Sunday, January 26, 2014
MILLION DOLLAR BABY
(December 2004, U.S.)
Clint Eastwood's MILLION DOLLAR BABY is a boxing drama like no other. It's the story of an under-appreciated boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (played by Eastwood himself), his elusive past, and his quest for personal atonement by reluctantly deciding to help an underdog amateur boxer named Maggie Fitzgerald (played by Hilary Swank) achieve her dream of becoming a professional. While its principal plot line maintains many of the persistent cliches of all boxing films long before it, it is very key to keep in mind that this is the story of a female boxer. This sort of point is not meant to be sexist (at least I don't think it is). It's important because it seeks to clearly define the very unique relationship between boxer and trainer that's never existed (much) before on film.
In very blunt terms, Maggie comes from pure trailer trash, and she knows it. The rest of her family are such trash as well, and even though she seems ashamed of them, she still tries not to forget that family is family and needs looking after. Her background and her desire to rise far above it is what drives her to seek excellence. And while it may not be completely obvious in the beginning, the girl clearly has her "daddy issues" to resolve. That becomes much clearer later in the film, so we'll wait on that one a bit. For now, it's impossible to deny the cliches of boxing and its obvious presence here. Maggie starts as a complete amateur who can barely hit a punching bag. Frankie has no interest in her, but is also a man who's dealing with his own "daughter issues" in that they don't speak to each other. We're never quite sure whether his motive for finally taking Maggie on is because he has genuine faith in her or whether he's seeking his own previously-mentioned atonement. Perhaps it doesn't matter in the end, because as we'd expect, Maggie's professional skills improve over time and we as the audience and the boxing fan, watch her slow ascend to the higher ladder of the boxing world. In fact, her established reputation begins to equal that of Mike Tyson's during the 1980s in that she's constantly knocking her opponent out inside the first round. We don't get to watch a huge, climactic, it-all-comes-down-to-this championship fight in the spirit of ROCKY. Yet, somehow, the quick knockdowns are a thrill to watch and I honestly can't decide if that's only because you're watching one girl hit another (perhaps that is sexist!).
Now, if MILLION DOLLAR BABY did not propose a cinematic marketing scheme of asking the audience not to give away any of it's story secrets, then perhaps it should have. During what could be regarded as just another fight in the great career of Maggie Fitzgerald, there's a turning point in the story that I doubt anyone could see coming without a major spoiler alert beforehand in which she's unethically hit from behind with a sucker punch by her opponent after the round is over and lands hard on the corner stool, breaking her neck and leaving her a quadriplegic. This is the point where Frankie's presence in her life is no longer that of trainer, but of father-figure and guardian, at least in the spiritual sense. It's Frankie who will look after her care in the hospital, who will read to her, who will never leave her side, who will protect her against her own family when they seek to legally take control of her finances, and who will ultimately come to Maggie's rescue when she asks the ultimate favor of him. In case that favor isn't obvious enough to you, here it is - Maggie will ask Frankie to help her die while she can still remember the cheers she heard in the boxing ring, saying she ultimately got what she most wanted out of her life. Only through the battle of his own tormented soul will Frankie finally make the big sacrifice and perform what can only be done by the man Maggie has considered to be her father. Tell me that you don't feel a lump in your throat and a wellness in your eyes when Frankie sneaks into the hospital, kisses her goodbye and administers that fatal injection of adrenaline that puts her to sleep forever and I'll call you a damn liar!
As I've previously described to you, the directed films of Clint Eastwood have been hit and miss with me. For every major hit in my opinion, there's also a major dud. MILLION DOLLAR BABY could not have been more of a successful treat for me. Not only in its delivery of sports drama by some major acting players, including Morgan Freeman as Eddie Dupris, Frankie's partner, but as a rather touching love story between man and woman in the spirits of loving father and daughter. Freeman, I might add, serves as narrator, which is something I've come to believe he's especially talented at besides his own great acting. Just recall THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994), WAR OF THE WORLDS and and MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (both 2005) to know what I'm talking about.
MILLION DOLLAR BABY won the Oscar for best picture of 2004. There's no reason I can think of for why it shouldn't have. However, my own personal pick for best picture of that year was SIDEWAYS, and continues to be. Sorry, Clint!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Maggie Fitzgerald: "Momma, you take Mardell and JD and get home 'fore I tell that lawyer there that you were so worried about your welfare you never signed those house papers like you were supposed to. So anytime I feel like it I can sell that house from under your fat, lazy, hillbilly ass! And if you ever come back, that's exactly what I'll do!"