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!
4. Paul Haggis
One year before his film Crash (2005) would win him an Oscar for writing, the Best Picture award and a nomination for a Best Director, here he was nominated for Best Screenplay Adaptation for finding the grit and heartache in this film. He does something really unique, something Woody Allen does best, he gets inside the head of a woman. Just as Maggie is unstoppable as a fighter, so is she when wants her life to end, and he brings that determination, tinged with hurt and pain vividly to life.
5. Morgan Freeman
As the heart and conscience of the film, Freeman was a popular choice for Best Suporting Actor for his portrayal of Scrap. A once promising boxer who lost an eye in a bout, he is now sort of janitor at Frankie’s Gym, where he first encounters Maggie and steers her toward Frankie. Though he has nothing, he lives by a ferocious moral code, despising bullies, which we see when he beats one to a pulp. More than anything he is Frankies best friend, a person he can talk too and tell all because they walk the same path together.
6. The Sports Element
We understand the rush of the win, and Maggie wins fast with a devastating punch that ends many a fight before it begins. But we also need to know how it is when that is gone, when the crowd forgets about you and you no longer hear them chant your name. Is this what it is for retired sports stars? Wayne Gretzky retired near twenty years ago so an entire generation has not seen hm play. They will never know what it was to see him electrify a crowd. How must he feel encountering people, kids who do not know him, have not seen him play? As Maggie lies on that bed she knows she will be forgotten, a fighter not fighting becomes extinct fast. Fighting meant everything to her, it fed her soul, and without it she knows, as does Frankie, she is already dead.
7. The Humanity Element
Maggie has lived, seen the world, made money, rose to the top of her profession in a year and a half, heard the crowds chant her name. She knows she will never experience those heights again, and has nothing left to do. Is it humane to,keep her alive against her will in a living death? She decided how she lived her life, and now that living has been taken away should she not decide how to die? What Frankie does may damn him, but he knows he set her free, and that is enough for him. It is not about him, only her, and he is generous enough and loves her enough to set her free at whatever cost to himself.
8. The Raw Power
You can all but smell the stink of old sweat in the gym, as fighters jab and punch one another, work the bag, or just listen. Later the same is true of the hospital, we can smell the hallways, the rooms, the antiseptic clean in the place and perhaps understand why Maggie cannot bear to remain frozen here as the cheering fades.
9. The Surprise of the Twist
We move through the film watching Maggie rise to the very top of women’s boxing and then suddenly, a cheap shot, a fall, a chair and she is paralyzed from the neck down, needing a machine to breathe. Just. Like. That. Did anyone seeing the film for the first time expect that twist? A good sports film suddenly becomes much more complex than that, exploring humanity, bigger questions, and the right to die.
10. The Love Story
Rarely has friendship, that between a man and woman, coach and fighter been so beautifully documented and created for the screen. Watch Eastwood look down at her before making his decision, look at the hurt in his eyes, but the depth of love he has for her. She comes into his life with no one, having nothing, and he trains her, becomes a father figure and the person she counts on and loves. They are to one another, my darling, my blood. And he loves her enough to let her go, knowing she cannot remain frozen in that bed.