Friday, April 24, 2015

Million Dollar Baby (Best Picture 2004)

I am not a big fan of boxing or boxing movies. I'm also not a huge fan of Clint Eastwood movies, although I do find his later work more interesting than his Seventies and Eighties films. Clint Eastwood seems to always play the same type of character, and so to a large degree "you've seen one Clint Eastwood movie you've seen them all."

That being said, I thoroughly recommend Million Dollar Baby. I went in not wanting to like it, but ended up absolutely loving it.

Maggie is Poor White Trash from Missouri who is in Los Angeles trying to make something of herself. She is over 30 and a woman, so coach Frankie doesn't want anything to do with her. He manages a boxing gym with his friend Eddie, a retired boxer. It is Eddie who begins to give Maggie some guidance. Frankie is working hard on another fighter, someone who is about to get a chance at a Title bout. Just as Frankie is negotiating that great event, the fighter quits and goes to a younger, more business-savvy manager. Stunned at the rejection, Frankie decides to coach Maggie.

As Maggie gets more and more experience, she becomes more and more well-known. She really begins to pull in money with her victories. Then a European fight coordinator wants Maggie to fight a British champion, and although she loses, she makes a name for herself. When they return to the States, suddenly everyone wants to fight her.

Slowly but surely a friendship develops between Frankie and Maggie. Maggie lost her father at a young age, and Frankie has done something to become estranged from his own daughter. So they each fill some emotional gap for the other.

As Maggie begins to win money, she buys her poor mother a house. Instead of being grateful, however, her mother complains that Maggie should just have given her the money. Maggie, stunned, tells her to sell the house and take the money. All the while, Frankie stares at her family as if they were aliens. Later, on the ride back, Maggie tells Frankie the story of her father and his dog. The dog got so old that eventually her father took him out hunting and then came back without him. That's the type of man her father was, and why Maggie misses him so much (he died of cancer years before).

Then, Frankie lands a Title bout for Maggie in Las Vegas. The concern is that the champion is a "dirty" fighter who hits after the bell rings, and jabs when the referee isn't looking, and just generally fights dirty. But Maggie wants her shot at the title, and it will be half a million dollar prize even if she loses. Eddie,  not wanting to make the trip, decides to stay in town and look after the gym. During the fight Maggie is doing okay, holding her own. After a few rounds it is basically an even match. Then the bell rings, ending a round. Frankie puts the stool out into Maggie's corner for her to sit down. At that moment, the champion uppercuts Maggie, and she topples backwards. In a wonderfully choreographed scene Maggie falls, her neck hitting the stool. She sustains a huge spinal injury.

The last part of the film deals with Maggie being paralyzed from the neck down. The friendships that had evolved between Frankie, Maggie, and Eddie are now put to the test. Each feels guilt and shame about what happened, and what the future holds. If the majority of the film had been fast-paced and exciting, it now comes to a screeching halt. We are trapped by immobility and frustration with Maggie, in one small hospital room. Frankie calls Maggie's family, asking them to visit. They arrive, but go see Disneyland and other sight-seeing spots before coming to visit her. When they do finally show up they bring a lawyer. They want Maggie to sign over all of her money to her mother. In a scene that is painful to watch, Maggie symbolically stands up to her family, throwing them out, even though she can't even move.

Eventually Maggie tells Frankie that she wants to die. In another painful scene she tells him that she wants to end it before her spirit is so broken that she can't hear the roar of the crowd any more. Frankie, being a good Catholic, refuses. Throughout the film there are scenes of him at his church, annoying his priest with theological questions. Now we see Frankie in the church, crying. His priest tries to offer emotional support, but Frankie is crying not only for Maggie but for himself. The next night Frankie steals into the hospital in the darkness (!) and injects Maggie with a lethal dose of adrenaline. He then disappears.

In the final scene we see that Frankie has made his way to a road-side diner he and Maggie had visited somewhere between LA and Missouri. He is there enjoying lemon meringue pie that Maggie had recommended to him. The diner was somewhere she and her father had gone many years before.
The narration is revealed to be a letter that Eddie has written to Frankie's daughter.

Not only is the story great, the direction and acting is also top notch. The first scene is of a boxing match between Frankie's main star and another guy as Maggie watches from ring-side. The pacing, the extreme close-up of the punching and the blood and the sweat, and the lighting all serve notice that this is going to be a great film. The lighting in particular is a key element throughout the movie: they are in the light, they are in the dark, they are dark against the light, the scenes fade to plays a part in almost all of the more emotional, intimate scenes.

Hillary Swank won her second Academy Award as Best Actress for this role, and she really does a bang-up job. You can't take your eyes off her every time she appears. Yet she manages to hold her own against Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman.

Although Eastwood is in many ways playing the same role he always plays, there are layers here that make him more interesting. For one thing, he is constantly reading in foreign languages, Gaelic or Greek. He embroiders the words "Mo cuishle" on Maggie's boxing robe when they go to England, and the whole crowd eats it up. At the end of the film, we learn that it is a term of endearment meaning "my darling." He also writes his daughter a letter every week, and it comes back marked "return to sender" every time. We never learn why, which adds a bit of character to him. He was nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Jamie Foxx.

Morgan Freeman is the narrator, and it's hard to not compare him to the narrator from The Shawshank Redemption. He plays the same genial but dependable right-hand man he played so well in Shawshank and in Unforgiven.  Finally, this time he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Million Dollar Baby
*Academy Award Best Picture of 2004*
Produced by Clint Eastwood, Albert S. Ruddy, and Tom Rosenberg
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by Paul Haggis
Based on stories from
Rope Burns by F.X. Toole

Watch this, and keep an eye out for the lighting I talked about.
There are plenty of scenes here that are lit great. 

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Aviator
Finding Neverland
I was going to watch The Aviator, but then realized that it starred Leonardo DiCaprio and took three hours. Cate Blanchett won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Katherine Hepburn in that film. Finding Neverland is the story of how James Barrie wrote Peter Pan. It stars Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. Ray is the bio-pic of Ray Charles starring Jamie Foxx. He won Best Actor for his work. And Sideways was the surprise hit of the year, about Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church as buddies travelling through California wine country. Church was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Morgan Freeman.

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