The boxing saga Million Dollar Baby does both. The story of a curmudgeonly and impecunious old trainer and gym owner who reluctantly takes on an insistent, not-so-young woman as a protégé, the movie’s mood flows from laconic comedy to earnest uplift before plunging into melodrama and tragedy. Then, as a prologue to the climax, the main character must make an instinctive decision that might or might not plunge a knife into the heart of his own and our sense of himself.
Forgive the vagueness, but Million Dollar Baby is an example of a film where, the less you know about it going in, the greater your pleasure will be. But it’s possible to talk about the first third of the movie, general shifts, and the play of Eastwood’s traditional preoccupations without ruining anything.
And that first third is loaded with good stuff. Hard-bitten Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), a legendary former “cut man” operates the run-down Hit Pit for boxing neophytes, a kind of athletic nowheresville located in L.A.’s own nowhere, the warehouse district. His prime his only pupil with a shot at a legitimate career is Big Willie Little (Mike Colter), a promising youngster chafing for a title shot. Frankie, who has been burned enough in and out of the ring that he’s chary of any chance under fifty-fifty, keeps holding his young charge back, preaching the need for more seasoning. But Big Willie is rounding into his prime, and Frankie’s overabundance of caution earns the taciturn trainer scoffs from Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a long-retired boxer who spent his last couple of ring years benefiting from Frankie’s swabs and astringents. Now the gym’s jack-of-all-trades, Eddie both attends to the deep hurts in Frankie only he seems to know of and delivers psychic jabs to Frankie’s chin when he deems it medicinal.
Eddie’s jibes turn prophetic when an opportunistic manager signs Big Willie away from Frankie. The lined and careworn trainer doesn’t become more embittered that would hardly be possible -- so much as less emotionally present, burrowing yet deeper into protective sarcasm. It’s this infinitely toughened figure who encounters 31-year-old Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank) working out without his permission in the Pit. Financially unable to just toss her onto the street after he learns she’s paid Eddie six months dues in advance, Frankie finds it much easier to reject Maggie’s imploring requests that he train her. Both too female and too old as far as he’s concerned (when she insists she’s tough, he sneers that she’s only “girlie tough”), Frankie gives in only when Maggie displays her determination and Eddie persists in helping her -- half on the sly and half in Frankie’s face.
Eastwood is obviously drawing on two powerful Hollywood tradition: The boxing film and the redemption tale. Although it has never been as nearly fecund a field as, say, gangster movies (with which it’s sometimes blended), boxing films seem to make up for their paucity of numbers by a surfeit of impact. Whether it’s The Champ (1930), Gentleman Jim (1942), Body and Soul (1947), The Set-Up (1949), Raging Bull (1980), or what have you, the cinema screen and the boxing ring make for a perfect match. In fact, some of the earliest box office hits preceding the acceptance of the movie theater and regular feature were special exhibitions of filmed fights back around the turn of the 20th century.
Eastwood’s movie (which is based on stories by the late ring veteran F.X. O’Toole) gives the genre two strong twists. The most obvious is that the boxer is a woman, a change that in and of itself gives the movie added interest. The second is, perhaps, more significant. That is, the central dramatic focus shifts from the boxer to the trainer or, at the very least, to the relationship between them. Neither move is entirely original. Just recently, Girl Fight was about women boxers and 1962’s Requiem for a Heavyweight (originally a TV drama) was at least as much about Jackie Gleason’s manager as Anthony Quinn’s fighter.
Originality aside (and it’s an overrated virtue), the double twist enlarges the potential emotional range. Given her sex, Maggie has to prove herself. But it’s not a vague demonstration to the “world” that she, or “women,” can fight. She needs to prove herself to someone specific, to Frankie. And while his intellectual criteria encompass skill and toughness, in his gut he needs to know that she has, and will maintain, the will to stay with him.
This is a beautiful development. Frankie turns out to be taking a bigger chance than Maggie. Sure, this scorned trailer park native has been walked all over her entire life and boxing is her chance to climb out of the rut life has seemingly dug for her. But simply by taking the chance, Maggie has in some sense already succeeded. She has demonstrated her strength of character and even her superiority to the common run.
But Frankie has every reason to fear Maggie’s success. It’s not a lack of talent or success, but talent and success themselves that have left Frankie such an isolated and lonely man. His reputation for getting the most out of talented youngsters ensures he can find a always find a fighter worth nurturing. But the better he nurtures, the more jealous he becomes, a jealousy no less debilitating for being visible only by implication. He keeps his fighters like Big Willie close at hand, cocooned in the small fight clubs where Frankie is still comfortable and the fighters leery of the big show.
There’s no way to maintain this interpersonal stasis, though, and Frankie’s efforts to hold tight, if tacitly, to is pupils, ensures that eventually they’ll break away. He’s a prisoner of his past and his personality. Taking on another fighter, even one as unlikely as a 31-year-old woman, ensures that Frankie will once again endure growing intimacy followed by a grueling jealousy. The process could lead once more to emotional calamity, though maybe catharsis and breakthrough, too.
These psychic plagues are mirrors for even an more grievous wound. Frankie attends mass daily and every night gets down on his knees bedside for prayer. At bottom, he’s looking for his daughter Ann, who left him long ago and never answers his letters. But this essential unhappiness has grown to spiritual desperation, as Frankie pins his hopes on a divinely-sourced morality that, in crude terms, he hopes will pay off with some reward.
These traumatic spiritual and emotional problems are a long way from the usual redemption story, in which some down-and-outer shows the world his stuff by winning some championship or other. Those stories, despite romantic window-dressing (cf. Rocky), are basically revenge sagas with thyroid conditions. Look world, you screwed me and I screwed you back, seems about as far as they want to go. Million Dollar Baby outstrips them simply in its set-up, never mind its dramatic development.
Despite the complexity of Frankie’s psychic profile, the character might have been a mere walking wound save for Eastwood’s performance. Simply put, it’s one of cinema’s great masculine portraits, up there with the best ever offered by James Cagney, Jean Gabin, Toshiro Mifune, Robert Ryan, or John Garfield. Naturally, there are distinctions of personal idiom. Some of these actors were talkers; others underactors. Certainly none can compare with Eastwood’s parsimonious way with words. But no one has ever acted more eloquently than he does here.
Frankie’s face is crisscrossed with age lines and scars that signify the same type of existential battering. The trainer’s voice is a harsh croak, as if right up to the last moment, he’s struggling with the notion of exposing himself through speech. His body perches on the brink, but only the brink, of decay, muscles going into motion through will more than reflex.
So much, then, of Frankie’s essence comes to us through mute action. In a painfully revelatory scenes, Frankie sits in front of his TV, illuminated only by its screen, and punches along with the fighters on a boxing broadcast. The concentration in his narrowed eyes, the bends and curls of arms protecting his face, and the halting but palpable force of his foe-less punches, allow us to gaze into Frankie’s soul in a way that would mortify him if he could know.
This is classic film acting, a stew of motion and stillness, body and face, that is sadly no longer the prevailing model. It can still astound at the most crucial moments, though, as at one devastating moment when we simply watch from behind as Frankie walks down a corridor, the weight of his life born on his shoulders and stiffening his legs.
Eastwood isn’t alone here. Swank herself is an actor who came to prominence based on physicality, in Boys Don’t Cry. Her Maggie is, to put it mildly, verbose, but the actress imbues her readings with such urgency that her words don’t pile up into recitations, but unfurl as actions.
You virtually only have to type Morgan Freeman’s name and the phrase “remarkable performance” nearly follows automatically. Freeman, to invoke the well-used phrase, doesn’t play a part so much as inhabit it. Pulling on Eddie’s tattered clothes, leaning on a broom, these a hundred other gestures entwine themselves around a single and memorable personality.
Additionally, Million Dollar Baby relies on a voice-over narration, a risky venture at best that does pay off here. But you have to wonder if it would be doable without Freeman’s special talents. As a technical exercise, the requirements are vast and complicated. As a dramatic exercise, the voice must be both friendly and familiar but, since it’s coming from “over there,” in the realm of the movie, also a bit strange and unexpected. It’s all that.
This brings us to the movie’s final two-thirds, about which little should be revealed. It is worth noting, though, that the particulars of Eastwood’s performance in the first third, set us up for changes in the ensuing segments. To limit to one observation: Frankie’s tone and enunciation each loosen up. His voice becomes deeper and the words flow more often (relatively speaking, of course).
Eastwood’s approach towards the movie’s latter stages harkens back to that of another masculine filmmaker, Raoul Walsh. In 1940, Walsh directed They Drive By Night, in which a first half about a tough trucker getting his business off the ground gives way to a romantic melodrama with criminal overtones. The opening portion is dominated by the two male stars, George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, and takes place against an expansive, action-oriented background. After that, though, the focus shifts to a character played by Ida Lupino, and the movies visual motifs become more cramped.
Million Dollar Baby, though not apparently imitative, is equally, and similarly radical. During the first third, most of the action takes place inside The Hit Pit. Given Frankie’s status, it’s obviously a small, dingy place. But Eastwood films the gym’s interiors with a wide-angle lens that stretches and deepens the visual field. On one level, Eastwood was probably trying to open up what might otherwise have been the claustrophobic confines of a necessarily small set.
The lenses, though, also lend The Hit Pit an expansive air. It’s as if the grubby, little dump enlarged itself to accommodate the dreams and ambitions of its humblest visitors. Even the mirrors in Frankie’s office overlooking the gym floor are wide and braced with light.
In this way, the constricted indoor space becomes an arena capable of hosting broad, heroic (or semi-heroic) gestures. It is certainly a masculine world, dominated by Frankie and Eddie and where Maggie is an interloper.
In the movie’s mid-section, the lighting pattern and the size and capabilities of the physical forum change; in the last, they change again. These shifts cumulatively “feminize” the movie (it doesn’t mean the physical action stops, though). Maggie’s spirit comes more to the forefront, first sharing and then seizing Million Dollar Baby’s motive energy.
Throughout, one lighting technique remains constant: Frankie’s his head and shoulders are often photographed in a pool of light splashed onto a black canvas. Although this may have the effect of drawing our attention to a momentary idea of feeling, it representative of the chief recurring theme within Eastwood’s exceptionally tough-minded world.
Since 1980’s Firefox, Eastwood’s heroes have been forced to confront the simple but horrifying fact that they’re going to die and the emerging reality that they’re alone utterly, existentially alone. In response, these desperate protagonists seek refuge in the pursuit of perfection in some talent or art and, as well, the company of others pursuing that same perfection.
The most cruelly fated of these heroes is Charlie Parker, as portrayed by Forest Whitaker in Eastwood’s Bird. Parker managed to reach unprecedented musical highs and achieved some solace amidst the company of his band mates. But he knew and in the context of the film, it’s knowing, not just believing that the perfection was fleeting (and is there anything approaching the painful beauty of a jazz solo, which passes away as soon as it’s born?) and the relationships contingent. It was within this knowledge that Eastwood posited the source of Parker’s self-destruction.
As Parker was to his, Frankie Dunn is dedicated to his art. And from the similarly dedicated, he has chosen companions to assuage his loneliness (as he soothes theirs). But these are temporary solutions. Ultimately, Frankie must confront loneliness, not as a result of life’s happenstance and luck, but as an essential condition of life.
Early in the movie, we get a glimpse of Frankie coming out of his parish church after mass, and engaging his priest in a little teasing. (The priest is played by Bryan O’Byrne, one of several performers notably including Margo Martindale and Jay Baruchel who give vivid performances in minor roles). Apparently, the teasing is a daily occurrence which has worn the young priest’s patience. But there’s an undercurrent of seriousness that serves as a prelude a more climactic encounter between the two, when the man of god has, really, nothing to offer Frankie.
What Frankie learns from these encounters what he learns from everything that happens in his life is that there’s nothing external to himself that is going to relieve him of responsibility to himself. If he’s going to encounter the void if that’s what it is, a void then he’s going to have to do it on his own, alone.
Perhaps that’s why movies like Firefox and Unforgiven end with the absence of their heroes. They literally disappear from the screen, their own fates belonging to themselves alone, not to any shared power or even to our company.
Ineffable, though, doesn’t mean unemotional. And if the underlying premises of Million Dollar Baby are tough and daunting, its realization is a suffusion of emotions, first as tightly rationed as Frankie Dunn’s words, and finally effusive and uncensored. It is, in short, remarkable.