Million Dollar Baby

Clint Eastwood is the John Huston of this generation. Think about it; they are both excellent actors and directors. As filmakers they have similar thematic concerns: violence, hidden weaknesses and strengths, and doing the right thing even if it’s unpopular. Most of all, like Huston was, Eastwood is a stubborn old codger who does things his own way and the studios can go hang.

Now granted, Huston made more truly great films than Eastwood and he made them in every phase of his career. From Treasure of the Sierra Madre to African Queen, to The Man Who Would be King, to The Dead. There are a few clunkers in between these highlights but consistency was the hallmark of Huston’s work. Eastwood didn’t really hit his stride until Unforgiven.

Million Dollar Baby is the story of two gritty souls who just get by in life. Clint plays Frank Dunn, a man who’s made mistakes. We never find out exactly what most of those mistakes were, but we do know that he goes to mass every day, and gets down on creaking arthritic knees every night asking God for the same thing. “You know what I want, so I won’t take up you’re time by saying it again.” He also writes letters to his daughter, one every week. They are all retuned unopened. His general rule is “protect yourself at all times.” A great motto in the ring, but one that’s hurting him in life.

Hilary Swank plays Maggie Fitzgerald, a thirty something waitress who’s eager-no, desparate to overcome her trailer park trash roots. She’s had a few fights and she thinks she pretty good. She’s certainly persistant and after a great amount of effort pesters Frank into training her.

Morgan Freeman play Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris, an old boxer, a used up warrior who cleans up Frank’s gym and lives in a small squalid room there, too. He and Frank have history in the form of an old fight that Frank should have had stopped but couldn’t. It cost Eddie his eye.

I can’t tell you any more without spoiling it. Million Dollar Baby is like a well fought bout. Eastwood feeds us a steady diet of lefts before slamming us with a right hook out of nowhere. It knocks us into next week with the realization that this isn’t really a boxing movie. It’s about redemption unatained and bad choices that maybe you can live with. It’s about who defines morality, you or somebody else. It’s about living your life and making accomodation with deep regret.

This is a well put together film. Eastwood’s such an experienced hand at filmaking by now that he knows exactly what he wants from the nuances of the performances to where the shadows fall in the copious night scenes. Over the years, he’s collected a trusted team of pros and he plays them like a piano. The photography is muted, the colors drained even in the daylight scenes. The night scenes are almost in black and white, some of them only seem lit by a single flashlight stuck to a pole with gaffer’s tape. Yet it works. The locations, costumes and make-up are all gritty and realistic. They put some awfully bad looking bruises and cuts on Hilary Swank’s face. Eastwood wrote the score and it’s wonderful.

But as in any Eastwood film, it’s the performances that stand out. Hilary Swank is terrific as the waitress with the heart of a warrior. The only similarity between this role and her character in Boys Don’t Cry is a southern accent. She’s one of the best actresses of her generation. And try to get a bad performance out of Morgan Freeman; it can’t be done. What can you say about Clint Eastwood? He’s gone from wooden faced action hero to one of the best actors working.

Million Dollar Baby is a film that John Huston would have been proud to have on his resume. 


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January 2005
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