As noted last month, this is going to be the year of Best Picture winners. I promise I will get to controversial winners (or ones I think did not deserve it, an opinion which may spur controversy from all seven of my regular readers), but February brings about another fairly safe choice. I contend there is zero argument against the deserved nature of this month’s subject – Million Dollar Baby (2004, dir. Clint Eastwood).
Million Dollar Baby tells the story of Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a female boxer whose grit and determination convinces Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) to break his decades long policy of not training female fighters. He was encouraged to do so in part by his employee at the gym, Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), who serves as the film’s narrator. Maggie proves to be a great fighter and prospect, and, together with Frankie’s training, becomes a champion fighter. This garners the attention of Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman (Lucia Rijker), one of the toughest and dirtiest fighters in the world. Their fight forever changes Maggie’s world. (I will not spoil it here, but do not keep reading if you do not want to know how it changes her world.)
This film was made at the absolute height of late-career Eastwood. He achieved great Oscar success with Unforgiven 12 years earlier, but he was coming off a well-received critical smash (Mystic River) and was about to tackle the challenging companion films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Million Dollar Baby, however, was the best of the bunch due to the three main performances. Swank is excellent. You see her drive throughout the film and get to watch her enjoy her success and attack her paralysis from her final fight with the same drive – only this time she can only use her face and voice and then eventually just her eyes. Freeman is terrific as always – effectively communicating what is needed within the action and also as the greatest narrator voice in cinematic history.
To me, the surprise performance comes from Eastwood himself. We are all used to the Eastwood persona from the Dirty Harry films and his westerns, and you get that here to significant effect. However, you also get a tender caring side that is sometimes missing from those more hardened roles. He struggles with Maggie – first not wanting her to waste his time, then him not wanting to put her in any position to get hurt, and finally how best to care for her. The struggles show the cracks and regret, and Eastwood wears it all in such a way that I have never really seen from him before or since (though the final act of Gran Torino comes close – a movie with some dreadful performances but a stellar climax).
I say there is no real argument against the film winning Best Picture as the competition that year was from The Aviator, Ray, Finding Neverland, and Sideways. That is an incredibly good group of films, but 20 years after the fact, it is easy to say the Academy got that one right. Although if you expand to other films released in 2004 but not nominated, it gets tougher. You can make a good case for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Collateral, Before Sunset, or even The Incredibles as being a better overall group than the four other nominated films. I would argue that even with that expanded field, Million Dollar Baby remains on top.
It is certainly not a happy journey to sit down with this film, but it is an incredibly rewarding one. I recently re-watched it on a cross country flight when I lots of time to kill and found myself tearful yet again. The growth in the relationship between Maggie and Frankie is worth every minute.
FUN FACT – Lucia Rijker was a kickboxing champion at the time of the film. Her record of 36-0 included 25 first round knockouts. Known as “The Most Dangerous Woman in the World,” she pulled double duty on the film by also training Hilary Swank.
Just Watch says that Million Dollar Baby is currently not streaming anywhere. It is available to rent or buy on most platforms, including AppleTV, YouTube, and Amazon Prime.