MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004)

SEQUINED SPEEDBAG

Enter Clint Eastwood, 74-years old, rock-hard and lean, chiseled and deeply lined like a stone statue, a calloused celebrated icon, a national treasure—and one hell of a director. As a young actor, while still studying his craft, he worked with directors like the dynamic Don Siegel, the old-timer Joshua Logan, and the eccentric Sergio Leone. Eastwood directed his first film, PLAY MISTY FOR ME, in 1971. He kept learning, and he kept directing. Including one episode of AMAZING STORIES he did for Steven Spielberg, to date he has stood at the director’s helm on 27 films. When he wasn’t directing, he was standing behind John Sturges, and even Michael Cimino, and taking valuable notes. There are only four films that he directed that he did not appear in, BREEZY (1973), BIRD (1988), MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL (1997), and finally MYSTIC RIVER in 2003. In my view, most of them could have been better films if he had appeared in them, even just peripherally as he did in A PERFECT WORLD (1993). Many directors’ work decline as they enter their 70’s—but not Clint Eastwood. He was in top form with MYSTIC RIVER, and now with BABY he has eclipsed that and has pulled himself to the top of the heap again. No other actor/director, not even the excellent Robert Redford, can begin to keep up with him. He really is a force of nature. The most phenomenal thing about him is not that he continues to work, but that he continues to get better, to produce better work with each effort.

Eastwood films have a distinctive “look” to them. He adores twilight and sunrise—bright light and dimness—a world of shadow play, bending the story into Noir—characters bathed in colorful pools of light, or darkly silhouetted against a brilliant sunset. Like John Ford, like John Wayne, he has created his own film family. He continues to use many of the same crew on dozens of his movies. He is beyond star or director. He is a patriarch, and a consummate artist. He worked for years, for example, with cinematographer Bruce Surtees. John W. Green was Surtees’ assistant for a long time—then he took over the reins of head lenser, and Eastwood worked with him for years. Green had an assistant named Tom Stern. Now, for the last several Eastwood films, it has been Stern’s turn.

So on MILLION DOLLAR BABY, Tom Stern was the lead cameraman. The IMDb credits show that he really did rise up from the ranks of crew. He had worked as a gaffer and best boy since 1977, and he had worked on the crew for ten of Eastwood’s films. He started being a head lenser on BLOOD WORK (2002), and now has been the cinematographer on six films—including MYSTIC RIVER. Roger Ebert praised his work on BABY, feeling that he punctuated the action perfectly with his terrific control of light and shadow. Stern shot the film darkly, with lots of night shots, and tableaus that were lit gray and dimly. The gym, the “Hit Pit” was a good example. It was very lived in, complete with sweat stains, bleach in a bucket, the battered lockers, the frayed canvas, the darkly stained ring ropes and buckles, worn wood on the floor and door frames, and old leather stinking and creaking, and worn rough. I couldn’t help wondering how the film would have looked, would have fared, shot in black and white, ala CHAMPION (1949), THE SET-UP (1949), REQUIM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, first on television in 1957 and on film in 1962, and of course Scorsese’s RAGING BULL in 1988.

The script was based on a series of short stories,” ROPE BURNS: Stories From the Corner”, written by long-time fight manager and cut-man Jerry Boyd, writing under the nom’ de plume of F.X.Toole. This was the first thing he ever published. He had been a writer for 40 years. According to him, he could have papered his walls with all his rejection slips. In 2002, just as Clint Eastwood was putting this project together, Boyd died. He was 72-years old. The very talented Paul Haggis did the adaptation and screenplay. The script was both graphic and poetic, part James Ellroy (LA CONFIDENTIAL) and part Rod Serling. A busy successful writer, he has been the recipient of two Emmys and a Golden Globe. Perhaps even Oscar will come calling soon. Since 1975, he has written dozens of teleplays for shows like L.A. LAW, and TRACEY ULLMAN. During these TV ventures, he has functioned as a producer and director at times. MILLION DOLLAR BABY was his first “feature film”. After completing that in early 2004, he wrote and directed his own film, called CRASH. Presently, he is working with Clint Eastwood on his newest film, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, which will be released in 2006.

All the original music in BABY is credited to Clint Eastwood. It was kind of a smoky staccato jazz and slide guitar mouthharp blues. He is an accomplished pianist, and played one as the police Lt. in CITY HEAT (1984). He channeled his love of jazz in the bio-pic BIRD in 1988, about the sad troubled life of sax player Charlie Parker. Forrest Whitaker was wonderful in the part. This was a film the preceded RAY (2004)—and exhibited just as much style, flair, and heart—without the fanfare and accolades. Eastwood has written some of the music for 10 of his films.

God almighty, what can one write about the titan Clint Eastwood? John Wayne, aka Marion Morrison, had one of the longest careers in films, spanning 40 years. Eastwood has already been at it for over 50 years, and he is not slowing down. Like many of the classic screen leading men—Gable, Bogart, and Cooper—he found himself still considered a matinee idol clear through his middle age. In the twilight of their careers, all these stars found themselves romancing younger female co-stars—and Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, and Gary Cooper all died in their 50’s. But there was Clint Eastwood, still “getting” the young girl at 72, in BLOOD WORK (2002). It is a distinct pleasure to watch him act his age as he has done in several films. MILLION DOLLAR BABY is at the top of the list. When he was still a kid of 64, he stuck his neck way out to play the romantic lead Robert Kincaid, romancing Meryl Streep in THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (1995). I bought it. He was excellent and very believable. I think it was one of the most sensitive, best-acted roles he has ever had—but that was before he played Frankie Dunn in BABY.

Clinton Eastwood Jr. (his dad was a steelworker), much like Steve McQueen, was a bit of a misfit as a young man. Acting was something he stumbled into. He has appeared as an actor in 58 films. John Wayne racked up that many movies pumping out dozens of three-day westerns and serials by the time he made STAGECOACH in 1939. In the extinct studio system, an actor would be assigned to several pictures a year through the 1930’s and 1940’s. By the time Eastwood came to Hollywood in 1954, the studio system was on its last legs. Television was emerging as a force to be reckoned with. He got a contract, one of the last of them, with Universal Pictures when Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Jeff Chandler and John Derek were the big dogs in town. He had a number of early television roles. I recalled him on HIGHWAY PATROL (1956), DEATH VALLEY DAYS (1956), and MAVERICK in 1959. He was given small parts in REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955), FRANCIS IN THE NAVY (1955), and AWAY ALL BOATS (1956). I began to notice him, and remember him in LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLE (1958), as third banana to Tab Hunter. He got a tremendous break in 1959, when he was cast as drag foreman, Rowdy Yates, in the TV series, RAWHIDE (1959-1966). He quickly became the “favorite” on that series, getting the lion’s share of fan mail—much like Vic Morrow did on the series COMBAT. On his hiatus from RAWHIDE, in 1964, he flew to Spain to work for a whirlwind director named Sergio Leone. The DOLLAR trilogy was not released in America until 1967, dove-tailing perfectly the end of his Cowboy series in 1966. By 1968, Clint Eastwood became a star, and from that day forward, he has remained a box office heavyweight. He soon became a prince of two genres—western and crime. He was very successful as Inspector Harry Callahan in Siegel’s film DIRTY HARRY (1971). For the longest time, my favorite western from his lexicon was THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976). That was, of course, before he released UNFORGIVEN in 1992.

Every one of his films has not been a box office champion. He certainly got in over his head attempting to warble in Josh Logan’s, PAINT YOUR WAGON (1969)—although in my view he did a better job as whisper singing than his co-star Lee Marvin. I know that it was supposed to be comedic, but it shouldn’t have been quite so “painful”. Thank God, director Logan included Harve Presnell in the cast. His one musical number, THEY CALL THE WIND MARIA, reminded us that this was supposed to be a musical. Clint managed to be cast in some stinkers later—like PINK CADILLAC (1989), and THE ROOKIE (1990). I liked the chances he took as an actor to play director John Huston in WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART (1990), but many would disagree with me.

In MILLION DOLLAR BABY, Eastwood cast himself as crusty Frankie Dunn. His whispered growl dialogue delivery, used in HEARTBREAK RIDE (1975), and WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART had returned. I wondered if it was a conscious choice, or just the way his larynx sometimes functions. In an odd way it brought to mind the fine character actor, Burgess Meredith, playing the trainer Mickey in those first several ROCKY films. Eastwood as Frankie gave us a lean, no nonsense performance, part Spencer Tracy and part the aging Henry Fonda. This may be Eastwood’s finest work on film. Frankie Dunn is a long-time fight manager, and he used to be one of the best cut-men in the business (just like the author, Jerry Boyd). He owns, and runs, a back street gym in a seedy section of Los Angeles, called the “Hit Pit”. He is a trainer, but has never been a pugilist. In the beginning of the film he is the manager of a promising black light heavyweight. This fighter is an athlete at his peak, and Dunn comes off as extra cautious and conservative to this hungry boxer. He has several times denied him a shot at the title. So the fighter fires him, signs on with another more ambitious trainer, and subsequently wins the title. We begin to see some of Dunn’s prominent weaknesses. Two very clever review titles for this film were AGING BULL, and LORD OF THE RING.

Frankie is aware of Maggie Fitzgerald [played by Hilary Swank], a young woman who is “training” at his gym. She met him after a fight.

Frankie: Do I owe you money?
Maggie: No.
Frankie: Did I know your mama?
Maggie: No.
Frankie: Then what can I do for you?
Maggie: I was thinking you might want to train me.
Frankie: I don’t train women.
Maggie: Some people think that I’m pretty tough.
Frankie: Girlie, tough ain’t enough.

Eastwood delivers a character with rough edges, with secrets, with unresolved issues. Over twenty years before, he and his daughter became estranged. He wrote to her often, and she always returned the letters unopened. He kept them all in shoe boxes, all in neat chronological order. It is never stated, or even hinted, what caused the rift in their relationship—but one gets the feeling that it had to be something dark and nearly unforgivable. He attended a Catholic mass daily, and he seemed to love to taunt the priest, Father Horwick played by Brian F. Byrne.

Father Horwick: Anyone who attends daily mass for 23 years tends to carry a lot of guilt.

Frankie: Father, that was a great sermon—made me weep.
Father Horwick: What’s confusing you this week?
Frankie: Oh, it’s the same old,” One-God or Three God” thing.
Father Horvick: Frankie, most people figure out by kindergarten that it’s all about faith.
Frankie: So it’s a kind of Snap, Crackle, and Pop, all rolled into one box?

Frankie: So is Jesus a Demi-God?
Father Horwick: There are no Demigods—you fucking pagan!

Frankie kept his old friend, Eddie “Scarp-Iron” Dupris [played by Morgan Freeman] around to run the gym for him, while he trained fighters, and read poetry. He was partial to Yeats, and he was constantly studying Gaelic.

Frankie: What’s she sayin’?
Scrap: She wants to know what you’re readin’
Frankie: It’s Yeats.
[turns to Maggie] Keep your head back.
Scrap: Why don’t you talk a little Yeats to her? Show her what a treat that is.

Scrap had been a fighter, back in the day. He and Frankie worked for the same manager. Frankie was cut man and corner-man for him. Toward the end of his “career” he was taking a terrific beating in one fight. Frankie was in his corner, and he wanted to stop the fight. Scrap refused, and it ended up costing him the fight, and the sight in one of his eyes. Their daily routines and banter at the gym were a joy to behold—two crusty old guys who loved to needle each other.

Frankie: How many times do I get to tell you that bleach is bleach. So why can’t you buy the cheap stuff? You always buy the expensive stuff!
Scrap: It smells better, Frankie.
Frankie: Bleach smells like bleach.

Frankie: You got big holes in your socks.
Scrap: They’re only not that big.
Frankie: Didn’t I give you money for some new ones?
Scrap: These are my sleeping socks. My feet like a little air at night.
Frankie: How come you’re wearing them in the daytime then?
Scrap: Cause my daytime socks got too many holes in them.
Frankie: Well, if I give you some money—will you buy some new socks, please?
Scrap: I couldn’t say for sure, might find its way to the track.

Frankie watched Maggie putz around in the gym for months, and he pretended not to notice—that way she might just go away on her own, and he wouldn’t have to deal with her. But Scrap was all heart. He loaned Maggie one of the gym’s old speed bags, and she punched at pitifully. When she tried to work the heavy bag, it ended up working her.

Frankie: You wouldn’t start training to be a ballerina at 31 now, would you?
Maggie: Already been workin’ it for three years.
Frankie: And you can’t hit a speed bag? What kind of training is that?
Maggie: I never had any, boss.
Frankie: Well, I hate to say it, but it shows.

The terrific Hilary Swank played Maggie Fitzgerald. She is a natural athlete. She trained so hard for this role that she put twenty pounds of muscle on her slight frame. She is of Spanish and Native American heritage. She grew up in Bellingham, Washington. She had placed as a contender in the Junior Olympics, while in high school. Her mother took her to Los Angeles in her sophomore year, and they had to live out of the car for a time. He got her first film work when she was 16-years old. She had appeared in some theatrical productions as early as 9-years old. She has been married to actor, Chad Lowe, since 1997. They met, while working together, on the set of QUIET DAYS IN HOLLYWOOD (1997). Presently, she remains fit with skydiving, skiing, and white water rafting. She was 20-years old when she got her first big film break, as the Karate Kid IV in THE NEXT KARATE KID (1994). So Ralph Macchio was out, and Hilary was in. Pat Morita seemed to enjoy the change. It breathed some new life into that franchise. Swank has now appeared in 27 films. Her first academy award winning performance came playing Teena Brandon in BOYS DON’T CRY (1999). Her transformation, emotionally and physically, was incredible. I also enjoyed her as the battered Valerie in THE GIFT (2000), and as a terra-naut in THE CORE (2003). Back in 1999, at the Academy Awards, Swank was up against Annette Bening from AMERICAN BEAUTY (1998). She was the underdog. She won. On Sunday night, February 27, 2005, Swank was in the best actress category again—and again up against Annette Bening, this time for her role in BEING JULIA (2004). This time the betting line on was on Swank—and when she won her second Oscar, everyone’s heart was warmed. But it was a tough call.

Swank played Maggie as naïve, poorly educated, fierce, determined, desperate, sweet, and conflicted. Some folks felt that her Maggie was just a bit too dumb—a kind of female Rocky Balboa. But it’s what boxing meant to her—literally everything. Female boxing is becoming a big business. Mohammed Ali and Harry Belafonte both have daughters who are pugilists. Maggie summed up her aspirations with her “pitch” to Frankie.

Maggie: I’m 32, Mr. Dunn, and I’m here celebrating the fact that I spent another year scraping dishes and waitressing, which is what I’ve been doing since I was 13—and according to you I’ll be 37 before I can throw a decent punch—which is what I’ve trying to do on this speed bag for over a month. And that’s God’s simple truth. Other truth is, my brother’s in prison, my sister cheats on welfare by pretending one of her babies is still alive, my Daddie’s dead, and my Momma weighs 312 lbs. If I was thinking straight I’d go back home, find a used trailer, buy a deep fryer and some Oreos. Problem is this is the only thing I ever felt good doing. It I’m too old for this, then I got nothing. Is that enough truth to see to you?

Her sad, perhaps tragic life became apparent when we had a chance to meet her family. Margo Martindale did a great job playing her mother, a woman so selfish and so lazy, the only thing she would get energy up for was eating and fussing. Maggie talked to Frankie about her late father. There was one poignant story about the family dog. When the dog grew old and crippled and blind, the father had to carry it out into the woods, and put it out of its misery. This tidbit of information became pivotal during the dark final chapter of the film. As a plot structure, Frankie became a father figure, and Maggie became the surrogate daughter. Initially, Frankie did not want to commit himself, wanted nothing to do with her—but later he was hooked emotionally, and he would do “everything” for her.

From the beginning, Frankie told her that even though he would train her, he did not intend to be her manager. Knowing his own tendency to be overly cautious, perhaps he liked her too much to hold her back. Yet after he convinced one of his cronies to manage her, he became displeased as to how she was being handled. So he strong-armed himself into the ring, and declared to the officials that he was, in fact, her manager. Later, Maggie asked,

Maggie: You gonna leave me again?
Frankie: Never

And Frankie meant it. He was as good as his word. After her family disappointed her again, while on that road trip, Maggie said,

“I got nobody but you, Frankie.”

Several times in the training process, Frankie had to warn Maggie not to be so impetuous. Maggie could be ferocious. She tended to flatten her opponents in the first round. She did this with such regularity that soon Dunn had a hard time booking her new fights. Other managers were afraid of her.

Frankie: You forgot the rule. Now, what’s the rule?
Maggie: Keep my left up?
Frankie: Is to protect yourself at all times. Now, what is the rule?
Maggie: Protect myself at all times.
Frankie: Good. Good.

The incomparable Morgan Freeman played Scrap. He is the flat-toned narrator of the piece—conjuring up, of course, his part as Red in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)—(a part in that prison drama that was originally written for a white character). Some critics felt that the narration was a bit too invasive, almost omniscient—commenting on things that Scrap, himself, had not witnessed. His delivery was monotone and unhurried, and for me it was very effective. Freeman as Scrap, most of all, embodied the sense of ring language and the place—the dingy dangerous world of small-time boxing.

Scrap: If there’s magic in boxing—it is the magic of fighting battles beyond endurance, beyond cracked ribs, ruptured kidneys, and detached retinas. It’s the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.

Scrap: To make a fighter you got to strip them down to bare wood—you can’t just tell them to forget everything you know if you’re gonna make ‘em forget even their bones---make them so tired that they only listen to you, only hear your voice, only do what you say—and nothing else. Show ‘em how to keep their balance and take it away from the other guy—how to generate momentum off their right toe, and how to flex your knees when you fire a jab—how to fly back and up so that the other guy doesn’t want to come after you. Then you gotta show ‘em all over again. Over and over and over—‘till they think they’re born that way.

At this year’s 77th Annual Academy Awards, Morgan Freeman won his first Oscar, for playing Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris. He was long overdue. His time in the limelight was brief, and his humility seemed genuine. Since 1966, he has appeared in 64 films. Almost always, he emerges “better” than his material. He is an astonishingly good actor. 1989 was a banner year for him. He began to be noticed. He played principal Joe Clark in LEAN ON ME (1989). He played Hoke in DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989). Some people thought he won an Oscar for that role. He didn’t. He was, also, very good as Sgt. Major John Rawlins in GLORY (1989). I preferred his performance in that film to Denzel Washington’s, and of course, Denzel took home the Oscar. In 1992, he was outstanding as Ned in Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN. That same year, he did very good work as Azeem, the Moor, in Kevin Costner’s ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES—but there was another scene-stealer in that one too—Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham. On his roles I loved was the retiring detective in SEVEN (1995). He went on to stun the world playing Red in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. He had reoccurring roles, as Dr. Alex Cross, in KISS THE GIRLS (1997), and ALONG CAME A SPIDER (2001). He continues to be a very busy man. Presently, even before his Oscar win, he had seven films waiting to be released, in post-production, or in preparation.

A young Canadian actor, Jay Baruchel, played Danger, a skinny and possibly mentally challenged character that hung around the gym. He bragged about becoming a champion, even though it was obvious that Maggie, on her worst day, could have decked him in five seconds flat. When one of the young cocky fighters that trained at the gym finally tired of listening to his retarded ranting—he talked Danger into the ring, and then he beat him up real good. Scrap intervened, challenging Sharille, the younger fighter.

Sharille: I don’t fight one-eyed old men.

Then in a clichéd, but satisfying bit of sparring, old Scrap knocked the younger fighter down—several times, and then he turned to him and said,

“Get a job, punk!”

He helped Danger to his feet, and said to him,

“Anybody can lose one fight—anybody can lose once. You’ll come back from this—and you’ll be champion of the world.”

There were some complaints that the plotline spent too much time on the character of Danger—and that it went nowhere. Perhaps there were other scenes that were edited out. Perhaps those scenes took too much focus off of Maggie. Or perhaps Baruchel is just such a good actor that he made the most out of his brief scenes, making a strong impression each time he appeared on camera. I did not find Scrap’s sentimentality unfocused. I just found it to be unbiased. The scenes with Danger were no more dead end, no more of a red herring, than Scrap’s sentiments for Maggie, and even for Frankie, himself.

One stunning and unforgettable character in this film was Billy, “The Blue Bear”, played by the powerful Lucia Rijker. On the one hand, she appeared more than formidable—she seemed unbeatable. Her villainous demeanor, and subsequent “dirty deeds” created a kind of super antagonist, which was an easy target for some of the “serious” critics—who compared her to Mister “T” in ROCKY III (1982), and Dolph Lundgren in ROCKY IV in 1985). Rijker’s persona, however, is as genuine as it can get. She is a professional fighter. She has been the Junior Welterweight Boxing Champion of the WIBF [Women’s International Boxing Federation]. Her record was 15-0, with 14 knockouts. She is the four-time World Champion Kick Boxer, with a modest record of 36-0. She speaks four languages. She is also a sometimes actress. She has appeared in 4 films, like ROLLERBALL (2002). She lost a role in the film, DEEP RISING (1998), secondary to her boxing schedule. She had auditioned for, and was a finalist for the Female Terminator in TERMINATOR III.

In the film, Frankie was forced to take Maggie to Europe in order to guarantee her bouts. He gave her a Kelly-green robe, with the Gaelic words, “Mo Cuishle” emblazoned on the back. No matter how much she pestered him, he wouldn’t tell her what it meant. The fight fans in Europe began to chant it as she came into the auditoriums.

Like any good sports film, there had to be an exciting climax—the big race—the big game—and in this case, the big fight. Maggie got to fight Billy, “The Blue Bear”. In the initial rounds Billy was taking more points. Then Maggie came to life and began pummeling her—really making her look bad. It had been clearly established earlier in the film that Billy was ,”The dirtiest fighter in the game”. So at the bell, when Maggie turned her back on her in order to return to her own corner, we were not surprised when Billy sucker-punched her in the back of the head. This knocked Maggie groggy, and she fell to the canvas. Falling in slow motion, we began to increase our dread. We were not prepared for the stool already set up in her corner. Frankie reached for it—too late. She banged her head on the edge of it, and before she lost consciousness we heard her neck break in several places.

This is where this film leapfrogs all other “Boxing Movies”, and becomes something more than its genre. The film began to exist completely on its own merits as it moved into a very dark place. Maggie did not recover. We all hoped for some kind of Stallone sappy saccharine Hollywood moment. It never arrived. She became a quadrapelgic. Still we hoped that Frankie could “fix it”—that he would buy that cabin on the lake they had talked about—and maybe she would partially recover, be able to stump around on two canes, flashing her bright smile, and spreading her love. But no matter how many new doctors Frankie took her to, the prognosis remained dismally the same—permanent paralysis below the neck. She couldn’t even breathe without mechanical assistance. Frankie visited with her every day, sitting by her bed, holding her cold little hand, and reading Yeats to her.

Then one bright sunny day she looked Frankie right in the eye, and she requested that he “assist” her—that he needed to help her to die. Suddenly the ebon specter of Euthanasia poked its ugly head up. Like Xavier Bardem in THE SEA INSIDE (2004)—like Richard Dreyfuss in WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY? (1981), Hilary Swank was asking, demanding, that Eastwood’s love for her be proven. We watched Frankie struggling with himself, and the darkness of his hidden past. It was obvious that in his long life he had failed a number of people—regardless of his intent. Perhaps that included his actual daughter.

Very late one night, or very early one morning, Frankie returned to her, sneaking quietly into her room. As she slumbered, he kissed her gently on the forehead, and he said,

“ Mo Cuishle. It means ”My darling. My blood.” “

He pulled the plug on her and then rushed quickly out into the darkness before he could be discovered. A liberal voice inside me cheered him for his bravery, for his devotion—for his loving selfless act. Yet another voice challenged his act. But right or wrong, Frankie took a stand. He came through. He delivered the “bads”, or the “goods” depending on one’s point of view. After that he just disappeared. Scrap never heard from him again. He seemed to “inherit” the gym. Frankie left quite a few loose ends in his flight. As the curtain came down on this dark drama, and the lights of the theatre came up, we viewed the last scene—Frankie sitting alone at the rural diner showed to him by Maggie, wolfing down some homemade lemon meringue pie—how bittersweet the symbolism for the fade out.

In my view Clint Eastwood has created a masterwork, a massive cornerstone on his huge body of work. His Golden Globes, and Oscars, for Best Director and Best Picture attest to its artistic merit, and its fiscal punch as well. Roger Ebert wrote, ”It is a masterpiece, pure and simple—deep and true. This is the best film of the year. It is not a boxing movie—rather it is a movie about boxing. MYSTIC RIVER (2003) was a great film—this one is better. Eastwood found the simplicity and directness of classic storytelling.” It is a tight film. Eastwood mentioned at the Academy Awards that he shot in 37 days, two days under budget.

This was not the first film about a tough lady, or even a female prizefighter. One of the better recent ones that I recall was GIRLFIGHT (2000) with Michelle Rodriguez. I enjoyed some of the training parts with Jennifer Lopez in ENOUGH (2002). Actually tough buff ladies have thrilled us for decades. Leave us not forget the stunning Sigourney Weaver in the ALIEN series, or the pumped-up Linda Hamilton in the TERMINATOR series, or even the chameleon Meryl Streep in THE RIVER WILD (1994).

Ingmar Bergman quit directing films before he was 70 years old. Like Sidney Lumet, Eastwood just keeps deepening his craft. MILLION DOLLAR BABY does not glamorize the world of boxing. It is reminiscent of John Huston’s underrated FAT CITY (1972), with Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges. One critic wrote, “The twist at the end makes it a lot deeper and darker than you might expect. This is a film that gets under your guard in the final rounds, pelting us with emotional jabs, and anti-clerical uppercuts. This is one heartfelt credible picture.” Another critic wrote, “This is a stunningly drawn map of the human heart, disguised as a boxing yarn.”

So Clint Eastwood ran a gamble—that a dark tale about three misfits, who all benefit from their interdependence, could successfully grasp the imagination of a fickle public—a public desensitized by non-stop action and balladic hard bodies thrown around the room on wires, and CGI monsters detailed down to their scales and teeth. BABY was to be released mainstream, as all of Eastwood’s pictures had been. It was not a small Independent Art film—although in less capable hands it could have been.

He constructed a film complete with thrilling boxing sequences, theological turmoil and psychological predicaments—bristling with the smoky ambience of the fight game—the gym, the trainers, the pugs, the con, and the knock-out punch—that included creating a paraplegic out of its heroine—and then dropped the floor out from under us like we were spinning on a Carnival ride, and presented us with the dilemma of accepting or judging euthanasia. All that he left out were the tragic stories of athletes who have been strung out on steroids, who ended up with divers blood clots leading to the loss of limbs. Clint Eastwood could not have smiled wider than he did as he watched Hilary Swank win the Best Actress award, and Morgan Freeman win the Best Supporting Actor award, and himself win as Best Director---and the frosting on his creative cake was when the Academy chose MILLION DOLLAR BABY as the Best Picture of the Year. I swear since he was nominated himself in the Best Actor category—if he hadn’t been up against Jamie Foxx in RAY (2004), he might have won that category too.

Roger Ebert, per usual, summed things up when he wrote, “This is the kind of movie where you sit quietly in the theater, and are drawn deeply into lives you care very much about.”

I gave this movie a rating of 5 stars
Glenn A. Buttkus (2005)