Was I Nuts? – Million Dollar Baby

As the fall season of films kicks into gear and Oscar chat takes over, I’m prepping a look back on the 2004 film year. As I do every year, I look back at what ten films I found to be the best ten years ago, via the old LiveJournal, and see how those views have changed and evolved in the passing decade.

For 2004, the big Oscar champion was Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. With Best Picture chatter surrounding Alexander Payne’s hit Sideways and Martin Scorsese’s Aviator, Eastwood’s movie swooped in on the heels of his acclaimed 2003 effort Mystic River and took the gold, On the eve of my retrospective, I’m sitting down with the film that earned Hilary Swank a second Oscar, kept Scorsese from getting his first and was the last Eastwood release to seemingly please audiences and critics.

The Film

Based on an F.X. Toole story, Million Dollar Baby is a rather bare bones movie with an easy plot; a woman seemingly past her athletic prime tries to become a successful boxer with the help of an elderly trainer. Narratively, it’s primarily two people, the boxer Maggie (Swank) and the trainer Frankie (Eastwood), and how the former’s positive energy gradually leads to a bond between the pair.

Maggie has zero friends, while her family is largely a no-show. Frankie has a variety of boxers that look up to him, but really only one acquaintance; Eddie (Morgan Freeman). The two go way back and Frankie keeps Eddie employed at his gym, where they bicker in a manner more akin to an elderly couple.

The Memory

I recall Million Dollar Baby being great, with its visual minimalism matching its more melodramatic elements well. At the time I was pulling more for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in terms of all things Oscar, yet even amidst that hoopla the movie hit me hard. The relationship between Frankie and Maggie I found moving, gaining extra depth with that tragic stunner of an ending. At the time, I and many thought this was the launching point for Swank. The Oscar she’d deservedly won five years earlier for Boy Don’t’ Cry matched with this movie had to prove she was an actress worthy of attention and hopefully plummer roles.

It was never a film I could say I loved, hampered a bit by the way the film portrayed Maggie’s family in such an over-the-top manner. Still, along with Letters from Iwo Jima, it stands as one of the last Eastwood movies I was passionate for.

Expectations

 

It’s been at least eight years since I saw the film and the downturn for Eastwood’s career, which I find less dramatic then most, does give me some pause. I know I’m still going to grimace over the scenes late in the film where Maggie’s kin pops up, even with it being Margot Martindale. Additionally, ten years of Eastwood and Freeman giving largely similar performances may rob some of the guttural impact of their work here. Whether one can cut and paste those bits of acting into this I can’t rightly recall.

Yet, I think Million Dollar Baby is going to remain a good, hopefully great piece of cinema. Away from all of the awards hullabaloo and the team building that rises up for and against a particular picture, the movie will stand on its own feet; even if said feet have Paul Haggis near its roots.

The Verdict

Million Dollar Baby is a peculiar case. Sitting down with it again and its flaws are clear and frequent. They are also only truly problematic in the area of Maggie’s family.

First though, let me focus on its positives, which are quiet and consistent. Eastwood’s direction is superb. Even as the dialogue occasionally hits a point too obviously, the film itself so delicately plays its highs and lows. Largely keeping its score at bay, Eastwood’s able to develop his characters living under the glaring lights of a dingy arena or tentatively emerging from the shadows of an even dingier gym. These moments have a humanity that is earned and don’t require over-emphasis. There is a hush over so much of the picture, allowing for the bursts of emotions to resonate. When Swank’s Maggie gets an unexpected, slightly unwanted knockout, her beaming glows the brighter. When Eastwood’s Frankie’s states that Maggie is likely too old to start a boxing career, Swank passioned inquisition lingers in part due to so little else reaching for a similar same tenor.

Eastwood’s acting is good, even if it shows some of the jaw-heavy growl that would follow here and there. Swank is terrific. She may not be an actress that has nimbly stepped into a vast range of roles, yet when given roles steeped in physicality and bubbling inner anguish, Swank is remarkable. For all of the faux Southern-ness of the Paul Haggis script, Swank carries it of gracefully. It’s rich with melancholy when it’s required, even as she never makes it a character to be pitied. Swank’s uninhibited joy that leaps out whenever something positive peeks its head into Maggie’s life richly rounds her out.

The bond she develops with Eastwood’s Frankie is a treaure. She looks up to the man, which isn’t the same as her being subservient to his teachings. It’s a joy to watch the scene where she appears at his gym the day after he told her take a day off. After stating how she isn’t allowed to argue with him, he queries on just why the hell she decided to come in to train. Swank smirks and says, “You said not to argue.”

Freeman too is outstanding here. After a decade of playing gods, narrators, Mr. Plot Exposition and the like, I kind of thought the Oscar Freeman received here was heavily based in career achievement. Surely that’s going to be an element when it comes to getting a win. Freeman deserved to be in the running though. His work as Frankie’s only real friend and employee is peppery and less knowing than he has brought since. Accepting of the fact that the best days of his life are behind him, the character tries to help those he sees as good and honest, all while giving good grief to Frankie. A spiel about why he’s wearing socks with holes in it and the complicated nature behind it is clever writing given comedic transcendence by Freeman. For an older actor, Freeman rarely is tired or haggard; here it’s a lovely base for his movements.

Still, there is the bad stuff. Nearly every moment of Maggie’s family is abysmal. As Maggie’s mother, Martindale is an unnecessary cartoon. There’s nothing wrong with Martindale getting upset with Maggie about how the home that was purchased for her could screw up her welfare. That she never for a second sees the kindness of the gesture is ridiculous. When it comes to the final act and Maggie’s incapacitated state, the script’s idea that Maggie’s kin would spend a week taking in the area’s theme parks before coming to visit is even worse, especially as it lacks any root in nuance. If Maggie’s sister ignored her because she didn’t know how to confront a paraplegic sibling, that could make intriguing drama. This is obnoxiously the other way.

Again though, this is a hiccup, even if a major one, in an otherwise great movie. It remains a stirring piece of filmmaking. I laughed, I cried. I’d happily laugh and cry again with it.

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