March 5, 2005
If ever a movie deserved its Oscar for Best Picture, it's Million Dollar Baby. I absolutely adore this film. I treasure this film. It carries an emotional honesty and depth of character that is endearing, touching. It is moving without ever becoming maudlin, humorous without becoming hokey. Here is a movie that celebrates the joys and sorrows of life.
The greatness of this picture is its simplicity, its focus. This could easily have been a boxing movie in the tradition of Rocky, and indeed it does work upon many of the conventions of underdog sports movies, but this isn't a movie about boxing. It's about three complex human beings who have lived hard lives, learned difficult lessons, and face painful decisions.
Who could have ever guessed that Clint Eastwood would grow and mature into one of our greatest filmmakers? I am truly amazed with the skill and grace Eastwood has developed over the years. This is his 25th film as a director, and also his best; it feels as though he is only beginning to hit his stride.
Eastwood plays an aging fight trainer named Frankie Dunn who runs an old gym and has worked in boxing his whole life. He is a man with a deep conscience and deeper emotional scars; the priest at his parish wisely notes that any man who attends mass every day for 23 years must be carrying a lot of guilt. We are never given the details of his past, as many movies would do; instead, we see glimpses, captured moments and moods. We see the toughened, gruff man he is now.
Consider Hillary Swank, whose magnificent presence resonates throughout the entire film. This woman has amazing talent, and endless reserves; I think, if she chooses roles wisely, she will be remembered as the finest actor of her generation. She portrays a waitress named Maggie with a stubborn inisistance and firebrand spirit (get Alison Lohman on the phone - this is how you play the damned lead!), that covers a lifetime of suffering. She is 31 years old and dreams of becoming a professional boxer, but has no real experience and fewer skills.
Her sense of determination is tempered with a sorrow, a sense of desperation. "If I was thinking straight I'd go back home," she says to Frankie. "Find a used trailer, buy a deep fryer and some oreos. If I'm too old for this then I got nothing." She believes it in her bones, and why not? Her family is both stupid and cruel, and she earns so little as a waitress that she must feed on the table scraps. On her 22nd birthday, she already is an old maid.
She plants herself in Frankie's gym and refuses to accept anything resembling a 'no.' This is the one thing in her doomed underclass life that fills her with a sense of purpose. Finally, the old man relents, and agrees to take her under his wing, teaching her the necessary skills. Eventually, she finally gets her chance in the ring.
This is where we part company. Most sports movies would follow the beaten path, and one could make a good picture that way. But it wouldn't be truly great, it wouldn't be Clint Eastwood's picture. He prefers to pay attention to theses two lonely souls, who eventually see in each other the lost opportunity to repair their broken father-daughter relationships.
There are a number of fight scenes which are skillfully staged, but what resonates with me are Frankis and Maggie's quiet moments together: sitting together in a small country restaurant, talking over home-made pie; travelling by car to visit her family, and the long, hard ride back in the night.
And then we have Morgan Freeman. I remember reading Pauline Kael hailing him in the early '80s as Americas finest actor, and I believe that's very true today. He has always been great, never more so than here. As a former boxer nicknamed "Scrap-Iron," he works the gym and verbally duels with Frankie. They both share the kind of long friendship where they can be brutally honest, sometimes with humor, sometimes not. Their banter provides some of the best dialog in the movie, and it snaps and bounces with rhythm. They share a past colored by broken dreams, but continue to live each day with defiance.
Freeman narrates, invoking the spirit of Shawshank Redemption. Both movies take place in a kind of purgatory, but this time the events that transpire are more tragic, the progression more and more sorrowful. I wouldn't dare give away Million Dollar Baby's big tearjerker shocker in its final act (unlike some untalented rightwing hacks who shall remain unnamed, cough), and I'm actually reluctant to describe more than the most basic outline. I want you to experience everything fresh, just as I have.
I will say that these are three of the best actors today, giving some of their most heartfelt, intimate work. These are people who share joy and hope, but also know a deep sadness. I think I'm somewhat partial to these kind of stories, perhaps because they're so rare in American cinema. Our culture is obsessed with the idea of always being happy, of never having to confront difficulties or loss. I think that's the real reason for the controversy regarding Baby's ending, and the final decision Frankie must make. He's at a point where he must choose between purgatory and hell. It's heartbreaking and it's beautiful.
So many American movies today do nothing but waste your time and kill precious brain cells. It seems Hollywood just becomes dumber and dumber, piling insulting dreck on top of ignorant, stupid or snobby audiences. But a great movie like Million Dollar Baby restores my faith in an instant; it inspires me. I just want to grab the nearest camera and start shooting.