Million Dollar Baby

January, 2004, Drama

Clint Eastwood is celebrating his golden anniversary as an actor this year; the last 34 years of that career have found him behind the camera as well, directing 27 of the films in which he’s also frequently starred. In both capacities, Eastwood has been a terrific commercial success but only rarely an artistic one; his oeuvre is filled with western and crime dramas that over-utilize his flinty glare, raspy voice and hard-ass image. As an actor, his most popular roles, (Fistful of Dollars, Dirty Harry, The Unforgiven) haven’t displayed much range, while his track record as a director is better, with movies like Bird and White Hunter Black Heart displaying a commendable willingness to tackle unusual projects with limited commercial potential. His life-long interest in jazz has often infused his films, so that he’s frequently responsible for their original scores as well. Now, as he nears his 75th birthday, all these creative skills have come together in a film that’s absolutely first-rate on every level; it’s a personal triumph for Eastwood, one that’s sure to bring him much acclaim and a more generous evaluation of his earlier work. There’s no better way to start your movie-going year.

Working from a collection of stories written by F.X. Toole and a screenplay by the Emmy Award winning Paul Haggis, the actor/director has fashioned an improbably tender love story out of the most brutal of sports: boxing. Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, an aging cut-man who trains and manages wanna-be contenders out of a dilapidated gym that he owns in a run-down section of Los Angles. One of his former protégées, Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris, (Morgan Freeman) runs the gym, reduced to custodial duties because he lost the sight in his right eye during his 109th --and last--fight. The gym’s multi-ethnic habitués include an assortment of up and comers and over-the-hill types, along with a sweet but mentally impaired kid who insists on calling himself “Danger”. Into this appealingly Damon Runyon-esque setting of male bonding wanders Maggie Fitzgerald, (Hilary Swank) a 31 year-old refugee from the Ozarks of southwestern Missouri. Maggie wants to be a fighter; Dunn wants her banished from his establishment devoted to the manly art. She stays, pays the membership fee six months in advance, (from her meager earnings waiting tables) and slowly works her way into Scrap-Iron’s affections. 

After losing his best fighter to a competitor, Dunn finally succumbs to the combined pressure he’s getting from Scrap-Iron and Maggie; he reluctantly takes her on, but only as trainer, not manager. Over the next few months, Maggie’s willingness to take instruction, coupled with her obsessive dedication to a murderous training regime makes her ready for the ring. After trying to slough her off to another manager, Dunn takes Maggie through the ropes only to discover that she has all the talent necessary to really make a success of her career. As fighter and manager work there way up the contender’s ladder, Dunn’s initial reluctance gives way to grudging admiration, then respect and finally deep affection, always masked behind the stinging banter Dunn uses to stave off displays of emotion. In the wake of an unspecified estrangement from his only daughter, (who methodically returns his weekly letters to her unopened) Dunn has adopted an approach to life that uses disengagement to shield himself from the pain of personal attachment.  

Despite the depiction of numerous bouts and Scrap-Iron’s fascinating commentaries on the nuances of boxing strategy, “Million Dollar Baby” isn’t a sports movie at all, but a revelatory examination of the limits of friendship and the obligations love forces upon those who are bound, however reluctantly, by the demands of its reciprocity. What Maggie risks in the ring, “Scrap-Iron” risks in his relationship with Dunn, and the latter with this strange, surrogate daughter so unexpectedly under his care, a roundelay of adopted family as tender as it is fierce.

A title shot finally looms, but brings with it bitter disappointment and a request from Maggie that Dunn finds himself unable to honor, despite his now total commitment to the needy hayseed who wandered into his life. Dunn, Maggie and Scrap-Iron ultimately respond to the challenges of the championship in ways that offer agonizing questions of  individual autonomy and moral responsibility, turning what promised to be a warm-hearted examination of female pugilism into a profound study of the ethical costs of friendship. Whether admiring the decisions ultimately made by this trio or not, an audience can’t fail to be affected by them and the unexpected power of this riveting film.

The principals are superb; Freeman’s quiet, empathetic dignity makes him the perfect voice-over narrator, a task he carried out so well a few years ago in The Shawshank Redemption. His abiding confidence in Dunn expresses itself with exactly the kind of prickly affection that can only be shared by two people who’ve suffered along side each other for a long time and realize the immense value each offers the other. As the physically tough but emotionally tender Maggie, Swank brings the same qualities to this role that she employed in winning her Oscar as Best Actress in Boys Don’t Cry. There’s a pervasive femininity in everything she does, from working a speed bag to inquiring solicitously about her overweight, trailer-trash mom back in Missouri. But it’s Eastwood who walks away with the acting honors, despite the competition he receives from his co-stars. The one-dimensional, laconic persona of his early westerns and action pictures has morphed into reflective self-acceptance; Dunn knows who he is because life has skinned his knuckles and broken his heart often enough for him to realize that his hard-won slice of existence is always subject to the hazards of unexpected loss. His insistence that Maggie always protect herself in the ring flows from a personal mantra built over years of painful regret over his estrangement from his only child. In his heartbreaking portrayal of the emotionally guarded Dunn, Eastwood delivers the performance of his career, one which can only rightly be honored by an Oscar nomination as Best Actor.

Eastwood’s movies have always featured a straight-forward economy of style that makes them easy to watch; gimmickry and portentous “statements” don’t exist in his work. That approach is much in evidence here, graced with the most sensuously evocative lighting I can remember in any movie of recent memory. Shadows have always been the director’s forte; from “High Plains Drifter” to the ominously dark gunfight in “The Unknown”, Eastwood’s actors can disappear into virtual invisibility as they utter nearly disembodied lines. Here, those omnipresent shadows are now softly comforting, then elegiac as they trace the growing bonds of kinship among these three lonely but doggedly courageous players at the margins of a seedy business. Eastwood isn’t afraid to drape his own face in darkness, slice bodies diagonally in half with shafts of light or have characters emerge from backgrounds so deep they’re almost indistinguishable from their decrepit surroundings. 

This painterly cinematography is accompanied by an Eastwood musical score which perfectly matches the changing moods of his storyline; themes are introduced and returned to as subtle riffs when the action requires, adding depth and texture to every development in the script. The overall effect of this brilliantly produced movie draws its audience into experiencing a world, (and the characters that people it) with a level of emotional connection and immediacy usually reserved for the very best of live theater.

What a brilliant capstone to Eastwood’s long and highly successful career!    

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