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Boxing movies have long been one of the most popular sports in film, with the natural underdog story typically leading the way. While there were many before it, Sylvester Stallone and his Rocky series created a formula that many have followed since, though others, such as Martin Scorsese‘s Raging Bull have topped several greatest films of all time lists going a different way. But no matter the film, one thing binds them all, they are all predominately about men.
To be sure, Clint Eastwood‘s 2004 Million Dollar Baby is not the first boxing movie about a female fighter. Most notable before this was arguably Michelle Rodriquez‘s well-received 2000 Girlfight, though a number of low budget girl fighter movies, mostly exploitive, popped up in the 90s. Million Dollar Baby was in fact, a project from the 90s, stuck in the proverbial “development hell” for years, with studios refusing to sign on, even after the legendary Eastwood was already aboard. A deal though was finally struck with Warner Bros, and the movie at last got a release date.
There was a man named Jerry Boyd, a cutman and trainer in professional boxing, who under the pen nam F.X. Toole, released a collection of short stories called Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner about his years in the sport. It is from this book that the screenplay for Million Dollar Baby was born, with female boxer Juli Crockett, who had a brief but successful run in the ring, being the inspiration for the film’s lead.
The plot follows Margaret “Maggie” Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a waitress from middle America who turns up in a Los Angeles gym and asks to be trained as a boxer. The place is run by Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), a scraggly old trainer with a chip on his shoulder and a singular mind when it comes to fighters, and dismisses her, even after she stays on and trains tirelessly on her own. She catches the eye of Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a old friend of Dunn’s and an employee of the gym. He encourages her to keep at it and by circumstances, Dunn finally takes her under his wing.
Maggie does well. So well in fact, she ends up knocking out all of her opponents in the amateur boxing division. And while there are things happening in the background, eventually, Frankie, who had been reluctant to do so, agrees to a title fight in a heavier weight class for one million dollars. They fly to Las Vegas to fight Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman, played by Lucia Rijker, (herself an actual boxer with no losses). The Blue Bear has a reputation for fighting dirty and after Maggie shows she’s no push over in the ring, sneaks a sucker punch after the bell of one round, sending Maggie to the canvas. What happens next though is shocking, and it propels the movie into an entirely different direction.
I won’t spoil the second act, but suffice to say, this is not a Rocky ripoff. While the film garnered high praise, including four Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor), many had issue with the sudden shift, expecting a rousing sports film–a theme promoted in the marketing–only to have the rug wholly pulled out in the second half. Even more so, some found fault with how that second half was portrayed and even condemned the ending for misrepresentation and a failed opportunity to do something more up-lifting.
Whatever your opinion of the outcome, there can be no debating the superb work by all involved. Eastwood is at the very top of his game here, patient, illuminating, careful. The film’s atmosphere is as much a character as any of the actors, giving tremendous weight to the setting. Eastwood has always been good at establishing tone and letting the camera speak for his actors, and here he does as well. The film crackles.
Freeman, who worked with Eastwood before, is astonishing, and while his limited narration might feel unnecessary, he is almost unbearably good here, a man cast into the shadows of a greater one per se, now facing a life darkened further by tremendous guilt. There is hardly an actor in all of cinema who has the weight in his voice of such assurance, sorrow, and truth. He is achingly affecting.
Then there’s Swank, who had won her first Academy Award in 1999 for Boys Don’t Cry, and proved herself all the more worthy here. She packed on 20 pounds (9 kg) and underwent extensive training for the part, but it’s her command of both stages of this film that are so remarkable. It’s a challenging, emotionally tragic performance.
Million Dollar Baby is not, like many boxing movies, a boxing movie, even though there’s a good deal of the sport in it. Eastwood claimed the film is about the American dream. That maybe true, but it’s also about honor and unwavering, unconditional friendship. It’s a film that does what any great movies does, get people talking, and that’s exactly what people did on this day in 2004.