Million Dollar Baby scored Clint Eastwood his second Best Picture winning film as a director, and he walked away with the Best Director Oscar as well, in what was a very good night for this film that is at once funny and light, and later tragic and dark. Other than Boogie Nights, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a film that takes as sharp and as extreme a turn in mood after one shocking moment as this film does. It’s really quite an amazing bit of storytelling as in one cruel moment the characters go from the top of the mountain to the depths of a valley, out from which they’ll never be able to climb.
Over the past several years I have become a big fan of Clint Eastwood, the director. I’ve always been a fan of his as an actor, but it wasn’t until my adult years that I really began to appreciate him as a film maker. Between 1971 and 2014 Eastwood directed 37 films with Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby taking home the Oscar to go with Best Picture nominees Mystic River, Letters From Iwo Jima and American Sniper. Suring that time he’s directed westerns (Pale Rider, The Outlaw Josie Wales, Unforgiven,) military dramas (Heartbreak Ridge, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, American Sniper), cop dramas and mysteries (Sudden Impact, A Perfect World, Mystic River, Changeling), romances (The Bridges of Madison County), and just straight on high concept drama (Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino).
I don’t think that it’s hyperbolic to say that over the last 45 years, Clint Eastwood has proven himself to be one of the top film makers in the history of Hollywood cinema, and he’s created some of the most recognizable films with some of the most recognizable characters in the history of the medium. These are quite often films about tortured people trying to overcome demons from their pasts and try to find their proper places either in a world that has passed them by or in world that they don’t understand. These types of elements create deep characters and dramatic stories that are difficult to look away from, and he has a good mix of characters that reach the Promised Land and others who come up tantalizingly and sometimes tragically short.
In 2004 Eastwood added Million Dollar Baby to the list and it is one of the best films that he’s made. It’s a film that you have to think about to really get the true meaning of it, and yet it’s a film that is dramatic, emotional and dare I say sublime. This is a film about persistence, and we see that thematic element brought forth in many ways. Early on we see Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) in his Ordinary World as a boxing manager/trainer who is overly cautious with his fighters due to the fact that he let Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupree (Morgan Freeman) take a shot at the title before he was ready, and it ruined his career. Scrappy, for his part, holds no ill-will as he’s just glad he got his shot (more on that later). Dunn has a great fighter now, but holds back on a title shot, and he loses the fighter to another manager and the fighter ends up winning the title a short time later. Dunn also goes to church every single day and bugs the priest after mass with very elementary questions regarding the catholic faith. Father Horvak puts up with it, but even the most patient man has his limits, and Dunn seems to get a sadistic pleasure out of tormenting this young priest. We also learn through their exchanges that Dunn writes to his daughter every day. We then see him return home to find several unopened letters marked “return to sender” waiting for him.
Meanwhile at Dunn’s gym, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank) has started working out, and clearly doesn’t know what she’s doing as she pounds the bag with the grace and form of a brawler. She provides Dunn with his Call to Adventure by asking him to train her. He Refuses the Call by telling her that he doesn’t train girls and that she’s too old anyway. But she keeps showing up. She keeps asking him, and he keeps telling her no. Then one night as Scrappy is turning out the lights, he hears someone still there working out and it’s Maggie. Feeling sorry for her, Scrappy becomes her Mentor, and starts giving her pointers in improving her form. In mythology the Mentor typically gives the Hero some magical gift, and in typical Mentor fashion, Scrappy gives Maggie a small punching bag for her to practice on. Seeing her using his bag later, Dunn approaches her and tells her once again that he doesn’t train girls, and she finally rants at him that her life has been nothing and is going nowhere, but she’s determined to make something of herself. This gets Dunn to Cross the First Threshold and finally agrees to be her manager.
The first act of this film is textbook screenwriting that any aspiring screenwriter should study. All of the story’s issues are laid bare before us, as are all of the characters’ inner needs, outer goals and inner weaknesses, flaws and wounds. Take Dunn for example. We learn that he’s estranged from his daughter, but we don’t know why. We further learn that he’s trying very hard to reconnect with her, but she clearly has no interest in reconnecting with him. Dunn also goes to mass every single day and engages with the priest in some fairly witty banter, but it’s clear that Dunn is looking for something that he cannot find. We also learn that he’s hesitant. His best fighter is ready for a title shot, but past failures prevent Dunn from being able to pull the trigger on booking the fight. He tells his fighter that he’ll be ready in after a couple of more fights when in fact it’s Dunn that isn’t ready to commit his fighter to the potential dangers. He’s become a man who needs to play it safe, and is not interested in taking chances. That helps make it believable when he initially turns Maggie down when she asks him to manage her, as well as when he remains so persistent about it. This is a man who is set in his ways, and can’t see that whatever he’s been doing, he’s been doing wrong. He might be playing it safe, but he’s never going to be happy. More to the point, all of this is shown to us through the progression of the story and not told to us through some mundane dialogue.
There is an interesting exchange during all of this between Dunn and Scrappy when Dunn confronts him about giving lessons to Maggie. Scrappy has a fake eye because he took such a beating in his last fight that his cornea broke loose. Now he’s an old man and the only thing he can do is work in the gym, cleaning up after the fighters. But he doesn’t have any regrets. He lost that eye in a fight for the title, and if he hadn’t gotten that fight he would have spent the rest of his life asking “what if?” Sure it sucks that he lost his eye, but living with regret would have sucked a whole lot more. That is the spine of this story and the ultimate lesson that it teaches us through its tragedy.
Warning! Spoilers coming!
Maggie Fitzgerald is a terrific character and ought to be considered to be one of the great female characters in the history of cinema. Again, I’m not trying to be hyperbolic, but she has depth that makes her feel like a real human being. She has a backstory that makes the audience sympathize with her and root hard for her as she appears to be leaving that past behind her. She’s likable without being soft. There are a couple of great examples when she confronts her mother after her mother has treated her like trash and she tells her mother in no uncertain terms that she will not be treated that way, even when she’s lying paralyzed in a hospital bed with a machine breathing for her. Again, if you’re an aspiring screenwriter, watch this film. Study the script, and learn how screenwriter Paul Haggis deftly developed these characters with layers of traits that made them people rather than caricatures.
Much like Scrappy, Maggie wants a shot at the title, which she ultimately gets and which ultimately leads to her demise. Throughout the whole second act Dunn has been playing it safe with her. He hasn’t put her in situations where she could fail, but the time comes where she has nothing else to do and nowhere else to go except up against the champ, who is a German brawler and a cheap shot artist. She’s also younger faster and stronger than Maggie, but Maggie has heart and she shows it in the third round when she knocks the German down, and looks like she could actually win the fight. But the German takes a cheap shot and hits Maggie after the bell, knocking her into the bench, and breaking her neck.
Now all of Dunn’s fears have come true. He initially blames Scrappy for putting the idea into her head in the beginning that she could fight. He really blames himself, though, because he knew he shouldn’t have taken a chance with her, and if he didn’t, she wouldn’t be in this predicament. Here is where they change places, though, and Maggie becomes a mentor to Dunn. We learn along with Dunn through her that, yes, she would have stayed healthy and she would have lived longer had she not gotten in to boxing, but it would have been a long and miserable life. Maggie had nothing and she was going nowhere. She would have never had anything on which to hang her hat or anything for which she could have been proud. But getting in to boxing allowed her to get a shot at the title and that is more than she ever could have dreamed of. That was more than anyone, including and especially her own mother would have expected of her. It made her as happy as she could be, and there was no room for regret. What’s more, she never would have experienced any of that without Dunn. She got to the top of the mountain and he was the one who guided her there. Then when it was time, it was Dunn that eased her passing and allowed that to happen as well.
On the surface, this looks like a tragic story, and indeed it is to a degree. That’s also the way it had to be, not because of some pessimistic or fatalistic world view, but for an optimistic and hopeful ideal. Could this film have ended with Maggie winning the title and jumping around arms raised in a shower of confetti as she yells to a satisfied looking Dunn, “We did it, Boss! We did it!”, a la The Karate Kid? Sure it could have, and it would have been the feel-good movie of the year, but it sure as hell wouldn’t have been Best Picture. At its core, Million Dollar Baby is about getting your shot and taking it with everything that you have. The film asks the audience, “are you getting the most out of your life?” It tells us that Maggie did. Even though her life was cut short, she squeezed everything she could out of it. She would have had nothing otherwise, and that life would have been more tragic than this death. The letters that Dunn writes to his estranged daughter are also a metaphor for that idea. He’s not giving up. He’s still trying to reconnect with her, and he’s giving it everything he has.
There is one other thing to acknowledge about this film and that is Morgan Freeman joining Clark Gable, Dustin Hoffman, Talia Shire, John Cazale, Diane Keaton as members of the 3-Timers club, actors who stared in three Best Picture winners. Freeman also starred in Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Unforgiven (1992), also with Eastwood helming. Like Gable and Hoffman, Freeman was an integral component in all three films in which he starred that won Oscar’s top prize, which they likely would not have won without his stellar performances.
Thematically, Million Dollar Baby is one of the strongest films I’ve ever seen. It’s magnificently written, meticulously directed, and beautifully acted. Million Dollar Baby is a film fan’s film.
Did the Academy get it right?
I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that I think they did, although there was some stiff competition from 2004. Finding Neverland is a heartwarming story of J. M. Barrie and the relationship he built with a family who inspired him to write Peter Pan. It’s an emotionally powerful story with terrific performances by Johnny Depp, Kate Winslett and a young Freddie Highmore. It may not have been the best film of the year, but if you watch this film and don’t at least have a giant lump in your throat, then you are a heartless person indeed. Ray was a bio-pic on the life of Ray Charles, and it won Jamie Foxx an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in the title role. Again, it’s a very good film, but wasn’t the best film of the year. Sideways was a quirky indie film about two guys going wine tasting before one of them gets married and the other is trying to get over his divorce. I like this film a lot, am glad it got recognized by being nominated, but it wasn’t good enough to win. The other film nominated that year was The Aviator, Martin Scorsese’s epic bio-pic of Howard Hughes starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. This was an outstanding film, but too long-winded for me. It was a terrific character study of a great man who also had inner demons that tortured him deeply. Watching him slowly succumb to them, and then ultimately triumph over them (to a degree) made for a great film, but The Aviator lacked the depth and thematic qualities that were found in Million Dollar Baby. The latter was a much more complete film and took the viewers on a much more emotional and dramatic journey. It was a better story that was better told and rightly won the Oscar as the Best Picture of 2004.