[box cover]

Million Dollar Baby

Warner Home Video

Starring Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, and Morgan Freeman

Written by Paul Haggis
Based on the writings of F.X. Toole

Directed by Clint Eastwood


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Review by J. Jordan Burke                    


If one were to suspect that Martin Scorsese feels a bit vexed by the fact that he's lost five times in the hunt for an Academy Award as Best Director, then the 2005 ceremonies must have felt like rank abuse. Well, perhaps not quite as bad as in 2003, when his work at the helm of Gangs of New York lost out to a convicted child rapist and in absentia fugitive from justice (Roman Polanski, The Pianist). Nonetheless, Clint Eastwood had never been a bridesmaid, winning his first nomination with 1992's Unforgiven (he also took home a Thalberg in 1995, which the Academy normally reserves for chronic washouts and/or the elderly, of which Eastwood is only one, and that only in theory). His Million Dollar Baby barely arrived in theaters in time for the lucrative awards season.

Meanwhile, Scorsese must have felt he was on a winner in '04, serving up Oscar's favorite meal like a chum-log to a pool of sharks — The Aviator was the perfect biopic, telling the story of Howard Hughes, who was 1) charismatic, 2) kind of nuts, and 3) one of Tinseltown's own brethren kin. Never mind that Gangs of New York also was an ambitious cinematic epic, also starred Leo DiCaprio, and was nominated for 11 Oscars and took home… nothing. The Aviator was big, bold, sweaty, sexy, and picaresque, with the sort of amoral enigma at its center that Hollywood enshrines year after year with gold statues of bald men.

Make that enshrines for Best Actor. Because in that horse-race, Leo and his Howard Hughes was up against Jamie Foxx and his performance as Ray Charles in Ray — and wagering that Foxx would lose was only slightly more daft than betting against a 22-year-old Mike Tyson. Ray stole a lot of The Aviator's thunder, being equally epic, with a more obviously "good" performance at its core (that is, being easily appreciated mimicry), and an impeccably groovy soundtrack. For all of his womanizing, mumbling, and hand-washing, Leo as the billionaire flyboy didn't have a chance (co-star Cate Blanchett made out quite nicely though by mimicking Katherine Hepburn).

Both of these films were far into production in 2004. It was around that time that Clint Eastwood got his hands on a new script.

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Back during the heyday of his box-office clout, few suspected that Clint Eastwood would become one of the American film industry's most subtle and celebrated directors. The tall, lanky Californian swapped a modest television career for leading roles in the wildly popular spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. He then took on a new franchise with the Dirty Harry series, invoking one of the most memorable recitations of action cinema ("Go ahead… make my day…), which became a tonal-emblem of the Reagan era. He also dabbled in politics, becoming mayor of Carmel, Calif., for a time. And to keep the box-office receipts (if not the critical plaudits) hot, he even co-starred with an orangutan — twice — in bare-knuckle-brawl potboilers (to this day, "Clyde" possibly remains better known than Eastwood's recurrent co-star Sandra Locke).

But if Eastwood's material wasn't always smart, it didn't mean he wasn't. Far from it. One of the few actors who had the clout — and experience — to direct, he started helming his own pictures, including the western fable High Plains Drifter (1973) and the post-Civil War epic The Outlaw Josey Wales (1975). Helming his own Dirty Harry sagas soon followed. But Eastwood's first real departure came with Bird (1988). As a lifelong jazz fan (and accomplished pianist), the life story of saxophonist Charlie Parker held an understandable appeal for Eastwood. But the project would stand in stark relief to his previous films for two reasons. First, it wasn't a western or an action picture. Secondly, Eastwood wasn't the star. In fact, he didn't even appear in it.

Strong notices for Bird (and a Palm d'Or nomination at Cannes) noticeably altered Clint Eastwood's career. Vacuous matinees virtually disappeared from his oeuvre after The Rookie (1990) co-starring Charlie Sheen, followed by films he directed and starred in (White Hunter Black Heart, Unforgiven, A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County, Absolute Power) and those he simply directed (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Mystic River). Not all were critical or box-office successes, but each one had its merit, and one or two were unqualified masterpieces. It's a body of work that's ambitious and serious, presenting a mature director honing the finer details of his craft.

When Clint Eastwood decided to undertake Million Dollar Baby, everybody in L.A.'s insular film community should have noticed.

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Based on a series of stories by F.X. Toole, Million Dollar Baby tells the story of only three people. Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) owns a run-down boxing gym in downtown Los Angeles called the "Hit Pit," where ambitious fighters with few resources turn up on a daily basis to spar, work the bags, and dream of the days of glory that await them. An experienced manager, Dunn is currently training a fighter, 'Big' Willie Little (Mike Colter) who has a genuine shot at a tile. However, the whiff of success sends Little to seek out more experienced management, in part because Dunn has a reputation for "protecting" fighters and allowing their best opportunities to pass them by.

Managing the gym with Dunn is his oldest friend, Eddie 'Scrap-Iron' Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a half-blind veteran of 109 fights who first met Dunn when he was a cut-man working a boxing circuit in the South. Out of sorts over losing Little — and consumed with guilt over his fractured, absent family — Dunn seems resigned to life's unpleasant fates. And he certainly isn't in any mood to humor a girl fighter.

A refugee from the backwoods of Missouri who set out for Los Angeles, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) has taken up boxing late in life. She isn't old, but at just 31 she's well past the age where she can effectively train for several years and work her way up into the sport's highest ranks. It's a fact Dunn is only too happy to point out to her (along with his opinion that women's boxing is "the latest freak-show"). But she's a regular at the Hit Pit, and her determination eventually wins over Dupris, who offers her a few pointers.

Dunn's resistance proves far more intractable, but even he is taken by the determined girl, and — with the loss of his contender Willie Little still grating at him — he gradually takes her up as his personal cause. Naturally, Dunn warns Maggie that nothing will come easy. But her mercurial knockout skills surprise everyone, and eventually — with the Gaelic nickname "Mo Cushile" — she earns her place on a title-fight card against Billie 'The Blue Bear' (Lucia Rijker), the most dangerous woman fighter alive. And also the most ruthless.

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Compared to the other pictures in contention for Best Picture honors in 2005, Million Dollar Baby stood apart. Three of the five nominees were sentimental biopics featuring artists as protagonists (The Aviator, Ray, Finding Neverland), while one comedy (Alexander Payne's witty Sideways) earned the true dark-horse position in what might be considered an Annie Hall slot. Million Dollar Baby presented itself as a title that was virtually devoid of formula — at least by Oscar's standards — with few easily recognized tropes and a plot twist at the end of the second act that displaces a great deal of the story's superficial sentiments up to that point. The fact that it walked in with a very large broom and swept up a quartet of major awards marks 2005 as one of the Academy's more sensible years.

Nonetheless, Baby still carried a few ringers in the door, not least of which being Clint Eastwood. Already a winner in 1992 for Unforgiven and nominated just one year previous for Mystic River, his contention for Best Director wasn't exactly the sort of thing voters could dismiss, and his 2-1 record indicates not only that he's a talented craftsman, but also that he's obviously well liked among his peers. The same can be said for Hilary Swank, a smart, pretty (but not too pretty) young actress who — with slightly lesser ambition and talent — would be a shoo-in for Oscar's perennial nod for Best Supporting Actress (i.e., ingenue with great promise). Instead, she's two-for-two in the Best Actress category, following her daring turn in Boys Don't Cry (1999).

However, Eastwood's best weapon (at least as far as Oscar voters go) likely was Morgan Freeman. Scenarist Paul Haggis adapted his character for Million Dollar Baby from a separate F.X. Toole story, choosing him to act as the film's narrator. And there are few things more powerful in motion pictures than a Morgan Freeman voiceover. With a rich baritone that sounds as if it's been carefully aged by decades of cohibas and Glenmorangie, Freeman's arch credibility is so profound that he narrated John Kerry's mini-biography for the 2004 Democratic National Convention and almost had Republicans admiring the guy. For true film lovers, Freeman's rich African American tonality was permanently seared into a collective memory with The Shawshank Redemption (1995), which we perhaps erroneously remember as a big Oscar winner as well (nominated for seven, it was a scratch). Here, his role is that of observer and occasional moral compass — although Haggis's script deftly reveals a nobler purpose with the film's final lines.

Very little should be said about the film's somber third act, although it's likely a poorly kept secret at this writing, six months after its theatrical release. The third act is the final element that elevated Million Dollar Baby into an Oscar contender. However, it also could be argued that it's also the script's weakest element. In part, this is due to the story's very radical, if very purposeful, shift away from everything that has come before, save for the characters and their now-intertwined lives. There are scenes here that are full of power and warmth and very fine, actorly moments. Its tone, its tension, and its flashes of humor are nearly impeccable. But there is something unsatisfying here, not in the turns the story must take, but perhaps simply because vibrant people are now acted upon more than they are acting. For the unexpectant viewer, it's a shift that conveys the plot's burdens outward, upon the audience itself. And for that, Baby at least chooses risk over obvious reward.

Where the film it is at its very finest is when it explains the minutiae of boxing as a contest. Far too many genre pictures take up a "sport" as a tool upon which to hang a drama, which often diminishes thematic clarity — we are asked to understand the characters, but told little about what motivates them the most, as if an activity that involves a ball or a stick or a glove is simply an easily discarded Macguffin of the writer's trade. (Even worse is the film that takes up a sport as a metaphor, which can be even more poorly explained). A sport is simply a contest of strength and skill that rewards experience above all else. In Million Dollar Baby, the very idea of the boxer blessed with spunk is dismissed out of hand. "Tough isn't enough," Dunn says — it's a motto that's also etched in his dilapidated office. The idea of "heart" is equally mocked, and wonderfully so with comic relief from Jay Baruchel as the hopeless, skinny 'Danger Barch,' a prospective fighter who's so ready for an ass-whuppin' that Dunn and Dupris keep him away from sparring partners at all costs.

Toole's writing is willing to trust the audience by celebrating the sport of boxing, and it does so by explaining it. It's not a street-fight, and it does not reward a fighter's natural instincts. The urge to punish one's opponent must always be tempered by the primary rule, which is to protect oneself at all times. Freeman's narration relishes in these paradoxes — that to draw a fighter closer you must step away, or how a direct assault is best approached by stepping into it. Even the explanation of the "knockout mechanism" is both authentic and thematically sound — no matter how much "heart" a fighter has, once her head is knocked around farther than the neck will carry it, she will go down… and stay down until common sense takes over. Your own nervous system is prepared to defeat you just as much as your opponent. Such expository moments are rewarding, making the on-screen fights seem much more realistic. Which they are in any event, shunning both the hyperbolic slugfests of the Rocky films and the sheer poetic brutality of Raging Bull.

One could argue that there were finer films released in 2004 than Million Dollar Baby. It wouldn't be difficult to even make the case among the year's Best Picture contenders for Sideways, which arguably would not win the year's most coveted prize in cinema simply because it was a warm, lightweight comedy set in the California wine country. But for those who remember Oscar's excesses in this category — which are legion — there is something pleasing about Million Dollar Baby's four major wins on the big night. Virtually all film fans can hold on to one travesty, which lingers in the memory like an injustice that's been personally suffered (for this writer, Titanic beating L.A. Confidential has conveyed lifelong scars). With a first-draft script and a mere 37 days of shooting, with a greenlight for the awards season after the first rough-cut was screened, and with a trio of actors who take what could be a big story and play it somewhat smaller than life, Baby succeeds simply because of three people who form an ad hoc family, filling our their barren lives with ambitions that some regard as ill warranted and best forgotten. Maggie's fight matters, and not necessarily because it represents something. It matters because it closes off empty spaces that too often are filled with loneliness and guilt. Her choice to fight is why we want her to win.

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Warner's two-disc DVD release of Million Dollar Baby offers a flawless anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) on Disc One with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio and the theatrical trailer. Disc Two contains the bulk of the supplements, including the behind-the-scenes featurette "Born to Fight" with comments from Eastwood, Swank, and Freeman (19 min.). Also on board is "The Producers' Round 15," which includes comments from producer Albert S. Ruddy, screenwriter Paul Haggis, and others on the pre-production process (14 min.). And in "James Lipton Takes on Three," the notoriously pretentious interlocutor lobs plenty of oddly phrased leading questions to Eastwood, Swank, and Freeman, all of whom deflect his breathy intonations (and shameless flattery of Swank) with some fairly direct talk (24 min.). Warner's "Deluxe Edition" of Million Dollar Baby also includes a Compact Disc featuring Eastwood's film score.

— J. Jordan Burke



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