Due to the recent “Spoiler” controversy here on Blogcritics, let me state clearly: This review is for people who have already seen the movie, or for people who don’t care about knowing what happens in the movie before seeing it (though it’s hard for me to believe anyone could be surprised by what happens in it).
Hilary Swank is so good as Maggie the ill-fated girl boxer in director Clint Eastwood’s drawn-out and implacably lugubrious Million Dollar Baby that I’ve given her an award in a new category for the most winning performance in the movie I’m least likely to watch again. Playing a first-round-knockout phenomenon, Swank has the basic handicap of moving without the stiff-necked, futile-to-resist propulsion of the women boxers you see on TV (Lucia Rijker, for instance, who plays Maggie’s most fearsome opponent) or even some of the brawlers on Jerry Springer. Neither does she intuitively combine athleticism, power, and strategy like a champion in order to psych out her opponents, dominate them, literally knock them flat. So it doesn’t seem right when Maggie says that boxing is the only thing that makes her feel good.
This lack of single-mindedness, the fact that Swank can come across as determined while remaining open to the world, is a big plus for the movie, however. Swank convinces us of a peculiar combination in Maggie, a white trash starveling who’s come to L.A. and trained herself onto the women’s undercards of men’s bouts: she feels she has nothing to lose and yet isn’t at all downhearted. Filming Maggie’s story, Eastwood overemphasizes and plays out as slowly as imaginable his notions of American innocence and hope, but Swank makes those notions so particular and so genuine the clichés turn back into meaningful beliefs. (When Maggie’s told she’ll never make it as a boxer, the way she hollers, “Don’t say that if it ain’t true!” could be any American minority’s defiance of a discriminatorily low evaluation. It’s the core demand of meritocracy.) I never once believed the story, or accepted the inevitability of the “tragic” downturn it takes, but I loved the way Swank gives her unaffected all to it.
Swank may not swagger like a pro boxer, but she manages to be engaging without going all girlie on us (just as in her glimmering headlong performance in Boys Don’t Cry, an infinitely finer movie than Million Dollar Baby in every conceivable way). She’s an elfin tomboy fantasist in a line stretching back to the silent stars Mary Pickford and Bebe Daniels, and only Julie Harris in The Member of the Wedding has been better at it than Swank. (Harris, of course, had the considerable advantage of Carson McCullers’s text.) With Swank, everything radiates from that wide, big-toothed, open smile. She could sit for an illustration of Tom Sawyer, though her specialty is American innocence not in our shared “memories” of the past but in the unlikeliest corners of the present.
In Boys Don’t Cry Swank’s cross-dressing protagonist is blind to the likely consequences of her masquerade; in Million Dollar Baby the actress seems blind to the predictable cheesiness of the story. Can she really be the utterly guileless performer she appears to be? It’s instructive to see her as the aristocratic adventuress in the 18th-century potboiler The Affair of the Necklace. The movie is romance claptrap on the order of the plush costume soap operas of the ’40s starring dress-up dolls like Joan Fontaine, Lana Turner, Paulette Goddard, Linda Darnell, but Swank’s acting as the “headstrong,” conspiratorial protagonist is lean, focused, and precise. She’s badly miscast not because she’s too modern or her accent is terrible, though both are true, but because she doesn’t understand that in this kind of historical fashion show anything more than flouncing and posing and flirting will most likely backfire. The text is irredeemable and the greater risk lies in taking it too seriously. (Not a risk that her co-stars Adrien Brody, Joely Richardson, and Christopher Walken run.) Unless an actress is capable of feline high style (like Ingrid Bergman’s in Saratoga Trunk), her loftiest aim should be to float on the surface of the unending stream of rose-scented bilge water. Swank’s honest mistake is in trying to be worthy of a project that’s beneath her–she’s discordant in no small part because of her virtue as an actress.
Probably her lack of slickness as a performer and her ease in unglamorous roles (here a driven, stringy-haired hillbilly who lives on half-eaten leftovers from the restaurant where she works) have kept her from starring in “lipstick” action blockbusters as Angelina Jolie has done. But this turns out to be a charm for a movie as lumberingly rudimentary as Million Dollar Baby. I would have guessed that Swank’s lack of sophistication would make bad matters worse, that she’d overplay “heartfelt” and make the gum gummier. But her spunkiness as Maggie isn’t annoying precisely because you don’t think of her as being brave, she simply is brave. Her authenticity is everything because hard as he strains Eastwood can’t be anything but inauthentic.
The script, adapted by Paul Haggis from F.X. Toole’s stories collected as Rope Burns, is both too cumbersome for Eastwood to manage effectively and too disjointed to bear the significance he wants it to. It’s also underpopulated considering its length. Counting Maggie, there are really only three characters. Eastwood himself plays Frankie, formerly a number-one cutman (i.e., the guy who stops a fighter’s wounds from bleeding so the fight can continue) who now manages fighters and owns the dank, money-losing gym where Maggie works out. Frankie’s discipline shades into paralysis; his last boxer leaves him to get the title fight Frankie has been telling him he’s not ready for (and that he wins). Maggie nonetheless sees Frankie as the only trainer who can make her a champ, and her persistence and faith overcome his reluctance to work with a girl. Morgan Freeman as Scrap, a fighter Frankie used to train and patch up who lost his eye in a title fight and who is now the janitor at Frankie’s gym, looks on and exerts an improving influence on Frankie.
Scrap is the kind of sidekick who understands the hero better than the hero understands himself. Frankie has estranged his daughter in some unstated way that causes him to write her letters every week that are returned unopened, pray at bedtime, and go to church daily (though he compensates for this weakness by outraging his priest with frivolous theological challenges). (It’s a movie for people who think of “guilt” as a profound “theme”: Frankie feels guilty about his daughter, about Scrap’s lost eye, and later about Maggie’s mishap.) At the end we find out that the entire movie, which Scrap narrates in mournful, spare-but-“rich” prose, is the body of a letter explaining Frankie to his daughter that Scrap has written after the major events of the movie. As a premise this 137-minute letter is almost as preposterous as the 130-minute college application essay in Spanglish. And it makes Scrap no more than an unusually articulate variation of Robinson Crusoe’s Friday, Natty Bumppo’s Chingachgook, Huck’s Jim, and the Lone Ranger’s Tonto. Though unintended, the role of Scrap is an insult to this great actor. If only Eastwood had cast Freeman as Frankie and eliminated Scrap the movie might have had some nuances, certainly some traction.
Eastwood and Freeman do have an easy way with Frankie and Scrap’s low-keyed pugnacious banter as Scrap nudges his boss to do the right thing, but their characters and the nature of their relationship are tired. (The tight-lipped way Frankie denies his pain, which nonetheless shines off him as if it were something holy, is the stuff of formula westerns.) I say they’re tired, but “tired” is actually part of Million Dollar Baby‘s appeal. Superficially, it’s about the relatively recent phenomenon of women’s boxing, but it’s so slow and obvious that it couldn’t disorient the most befuddled member of the audience. I saw it at a Sunday matinee in Times Square with an audience mostly around Eastwood’s age and they seemed to take comfort in the movie’s leisurely deliberateness–for once they weren’t being left in the dust by the latest latest thing. (The movie is paced so that one old guy could repeat the key dialogue to his hard-of-hearing wife without missing the next line.)
Observing an audience respond to this awkward movie made me realize that Eastwood has risen from the mass audience without ceasing to be a member of it. He’s got the love of jazz of a West Coast hipster, and an unusual taste for the “tragic,” but his moviemaking is entirely formulaic (even though he mixes and matches conventions in ways that make no sense). His approach is simple, which is also to say that he fearlessly goes in way over his depth. But because of his interest in bad outcomes, his generosity to his actors, and his monotonously weighty directorial style, he’s now considered not just a crowd-pleaser but a “master” of prestige dramas–of a kind he completely lacks the literary culture to handle in a consistent manner.
It’s as if Eastwood imagined his way into Million Dollar Baby one scene at a time without developing an overview of what kind of story the scenes add up to. The baggy script includes a number of sub-characters–Maggie’s trailer-trash mother and a hopeless, big talking wienie of a kid from Texas who hangs out at the gym–who provide opportunities for the random melodramatic comeuppance. But the center of the movie is Maggie’s training by Frankie, and it’s a father-daughter heroic romance in a line (highly varied, both in terms of handling and quality) that includes, in whole or in part, Rigoletto, Die Walküre, Washington Square, Major Barbara, The Lady Eve, National Velvet, Hobson’s Choice, To Kill a Mockingbird, Cat Ballou, Paper Moon, Little Voice, and Against the Ropes (in some ways the inverse of Million Dollar Baby). (Swank herself has also been “father’s” resourceful girl in both The Affair of the Necklace and The Core.) The fact that Frankie and Maggie, the trainer and his star athlete, like Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, aren’t biologically related doesn’t matter, in either movie. In Million Dollar Baby it’s made pretty much explicit that Maggie is a surrogate for the daughter who returns Frankie’s letters. What matters is the transmission of heroic values across generations and gender lines.
The father-daughter heroic romance isn’t as common as the father-son heroic romance in the Perceval/Parzival line (which includes the Harry Potter books and movies), for instance, and has a different emphasis. In the father-son romance the question is whether the son will measure up to his father. Technically it’s presented as a question though the audience experiences no real suspense about the outcome. There’s no question, however, about the fitness of a son’s taking up his father’s sword. It’s expected.
By contrast, whether a daughter should take up a “sword” is almost the entire content of the dramatic conflict between Frankie and Maggie, whether a daughter can be a “hero” of the kind Frankie trains. In romance sons experience pressure to match their fathers’ heroic exploits. With daughters the pressure is more likely to be exerted to keep them from trying; in the works above there’s often a sense that the daughter is doing something unexpected, untoward. The daughter’s insistence on her quest, and her seeking of primal attention, can bring out an urgent and unsettling emotional quality different from the kind stirred by conventional father-son romance heroics.
Eastwood directs Million Dollar Baby as if down-market locations were the same as naturalism, the genre that describes in telling detail exactly how things are for the individual characters and why. But the structure of the Maggie-Frankie story is pure romance built around Maggie’s ambition to make something of herself in the ring. In contrast to naturalism, romance projects how things could be, if we were endowed with supernatural power in our quests against the dark forces that we feel surround and imbue our lives. In this way romance speaks to a group’s shared ideas of what constitutes good and evil and what qualities the ideal hero possesses. (As such, it’s the basic material out of which epic, the defining romance of the group, is fashioned.)
But even when romance is presented with the literary means of naturalism, the heroic central figure still embodies the overarching values the group dreams of fantastic heroes arising to defend. This is probably clearest in To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout doesn’t take up Atticus’s “sword” (that we know of, by becoming a civil rights lawyer, for instance), but seen through her eyes that sword is about the gleamingest weapon of truth and justice in American movies. When romance intersects with naturalism, the values don’t even have to be as broad-based as the message of tolerance in To Kill a Mockingbird to function. In Hobson’s Choice and Little Voice we cheer simply to see the heroine overthrow the tyranny of her father and mother, respectively.
It even works for the values to be in contest within the romance. Major Barbara, for instance, culminates in a battle of wits between the daughter’s Christian altruism and her father’s perverse, aphoristic militarism. And it’s even okay for the values to fail. Thus, in Die Walküre you feel something dolefully inevitable in the social restrictions on human will that allegorically require the break between the paternal god and his illegitimate warrior daughter. (Because romance is a genre devoted to fantasizing it doesn’t hurt that an accurate paraphrase of the upshot of the father-daughter romance in Die Walküre may be ludicrous: We can’t let our Wish-Maidens fly around on horses defending incest, after all.)
So what romance values does Maggie embody in her quest for the title in Million Dollar Baby? Same as in the first Rocky and Flashdance: the importance of getting your shot at glory, even if you fail. Scrap tells Frankie that this is enough, even though he himself lost an eye in the process, but the movie doesn’t coordinate this with the fact that since then Scrap has settled down to life as a janitor in a moldering gym with holes in his socks. Since it’s Morgan Freeman playing him we don’t think Scrap is simply justifying bad choices, even in part, or that he’s not that bright, or talking out his ass. Maggie gets her shot, so why is the picture so determinedly melancholy? Rocky lost the big fight but got Adrian, and yes it’s corny but it makes common sense–You do what you feel you have to in the world but your personal life is where you live. What’s added to the story in Million Dollar Baby by having Maggie fail?
A plausible explanation wouldn’t be enough because it’s not that kind of story. If Million Dollar Baby were a work of naturalism, then what happens to Maggie would have to be representative of the risks that women boxers commonly run just by getting in the ring. But in Maggie’s fatal prizefight the German fighter hits her from behind after the bell has rung, and what happens next is pure accident. This would work as naturalism only if there were something about women’s boxing that made cheating and mishaps more likely (as would be the case if the fights were illegal or unregulated, for instance). And the harm Maggie comes to ought to be connected to Frankie’s specialty as a cutman, as Scrap’s loss of his eye was.
There are a few passages that focus on one or another of the specifics of Maggie’s training, but generally Eastwood is a washout at naturalistic plausibility, perhaps most clearly in his handling of Maggie’s unloving, money-grubbing, welfare-cheat mother and sister. Dickens, if not common experience, will tell you that people who are trying to get their hands on your money tend to speak flatteringly to your face. Eastwood just shoots the script, which has Maggie’s fatass Mom dissing her in the very same conversation in which she’s sticking a pen in her mouth so she can sign over her property.
But while Million Dollar Baby may be drab it isn’t naturalism: we know this when the German boxer enters the ring to Wagnerian dragon’s-lair music. Maggie simply isn’t facing the actual perils of any sport. But since it’s romance, then we should have some sense in romance terms of what Maggie is fighting against and what she’s fighting for. Million Dollar Baby almost crazily tries to hold the ill-assorted gritty details together with depressive grandiosity, and I guess in some inchoate way Eastwood is entertaining epic pretensions. The movie’s general air of doom, something like the end of Beowulf with darkness and cold closing in on the survivors after the hero’s burial, suggests that more than an individual girl has passed from among us, that somehow Maggie’s story is our common story, but it’s unclear on what basis the makers think this to be the case. Sure, she’s fought her way up from nothing and we’re a nation of impoverished class-climbing immigrants, but as American romance that hasn’t come to a bad end at the hands of a cheating German bulldyke. I’m saying stupid things on purpose because the movie is all epic-scaled portentousness with no feeling for what the import of the epic is, or even whose epic it is.
If audiences end up liking Million Dollar Baby it will probably be because of the father-daughter romance, which in my opinion Swank singlehandedly brings into the realm of recognizable experience. But people clearly respond to Eastwood himself, and it will help the movie with most audiences that he approaches every uncoordinated element of the rambling narrative emotionally. If anything drew Eastwood to the material it’s probably the opportunity Frankie and Maggie’s story affords to express his own feelings about ageing. Eastwood must understand in plain terms that he’s too old to play the “knight” himself anymore; the story thus has the appeal for him of transferring his loss of prowess onto Frankie’s girl fighter. Maggie then symbolizes the last flicker of his heroic strength, which is (otherwise unaccountably) snuffed out.
Eastwood approaches Million Dollar Baby emotionally, but isn’t able to fashion the storytelling effectively to that, or any other, purpose. He has thus taken a romance form and filmed it as though it were naturalism while using it as the vehicle for both an out-of-focus epic vision and a symbolic elegy for his own decline. I found the movie boring moment-to-moment and a real pile-up as a whole, structurally as well as stylistically. But I’ve heard people praise it passionately and there’s certainly nothing else out there in its range that has a hope of entertaining a large American audience. (It does have a wider variety of popular elements than Mystic River, Eastwood’s previous million-hour baby. On the other hand, Million Dollar Baby has even less sex. It’s more chaste than even the holiest of medieval romances with their perilously enticing apparitions.)
Million Dollar Baby is the kind of movie that people can identify with strongly in spite of its manifest deficiencies. In fact, they apparently perceive strengths exactly where I see weaknesses (apart from Swank’s performance); to my mind, for instance, the downward trend in the story enables all kinds of masochistic projection. In my experience of talking about messy, guts-spilling movies like this, fans can be extremely defensive about their reactions. They often respond to negative criticism as if it were critiquing their feelings directly. I don’t think I can dispel the power of Million Dollar Baby over anyone who feels it; a critic like me simply isn’t addressing the faculties that are susceptible to it.
You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.
Alan Dale is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.Powered by Sidelines