Straight up, I do not believe it was the Best Picture of the year, nor that Eastwood, whom I adore, should have won the Oscar for Best Director. 2004 was an extraordinary year for film, the best being Sideways, with The Aviator, The Passion of the Christ and this one not far behind.
Eastwood film was a latecomer to the race, in October it had not even been discussed as a release, but in December it was the talk of the town, and Oscar talk loomed large. It was a unique film in that just when we settled into the sports aspect of the story, suddenly we are dealing with larger, life altering issues raising questions about euthanasia. The picture drew attacks for that, but audiences were not listening and neither were the critics who dubbed it a masterpiece before the Academy did. It was widely believed that Martin Scorsese would finally win that long overdue Oscar for his Howard Hughes in Hollywood epic, The Aviator, and on Oscar night, it looked like it might. But Million Dollar Baby stormed to the finish line with wins for supporting actor for much loved Morgan Freeman, second Oscars for Hilary Swank as Best Actress, Eastwood for Best Director, and the top prize, Best Picture. It marked the second time Eastwood had won the Best Picture Award, the only disappointment being his loss for Best Actor.
I watched it last night and was again overwhelmed by the staggering visceral power of the film. I came up with ten reasons why it is a masterpiece.
1. Clint Eastwood, Director
As always Eastwood presents the story with absolute realism, fearless to step away from the staggering power of the story. Raw, subtle power from the beginning through to the haunting end, the director puts a reflection of life on the film, to mirror society. He holds nothing back in exploring the hillbilly aspect of Maggie’s background, he shies away from nothing. Eastwood gently guides a tremendous cast, from Swank, Freeman, and Jay Barachel, to lovely, deeply moving performances.
2. Clint Eastwood, Actor
As Frankie, the grizzled, tough as nails trainer, Eastwood dug down deep and brought everything he had to the role. Through the late seventies, eighties and Nineties he had grown substantially as an actor, culminating with his seething work as William Munney in Unforgiven (1992). Here as Frankie he is superb, portraying the cranky old trainer who takes a young woman from nothing to the heights of the Woman’s Boxing world. Yes he is fatherly to her, but there is no doubt a deeper love is at work as well, there are souls connected here. And when asked, he loves her enough to let her go. A magnificent performance.
3. Hilary Swank
Winning her second Oscar in five years, Swank is brilliant as Maggie. The actress packed in thirty pounds of muscle, trained with the best boxing trainers in the business and turned her body into a hard body. All the while she kept Maggie humble, decent and good, forever appreciative of what Frankie has done for her. Her rage in the ring, grasping mother who takes without thanks and sees only money. When injured in the ring, left paralyzed from the neck down, she makes a choice, and has the courage to follow it through. A brilliant performance!