the early 1990s, same-sex kissing was taboo on U.S. primetime television. In 1991 the first lesbian kiss came to the small screen on L.A. Law, followed by another in 1993 on Picket Fences. But a seismic shift really jolted American culture in 1994, when Roseanne Barr kissed Mariel Hemingway during an episode of the popular sitcom Roseanne. When the resulting firestorm of controversy died down, a door had been opened—and has never been shut.

Million Dollar Baby, Amour and other films like them are likewise pushing a door open. A door that will be impossible to shut.

Harry was wrong, very wrong when he murdered his wife Grace (assuming the charges are proved true). But so was Georges when he murdered Anne onscreen. And unless we culturally call a spade a spade, we’ll wake up one day to find that the Harrys of the world are no longer arrested, but instead are awarded medals of valor.