“If there’s magic in boxing, it’s the magic of fighting battles beyond endurance, beyond cracked ribs, ruptured kidneys and detached retinas. It’s the magic of risking everything for a dream nobody sees but you.” Those words are uttered by Scrap in “Million Dollar Baby,” and resound deeply in me – especially these days where I find myself in a state that combines isolation and desperation. The importance of latching on to your dreams and the risk they entail – the search for family and connectivity – the constant questioning of faith – and seeking some form of renewal are all thoughts that have swirled in my mind in the past few months and are the themes that Clint Eastwood tackles directly in his masterpiece – “Million Dollar Baby” – the depressingly uplifting and inspiring 2004 film that justifiably won him his second best director and best picture Oscar awards.
This deceptively simple movie upends our expectations. It uses the conventions of a sports movie – in particular a boxing movie – and turns it inside out – including the fact that our pugilist is female. Where it does the unexpected – is where it goes. It continues where other inspiring sports movies stop – with a narrative progress that some may consider dark or sad – yet it’s real and elegiac – and honest, and it only enriches the experience and enriches our soul by doing it.
Eastwood plays Frankie – an old trainer who owns and runs “The Hit Pit.” He goes to mass every day and is estranged from his daughter and writes to her often yet all the letters are returned. His priest tells him, “Frankie I’ve seen you at mass almost every day for 23 years. The only person comes to church that much is the kind who can’t forgive himself for something.” His assistant is someone he trained, Scrap (Morgan Freeman) who lost his eye on his last fight and Eastwood blames himself for it. Maggie (Hilary Swank) walks in their lives and is determined to be trained by Frankie. He refuses for she’s a girl and too old – yet she won’t take no for an answer. She explains, “I’m 32 and I’m here celebrating the fact that I spent another year scraping dishes and waitressing, and according to you, I’ll be 37 before I can even throw a decent punch. This the only thing I ever felt good doing. If I’m too old for this, then I got nothing.” The scope of the film will remain on these three individuals – their connections and the effect they have on one another will have deep repercussions and emotional resonance. Eastwood’s pacing allows us to relish in their relationships.
Visually the film is extraordinary. Working with director of photography Tom Stern – Eastwood’s lighting highlights shadows and dark spaces. It’s all very evocative – as if the past and the choices we make or do not make – are always hanging round the corner. There are two scenes that take place in two different diners that could come out of an Edward Hopper painting. Watch for a scene that takes place in a car between Frankie and Maggie, and notice the play with light and shadows on their faces. “I got no one but you Frankie,” she says.
“Yes – you got me,” he responds.
All the performances are superlative. Swank earned her second Oscar for Best Actress – she’s tough, intense and fragile at the same time. Eastwood as Frankie proves what a great actor he is – he’s never been the most expressive performer – here he shows you that less is more. Freeman won Best Supporting Actor.
As director, Clint proves that he’s only gotten better with age. There’s a sign that hangs on the gym – blink and you miss it – but it says “We are simply willing to do what losers won’t.”
Maggie: “I’ve seen the world. People chanted my name. You think I ever dreamed that’d happen? Daddy used to tell me I’d fight my way into this world, and I’d fight my way out. That’s all I wanna do. I got what I needed. I got it all.”
Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, Microsoft and FandangoNOW.
Screenplay by Paul Haggis. Based on short stories by F.X. Toole.
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman
Hilary Swank on Being Cast in “Million Dollar Baby”
In an interview with film critic, Emmanuel Levy, actor Hillary Swank discusses “Million Dollar Baby.” “When I read the script, it was such an incredible story. It was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. Paul Haggis, who adapted the stories, did an amazing job. I laughed and I cried and I was inspired. Then I was told that Clint Eastwood was directing it, and I just about fell off my chair, because to have both of those things come together is like a dream come true for an actor.
Maggie is probably one of the characters I felt closest to, because Maggie grew up in a trailer park and Maggie grew up with not a lot, and she had this dream and she felt so good boxing. Maggie even has a line in the movie, in which she says: I never felt good doing anything else. If I don’t have this, I don’t have anything,’ I have often felt that with acting. So there are many parallels that we had. The interesting thing is that Maggie wanted Frankie Dunn to be a part of that, and for me as an actress, to work with Clint Eastwood, a living legend and major piece of cinema history, was a dream come true. There are a lot of interesting parallels for me, and I am thankful for this experience.” (emanuellevy.com)
Training for the Role of Maggie
“…Swank rode the subway to Brooklyn, six days a week, for three long months. Her destination was Gleason’s Gym, where for more than 65 years now, thousands of boxers from Jake LaMotta to Muhammad Ali have trained. Swank went there to prepare for her role in “Million Dollar Baby.” Acting opposite Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood, Swank plays Maggie Fitzgerald, a 30-something, down-on-her-luck waitress who dreams of becoming a professional boxer. It’s a demanding part, physically and emotionally. Eastwood, who also directed the film, says he knew Swank had the acting chops for the part. But her physique was a different story. “I just thought, ‘Yeah, this gal would be great. If we can get her trained up. If we can get a little bit more bulk on her, to make her look like a fighter,'” recalls Eastwood. “She was like a feather. But what happened is, she had this great work ethic.”
So before filming began, Swank trained hard, nearly five hours every day. “I could do half a pull-up when I first started training,” says Swank. “I literally, I tried to pull myself up, and I was shaking. And I couldn’t do it. And I couldn’t believe it. I thought, you know, and as a kid, you had, doing pull-ups and stuff. And then when I was done, I could do 11.” Swank bulked up by 19 pounds and learned to box like a pro. Everyone back at Gleason’s was impressed. But she kept a secret from the boxers, and from the filmmakers who hired her. She had a potentially life-threatening staphylococcus infection. “I got a blister the size of my palm on the ball of my foot,” says Swank. Within 48 hours, the blister was infected, and staph bacteria spread through her veins. “There were streaks going up my foot,” recalls Swank. “So, I went to the doctor that second, and he looked at me, and he said, ‘This is really serious. And if you had waited two more hours, you would have been in the hospital for three weeks. And if it gets to your heart, that’s it.'” She didn’t tell Eastwood what had happened. “I didn’t tell Clint, because in the end, that’s what happens to boxers,” says Swank. “They get blisters, they get infected. They have injuries and they keep pushing through it.” Her secret didn’t surprise Eastwood one bit. He says her plain-and-simple determination to play the part is in large part why the film turned out so well. “This is just another step in her path to greatness,” says Eastwood. “She’s the best there is, as good an actress as I’ve worked with.” (cbsnews.com)
About Director Clint Eastwood
“Clint Eastwood was born on May 30, 1930, in San Francisco, California. With his father, Eastwood wandered the West Coast as a boy during the Depression. Then, after four years in the Army Special Services, Eastwood went to Hollywood, where he got his start in a string of B-movies. For eight years, Eastwood played Rowdy Yates in the popular TV Western series “Rawhide,” before emerging as a leading man in a string of low-budget “spaghetti” Westerns directed by Sergio Leone: “Fistful of Dollars” (1964), “For a Few Dollars More” (1965) and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966). All three were successful, but Eastwood made his real breakthrough with 1971’s smash hit “Dirty Harry,” directed by Don Siegel. Though he was not the first choice to play the film’s title role–Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman all reportedly declined the part–Eastwood made it his own, turning the blunt, cynical “Dirty Harry” into an iconic figure in American film. Also in 1971, Eastwood moved behind the camera, making his directorial debut with the thriller “Play Misty for Me,” the first offering from his production company, Malpaso. Over the next two decades, he turned in solid performances in films such as “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976), “Every Which Way But Loose” (1978), “Escape From Alcatraz” (1979) and “Honkytonk Man” (1982), but seemed to be losing his star power for lack of a truly great film. By the end of the 1980s, after four “Dirty Harry” sequels, released from 1973 to 1988, Eastwood was poised to escape the character’s shadow and emerge as one of Hollywood’s most successful actor-turned-directors. In 1992, he hit the jackpot when he starred in, directed and produced the darkly unconventional Western “Unforgiven.” The film won four Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Film Editing, Best Director and Best Picture, both for Eastwood. He also found box-office success as a late-in-life action and romantic hero, in “In the Line of Fire” (1993) and “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995), respectively.
As a director, Eastwood worked steadily over the next decade, making such films as “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” (1997), “Absolute Power” (1997) and, most notably, the crime drama “Mystic River” (2003), for which he was again nominated for the Best Director Oscar. The following year, he hit a grand slam with “Million Dollar Baby,” in which he also starred as the curmudgeonly coach of a determined young female boxer (Hilary Swank, in her second Oscar-winning performance). In addition to Swank’s Academy Award for Best Actress, the film won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman) and Eastwood’s second set of statuettes for Best Director and Best Picture. In 2006, Eastwood became only the 31st filmmaker in 70 years to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of America (DGA). That year, he directed a pair of World War II-themed movies, “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006) and “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006). The latter film, which featured an almost exclusively Japanese cast, earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and a fourth Best Director nomination for Eastwood. Off-screen, Eastwood has pursued an interest in politics, serving as mayor of Carmel, California, from 1986 to 1988…His more recent films include “J. Edgar” (2011), “American Sniper” (2014), “Sully” (2016), “The Mule” (2018) and “Richard Jewell” (2019).” (history.com)