Million Dollar Baby: The Best Sports Movie

From a very young age, we’re all told that life is not fair. It just isn’t, so pull up your big boy pants and get to living. Or, that’s what I was told, at least.

 

No, life really is not fair. But that’s fine; it doesn’t have to be. Life just exists and it’s up to us as people to determine how we treat others. Hopefully, the good will and good fortune that we mostly wish upon other people is returned to us.

 

What about if you were born at a disadvantage: poor to an uneducated family, or with health problems from birth? What would you do then? No, life isn’t fair, but if you’re already disadvantaged how long can you tell yourself that it’s just the way things go. You’re most likely to struggle through life when you were born into a struggle. You can overcome it, sure, and plenty of people do, but the odds certainly aren’t in your favor to do so.

 

The second of two Clint Eastwood movies that I’m examining is Million Dollar Baby, the 77th Best Picture winner from 2004. And it deals with this very topic of what is fair and unfair and how when it rains, it really pours.

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This is the second boxing movie I’ve reviewed as part of this project (the first being Rocky) and this particular film outdoes everything that Rocky did right, and corrects everything that it did wrong. Needless to say, this is one of the great sports movies of our time and it deserves to be remembered.

 

Now for the rest of the movie:

 

Plot

After a fight to open the movie, cranky old boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) gets his first of many visits from Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) who wants to be trained by Dunn to improve her boxing game. Dunn declines, saying he doesn’t train “girls.” The next day, Dunn shows up to his run-down boxing gym in Los Angeles and Maggie is there, having paid for six months’ worth of gym dues. She nags and pesters him time and again for him to train her, but he still upholds his decision.

 

Maggie stays and works on her punches night after night after night before Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris (Morgan Freeman) gives her a few pointers. She gets better slowly. And just a the Colorado River carved the Grand Canyon, Maggie Fitzgerald carves her way into Frankie’s heart. He allows himself to train her.

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The two form an interesting bond throughout the movie. With Dunn’s training and her never-ending perseverance, Maggie actually becomes quite a good boxer, showing a real talent. She wins fight after fight before finally getting into a championship bout.

 

Maggie’s story is one of triumphing over her past, and yet succumbing to the horrible unfairness of life. Fate rips the heart out of her, wipes the sparkle from her smile, and leaves you feeling like you just ate a box of hopelessness.

 

I’ll be honest, my girlfriend Laci and I started watching this movie later than we should have, and yet we stayed up too late to finish it. Once started, Million Dollar Baby is not a tale you can stop, or at least not easily. And that’s what you want in a movie. If you’re looking for an underdog story, this has it, but it’s so much more. This is the second boxing movie to crack this blog, but it is way better than Rocky, which I reviewed months ago. This story overflowed with depth and it was truly a masterpiece of storytelling. 1.

 

Writing/Dialogue

Paul Haggis wrote Million Dollar Baby and the effort earned him a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. The script is based on material from Rope Burns by F.X. Toole.

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The script uses a narrator, in this case Dupris, to tell the story. Dupris is the helping hand that guides the story along, and that’s a great thing. It’s not that the story would have been lost without it, but it helped to give the sense that something melancholy was going to come. It felt very much like The Shawshank Redemption, in that regard.

 

For the most part though, the script is a very prophetic, beautiful, and very “pie in the sky” kind of screenplay. Everyone speaks in a lot of beautiful analogies to help us understand their character. But, it’s not that the analogies were lost on us, either. It made the whole thing seem very colloquial, for whatever reason. It felt like I could sit down and have a beer with Frankie or Eddie or Maggie and they’d speak exactly like that. 1.

 

Sound

When it comes to the sound for Million Dollar Baby, this was a movie that featured very little of it, or at least when it comes to music. Just like Unforgiven, this movie had very little score. What music it did have, though, was very soft guitar used mostly in transition between scenes. This is very different from other movies, particularly other sports and action movies.

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One thing that did blow me away about the sound were the punches. If you have surround sound and happen to turn the volume up just a tad, you’ll feel like you got punched in the mouth when Maggie hits her competitors. The punches carried a real thunder to them. 1.

 

Set

Like sound, the set for Million Dollar Baby was very basic, but that doesn’t mean it was bad, of course. This was, also like Unforgiven, a very detailed set. But it took place in mostly a few spots: Dunn’s gym and a boxing ring somewhere.

 

For Frankie’s gym, it’s quite simple: it looked old and bent out of shape, just like Frankie himself. Then again, it doesn’t have to anything amazing; it’s just a boxing gym. But that’s why it was so convincing. The gym certainly had a very Rocky “feel,” too. It was a perfect establishment within which to box someone’s eyes out.

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The boxing rings themselves were a little more complicated. Each one had to be designed to specifications, sure, but there was also the added element of the extras. Someone has to cheer and boo and chant mo chuisle when Maggie was in the ring. It’s not easy to make the extras scream on cue, but the crew managed it just fine. 1.

 

Cinematography

Tom Stern was the director of photography of Million Dollar Baby and his work was excellent, even though he wasn’t recognized by the Academy for his efforts. Joel Cox received an Oscar nomination for Best Film Editing.

 

Several weeks ago, I wrote in my review of The Godfather that the actors were illuminated from above so that their eyes, and therefore their souls were black holes. But Tom, the Corleone’s family lawyer, was the lone actor who was often half in the light, half in the dark, showing both his good and bad sides. There was an internal struggle for his own soul.

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Million Dollar Baby used light and shadow to its advantage, too, just like a noir. Actors were lit from the side, leaving half of their face in shadow. While Tom from The Godfather would eventually lose his way, the characters in Million Dollar Baby, particularly Maggie and Frankie, were trying to get theirs back. The pair had been decimated by their own personal struggles that they were still clinging to what souls they had left and were trying to repair them. This was a brilliant, yet subtle way, to get into our character’s heads, like is most often the case. And, while I do like artsy cinematography, one that helps define character is just as powerful in my book. 1.

 

Acting

As with Unforgiven, this movie stars Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman. But the two have to step aside for Hilary Swank, who was utterly brilliant.

 

Swank won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Maggie Fitzgerald, the bubbly woman from a small Ozark town in southwestern Missouri.

 

Throughout her life, Maggie has been repeatedly victimized by her own circumstance. Her family are a bunch of ungrateful hillbillies, effectively disowning her throughout the film, she’s held down by a dead-end waitressing job, struggling to make ends meet. And yet, when she’s rejected by Dunn, she just doesn’t take “no” for an answer. Somewhere within her is an incredibly determined woman who can’t stand losing or letting anyone down.

 

Maggie truly starts at the bottom in life and it’s what helps her along. But why does she what she does and for whom does she do it for? The answer is not immediately clear. By the end, she’s clearly doing it for herself, to prove that yes she can, in fact, become a championship boxer. The only thing that holds her back is her own arrogance and putting too much trust in people. All of that is why Maggie is so beloved when she’s on top of the world, and so tragic when the mountain she’s been climbing crumbles away in an instant.

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Clint Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, the adamant, cranky, but often well-meaning boxing trainer. Frankie is just as interesting as Maggie, and this is his underdog story, too. He’s plagued by a life of fear, doubt, a bad relationship with his daughter, and a quest to really find his meaning in the world. Frankie’s response to the unfairness of life is to hide it with bitterness and contempt and he struggles to cling to his past life and his past successes.

 

Frankie must overcome his own ego before he allows Maggie to be trained by him. But, just like we are with her, Frankie is drawn to Maggie from the moment he starts to open up. His constant thirst for perfection in his work drove his daughter away and every letter he writes to her is returned, unopened. He’s an old man, waiting to die alone. But Maggie becomes his new daughter, the new center of his universe, and his transition is powerful.

 

When Maggie’s downfall hits, he’s filled with regret, his passion for fighting snuffed out, and his soul implodes when he must make an impossible choice. Eastwood was brilliant in this role, one that was WAAAAAAAYYYY different from his role in Unforgiven. He wasn’t a badass in this one. He didn’t need to be. He needed to be the father to a woman who needed it the most. 1.

 

Directing

Eastwood won his second Best Director Oscar for Million Dollar Baby and in doing so, he’s the oldest person to ever win Best Director at the age of 74.

 

From the beginning, Million Dollar Baby is one of those rare movies that makes you think the message is one thing when it ends up being another. But, there are some consistent themes throughout, most notably is that you have to live with your mistakes. And some of your mistakes outlive you, even. Actions have consequences, for you and for others.

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But the principle theme throughout is that of an underdog story. Yes, Maggie is an underdog and her struggle is painfully evident throughout the film. Dunn is also an underdog. He’s too scared of his own shortcomings to be able to function and train his boxers well. His self-doubt makes him relatable and Maggie’s sheer determination makes her lovable. Two very flawed characters are at the center of this great masterpiece of Eastwood’s.

 

Somewhere, down deep in the heart of this movie, though, is the story of all of us. We’ve all had those moments where it was hard to get up in the morning. Or when nobody believed in you. But, Million Dollar Baby teaches us that you can overcome most obstacles. It doesn’t rely on great and flashy artistic merit to make the movie work. No, this one relies on pure amazing storytelling and an extremely compelling cast. This one will have you hooked from the beginning, even after its devastating left hook to the jaw. 1.

 

Bonus Points

I’ll give this one a 10. Yet another movie that gets one. But, after you watch it, I think you’ll agree.

 

Final Score: 10/10

 

Oscar Facts

Million Dollar Baby won the 77th Academy Award for Best Picture on February 25, 2005 at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. It beat out The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray, and Sideways for Best Picture. The award was presented by Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand and accepted by Clint Eastwood, Albert Ruddy, and Tom Rosenberg. In total, Million Dollar Baby was nominated for seven awards, winning four: Best Picture, Director,  Actress, and Supporting Actor for Morgan Freeman.

 

Other winners that night were Jamie Foxx winning Best Actor for Ray and Cate Blanchett winning Best Supporting Actress for The Aviator. The most nominations and awards belonged to The Aviator, winning five out of 11 total nominations. The event was hosted by Chris Rock for the first time.

 

Next Week

Coming up next is a movie that I’ve looked forward to for quite a long time: Gone with the Wind from 1939. Earlier this year, I read Margaret Mitchell’s book and it quickly became one of my favorite books. Ever. So masterfully written. After reading all 418,053 words in that book, I can understand why the movie is a grand epic, checking in at a whopping 238 minutes. So, be aware. I may write, write, and write some more.

 

After that, it’s How Green Was My Valley, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, The French Connection, Braveheart, and Grand Hotel.

 

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