Clint Eastwood as Frankie and Hilary Swank as Maggie in Warner Bros. Million Dollar Baby - 2004
Photo Copyright Warner Brother
In anticipation of the upcoming Academy Awards, this week we'll look at one of the top contenders, Clint Eastwood's masterpiece, Million Dollar Baby. It's not playing here. In reviews past, I've complained that we, on the Peninsula, never get the "great" movies. Indeed, Sideways and Ray never showed, but we did finally get Finding Neverland, and The Aviator is showing right now. So maybe Baby will show eventually. If not, it's certainly worth a drive.
In one corner is Frankie Dunn, a washed-up old boxing trainer. That about says it all. Right now you're conjuring up images of Burgess Merideth in full growl, uttering his endless refrain, "He'll moider ya, Rock!" But as portrayed by Eastwood, Dunn is a portrait of the real man behind the growl, tortured and tired, eager for one real taste of victory before he throws in the towel. In the opposite corner is Maggie Fitzgerald, a young pugilist with a full measure of heart and tenacity, but without the skills to go along with them. Maggie, beautifully played by Hillary Swank, has all the makings of a champion, if only Frankie will show her the ropes, a plan he is stubbornly opposed to. And so the film dances our two protagonists around the ring, with Morgan Freeman's custodian/narrator acting as referee. As you know he must, eventually Frankie agrees to take on young Maggie and what follows is a film that is equal parts gloriously uplifting and heartbreakingly sad.
There have been plenty of boxing films through the years, from 1915's The Champion to Scorsese's Raging Bull and Oscar winner Rocky. In recent years, however, these films haven't often inspired awards, or even attendance. Just look at Meg Ryan's huge flop of a few years ago, Against the Ropes. So what makes Million Dollar Baby different? In a word, Eastwood. Clint's deft direction, paired with a beautifully written screenplay, gives a film that is a true literary adaptation, in this case of F.X. O'Toole's series of short stories, Rope Burns. The film feels like a piece of literature, flowing and character driven. There is no rush to a silly and predictable conclusion, and, like a short story, things rarely wrap up the way you thought they would. Clint's acting is as fine and nuanced as I've ever seen it, better even than in Unforgiven. With fifty years of experience under his belt, Eastwood shows that flashy and loud are not the measure of a true performance. He makes us believe; in the role, in the story, yes, but it's more than that. There's something transcendent in the character of Frankie Dunn, something borne of the pain from a life of near successes and constant failures; the pain of estrangement from his only daughter, a void that Maggie longs to fill. This movie is truly wonderful, but without Clint it would be nothing.
That said, it's worth noting that combined with the Oscar nominations for Clint (actor, director, and picture), the film is also being praised for the excellent performances of Swank and Freeman. Hillary Swank, who won Best Actress four years ago for the gut-wrenching drama Boys Don't Cry, looks likely to win this year as well. Her turn as Maggie Fitzgerald is as complex as any role she's taken, requiring her to play from wide-eyed innocence to grim determination and everything in between. Morgan Freeman is possibly the most respected actor on the planet. Having spent the majority of his career playing supporting roles, propping up other, lesser, actors, Freeman manages to raise the level of achievement of everyone around him. This is his second film with Clint Eastwood, the first being the seminal Unforgiven. Million Dollar Baby will mark his fourth Oscar nomination and, though he likely will lose out to Sideways' Thomas Hayden Church, his portrayal of the half-blind former scrapper Eddie Dupris is a perfect addition to a long and distinguished career.
It's a tough year for Oscar handicapping. With The Aviator representing the best of Martin Scorsese's talents, and Sideways having gobbled up the majority of the critical awards thus far, it would seem too close a race to call. Baby, however, has gained incredible momentum over the last month, and may just be poised to take the top prize. In any case, it's an exciting year with worthy contenders all around (with the exception of Paul Giamatti, who was shockingly and cruelly ignored by Oscar voters once again). Whoever comes out on top, one thing's for certain. Million Dollar Baby is pure gold. Grade: A+
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