Million Dollar Baby
When Clint Eastwood – among the most significant and impressive directors in contemporary American cinema – made, at the age of 62, his masterpiece Unforgiven in 1992, it already felt like a final, summing-up, testament work. And that testament was a little hard on the career of an artist-entertainer who had no intention of giving up in a hurry. Although Eastwood has gone on to make some wonderful films (including A Perfect World  and Space Cowboys ) in between some alarmingly clunky ones (such as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, 1997), they have all felt like postscripts, twilight works that refer to and vary what was perfected in Unforgiven.
Million Dollar Baby, too, goes back over the familiar elements of Eastwood’s dramas. But, miraculously, this time he has managed to produce not only another testament, but also another masterpiece. It is a superbly crafted film that brings together everything Eastwood is best at as a director and storyteller, while minimising the nagging problem areas of his work.
Million Dollar Baby has been described everywhere as a boxing film, but the label is misleading and even unhelpful. Yes, it is true that one can learn much more from Eastwood’s movie about the technicalities of this strange, bloody sport – the footwork, the punching styles, the physical injuries – than from the abstract, stylised, decentred narrative of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). But Eastwood is not much interested in exploring or questioning the issue of violence, and even less in the typical boxing-film theme of masculine identity.
This film observes the world of boxing dispassionately, taking no moral stance. It is much closer to the melancholic portrait painted by John Huston in his classic Fat City (1972) than to the punch-drunk hungry heroes and social allegories served up by John Garfield films in the 1940s, or by Sylvester Stallone in his Rocky series.
The modest gym run by Frankie (Eastwood) collects losers of various kinds. And one woman, not so young, who yearns for a chance in the ring: Maggie (Hilary Swank). Frankie’s laconic right hand man, Scrap (Morgan Freeman), an ex-boxer who is also the film’s wise and hard-boiled narrator, expresses well the hope of Maggie and all who hang around this gym: they are all aiming for dignity, for a chance to make something of themselves in the eyes of the world. Most will not make it, but Maggie indeed has the potential to become the ‘million dollar baby’.
Objectors to this film have rankled at its unbridled, possibly all-American code of individualism, and its distaste for explanations based on the supposed ‘victim mentality’ of social determinism – a distaste topped only by the ferocity with which Eastwood and gifted screenwriter Paul Haggis depict Maggie’s grasping, unlovely family members. These aspects certainly count as minor flaws in an otherwise perfect work.
But Eastwood’s head and heart are fundamentally elsewhere. He is attracted to the vexing ambiguities of behaviour, and especially to the complexities of emotional bonding – what it means to commit yourself to someone, how you choose that person, and what role you cast them in (friend, lover, mentor, student, parent, child). Although Eastwood is not beyond leaning on the sentimentality and pathos he has (expertly) milked before in films like Honkytonk Man (1982), here he goes deeper into the Frankie-Maggie bond than his stories usually allow.
Jacques Rivette once remarked that every good film should be seen twice: the first time for surprise, the second time for ravishment. That is an apt motto for Million Dollar Baby, about which it is preferable to know almost nothing before you see it for the first time. And this is not merely a matter of a certain, crucial development that changes and deepens the course of the plot.
Eastwood – who, fittingly, became a star because of immortal, quotable lines like ‘make my day’ and ‘read my lips’ – builds, again and again, to a clincher utterance by one of his characters, something that suddenly brings to the surface and encapsulates, poignantly or ironically, everything brewing in the netherworld of this movie. Such moments, so powerful and soulful, are the proof of Eastwood’s greatness as a filmmaker.
Not one of these lines should be spoilt for any prospective viewer of Million Dollar Baby. Suffice it to say that, by the time you hear Scrap reflect on the ‘kind of man’ Frankie is, you will have reached the heart of the Great Eastwood Mystery – the way in which his films can simultaneously celebrate triumph and plumb an abyss of loss.
© Adrian Martin February 2005