Jason is a partner at Worker Studio Animation in Colorado. He's been writing about cinema as an entertainment journalist for nearly 20 years
This list could also be called: 10 Movies Dr. Kevorkian Would Have Had in His Netflix Queue. How interesting would it be to imagine the Netflix queue of a man who played jazz flute, painted with his own blood, and was a pioneer of physician-assisted suicide? Tempting as that may be, let’s remain focused on movies that dared to personalize the controversial and complicated issue of euthanasia. In 2016, Colorado was only the 6th US state to legalize euthanasia, reminding us that the debate hasn’t budged much since the first film on this list was released in 1948.
1. An Act of Murder (1948)
An Act of Murder (1948) was a film made back when movies didn't ruffle many feathers. A film noir about “Old Man Maximum,” Judge Calvin Cooke, who is a tough-as-nails judge about to face the decision of his life. When his wife develops terminal brain cancer, his view from the moral high road starts to change with thoughts of mercy-killing her. The decision leaves Judge Cooke in an emotionally imperative, but legally questionable quandary. One that certainly left audiences talking long after the picture rolled.
The film was sometimes called Live Today For Tomorrow, and was well received even with its controversial elements. In was entered for the grand prize at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival, which instead went to Carol Reed's The Third Man. Reviewing the film in 1948 in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther praised director Michael Gordon's ability to craft a deeply moving depiction of the devotion between husband and wife.
Crowther also wrote: "But beyond this personal drama, an endeavor is made to introduce a broad philosophical inquiry into the morality of 'mercy killing'."
Perhaps the film would have taken a greater hold in the halls of American cinema, had director Michael Gordon's career not been interrupted. Gordon was blacklisted by McCarthy House UnAmerican Activities Committee just 2 years after An Act of Murder released. The director, like many artists and filmmakers, re-emerged once the smoke cleared, and went on to direct one of the era's most influential romantic comedies, Pillow Talk - though, quite the departure from his earlier work.
There is an interesting account about these tortuous times for Gordon, as revealed through his grandson, Joseph Gordon Levitt (Yes, that JGL).
2. Die Sünderin (1951)
Die Sünderin (1951) is a German movie (translated as "The Sinner") exalted in history for its controversial impact. Though, it’s hard to say whether it was the nudity or the euthanasia that sent the Vatican over the edge, demanding an outright ban of the movie. The latter certainly gave the actress Hildegard Knef a boost in film history for baring herself in the first nude scene in German cinema.
It’s worth noting that in the lineage of German cinema, Die Sünderin was not the first movie about euthanasia to be banned. A decade earlier another German movie, Ich klage an, about a doctor on trial for mercy killing his terminally ill wife, was banned. The huge difference was the Roman Catholic Church banned Die Sünderin due to a prostitute character giving assisted suicide to her lover, and with Ich klage an it was the Allied powers of World War II that banned the German film with a story created as Nazi propaganda for a pro-euthanasia campaign.
3. Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
Johnny Got His Gun (1971), like many of its cinematic counterparts in the American New Wave of the 1970s, is a political hotbed of storytelling. Largely remembered for its anti-war message, but it's delivered in the plea of a World War I veteran for euthanasia. It features the acting debut of Timothy Bottoms (The Last Picture Show), joined by a cast including Donald Sutherland and Jason Robards. The film is profoundly anti-war and overtly pro-euthanasia, based on a novel by Dalton Trumbo, who also directed his own screenplay adaptation of it.
Trumbo’s message, like An Act of Murder, seeks sympathy from its audience, but through the eyes of the sufferer. Interestingly enough, Trumbo also shared a similar blacklisted fate with An Act of Murder director Michael Gordon. Trumbo was famously part of the Hollywood 10, who refused to testify on the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC). Although, Trumbo himself aligned with the Communist Party that HUAC was after, but Gordon was falsely identified and subsequently accused. More than trivia would have engaged these two men had they crossed paths (and they likely did) - Trumbo and Gordon both dared to tell genuine, personalized stories inside of the higher concept of euthanasia.
Read More From Reelrundown
4. Whose Life is It Anyway? (1981)
Whose Life is It Anyway? (1981) came a decade after Johnny Got His Gun, but with equally controversial force. An artist (Richard Dreyfuss) and his lawyer (Bob Balaban) battle the courts for a legal petition for the right to suicide, opposed by his doctor and hospital staff that has grown affectionate of the artist. The film strives for an objective look at "the right to die," where characters intelligently portray both sides of the debate. In the end, like An Act of Murder, the decision is left for a Judge’s courtroom to decide.
Legal Euthanasia in the US
|US State||Year Legalized|
5. One True Thing (1998)
One True Thing(1998) is one of those films accompanied by a Bette Midler song, which may either rain tears from your eyes or gag you in sappiness. Either way, Meryl Streep’s role as a dying mother was a shoe-in Oscar nomination by any gambling standards: Streep+Terminal Illness=Oscar. The film blends an interesting take on death from the point of view of the dying, but also of those who love and care for the terminally ill. While it is a less politically charged story about euthanasia, it again raises the important questions about who has a right to die, to escape their suffering, and who has the right to assist them.
6. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Million Dollar Baby (2004) had quite a night at the 77th Oscars, taking Best Picture, Best Director (Clint Eastwood), Best Actress (Hillary Swank), and Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman). While several of its predecessors were allowed the spotlight of controversy, never had a movie about euthanasia been cherished with accolades and box-office fanfare like Clint Eastwood’s Baby. The story, while very much about characters faced with a decision in euthanasia, is emotionally charged and not politically polarizing. The story does not dwell on the issue, but like a boxer, hits you with it in the later rounds when you never see it coming.
7. The Sea Inside (2004)
The Sea Inside (2004) shared the spotlight with Million Dollar Baby, winning Best Foreign Language Film, with an equally important role by Javier Bardem. The real life story of Ramon Sampedro, a quadriplegic who fought for nearly 30 years to end his life with dignity. Unlike the sudden decisions of assisted suicide on a young life made in Million Dollar Baby, this Spanish movie shows the long questioning of is one’s life worth living. Though, like Million Dollar Baby, The Sea Inside is just as much about the impact that a decision in euthanasia has on those who must go on living.
8. Right to Die? (2008)
Right to Die? (2008) is a documentary film, also known as The Suicide Tourist that gained recognition for its honest portrayal of assisted suicide. Indicating its content as “honest,” has more meaning than it just being a documentary, as viewers were invited into the personal story of Craig Ewert, who traveled to Switzerland for a physician-assisted suicide procedure. With fictionalized accounts of euthanasia, we often saw controversy arise over whether the content is appropriate in and of itself after having played in movie theaters. With documentary films like Right to Die? it was mostly over whether it should air at all. Filmmaker John Zaritsky’s documentary did see the light of day and with the full support and defense of Ewert’s family.
9. You Don't Know Jack (2010)
You Don't Know Jack is a 2010 award-winning biopic about Dr. Jack Kevorkian from Barry Levinson and starring Al Pacino as the titular character, garnering him an Emmy and a Golden Globe award. Levinson spent time with Kevorkian after he was released from his prison sentence in 2006. The filmmaker remained fascinated with him, evident in the tone of the story, even though critics of Kevorkian continued to question the reasons and validity behind his activities in physician-assisted suicide. The film certainly focuses on the character study, and not on hammering the issue in any one direction or the other.
As hinted at in my opening paragraph, Kevorkian is an eccentric, polarizing, individual whose name is nearly synonymous with euthanasia. He endured public condemnation with nicknames like Dr. Death, but was also martyred in his murder conviction in illegal assisted suicide. His was a life stranger than fiction, and like The Sea Inside, takes our list here out of the hypothetical or fictionalized accounts and into reality.
10. How to Die in Oregon (2011)
How to Die in Oregon (2011) is a documentary film that, like Right to Die? contains actual footage of an assisted suicide. It offers a concise, yet powerful look at Oregon becoming the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. While fictionalized characters long held the stage for the debate about euthanasia, this documentary followed a pivotal moment for the issue in history - legally, morally, politically, and socially. While informative by nature, the documentary personalizes the stories and maintains what is the most universal distinction of being human - the difference between life and death. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, How to Die in Oregon found its life on the risk-taking cable network HBO, much like You Don’t Know Jack.