Monday, February 23, 2015

My Darling, My Blood: Million Dollar Baby (Review)

By Nicholas Stix
February 18, 2005

If you give Million Dollar Baby half a chance, you’re gonna cry.

“You’re gonna cry,” the ticket-seller, a Spanish lady in her late fifties, told me. And she was right.

Million Dollar Baby is about two kinds of hunger: The hunger for glory that gnaws at those who seemingly have no chance at it, and the hunger for the love that bonds a father and a daughter, even if the two are not father and daughter.

Clint Eastwood is hot again. In 2003, his movie Mystic River, in which he did not act, was up for all of the major Oscars, and won Tim Robbins an Academy Award for best supporting actor. (That Oscar may have been a payoff for Robbins’ years of leftwing political agitation.) Mystic River, a murder mystery set in Boston, was good, but not as good as its press. Its script, by the usually top-notch Brian Helgeland, was full of red herrings, and contained a scene involving the suspect (Tim Robbins) that, taken in isolation was great, but which contradicted everything else we were shown about the character. Typical for Eastwood’s movies, however, the acting was uniformly excellent.

During the early-to-mid 1990s, the man who learned his trade from Sergio Leone and Don Siegel was the best director in the business, turning out three masterpieces in a row: The western, Unforgiven (1992), for which he won Oscars for best director and best picture, and was nominated for best actor; the road/crime story, A Perfect World (1993), which bombed at the box office and was ignored by the Academy (Kevin Costner gave the performance of his career, but it was too late to win back his lost fans); and the story of romance and adultery, The Bridges of Madison County (1995), a commercial and critical success, which however was only nominated for best actress for Meryl Streep’s revelatory performance, but which I think should have won a passel of Oscars. Pretty good, all in all, for a guy who got his start playing roustabout trail hand “Rowdy Yates” on the TV western, Rawhide, back in 1959.

After Bridges, Eastwood lost his way. He made the entertaining but lightweight Absolute Power (1997), and deteriorated to the point of the muddled Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (also 1997). He was more effective as a moviemaker in True Crime (1999), but too old for the role of reporter “Steve Everett,” in which he botched some good lines.

In Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood recaptures that ‘90’s  glory, as producer, director, actor and even composer.

Baby is a boxing picture, only the fighter is a girl.

With “Maggie McNamara,” Hilary Swank paints the most intense portrait of a fighter since Robert DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980).

Maggie was born and raised as white trash. With her father dead, the lifelong waitress is burdened with an overweight mother, a street scum convict brother, and a sister that gets by through welfare fraud. She never had a chance. But she makes her own luck … to a point.

Eastwood’s “Frankie Dunn” is the greatest “cut man” in the business, and a sometime manager who often hurts more for his fighters than they do. A devout Catholic, though he doesn’t look or preach the part, Frankie goes to mass every morning, prays for his estranged daughter and another female (dead wife? ex-wife?) every night, and grieves over an earlier boxing mishap.

Frankie is a difficult man, who terrorizes his young priest with snarky metaphysical questions, to the point of provoking the young man to cuss him out, and tell him to skip mass.

Frankie: Father, that was a great sermon… made me weep.Father Horvak: What’s confusing you this week?Frankie: Oh, it’s the same old, “one God-three God” thing.Father Horvak: Frankie, most people figure out by kindergarten that it’s about faith.Frankie: Is it sort of like snap, crackle, and pop, all rolled into one big box?
Meanwhile, Maggie just wants a chance. Frankie tells Maggie, “I don’t train girls,” but she is not to be denied.

With Eddie “Scrap Iron’s” Dupris’ help, each comes to fill the void in the other’s life.

Some critics, like the Daily News’ Jack Mathews, have said that Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn is the performance of a lifetime. They’re right. But Eastwood will almost surely lose the best actor Oscar to Jamie Foxx for Ray. Eastwood is up for best director, and as producer, for best picture. His main competition in those categories is director Martin Scorcese, and producers Michael Mann and Graham King, all of The Aviator. (Aviator is up for eleven awards to Baby’s seven; many observers think Scorcese will win based not on quality, but sentiment and memories of his superior earlier work.)

I had never seen Hilary Swank act before, but somehow I felt as if I knew her work, before I even entered the theater. All I knew of her was her pathetic Oscar acceptance speech for Boys Don’t Cry (1999), when she pleaded with the world “to embrace diversity!,” the winning appearance she gave a few months ago on a late night talk show (probably Letterman), and the ads for Baby.

Sometimes you can tell in seconds that a performer has no talent -- think Sean Combs, Jennifer Lopez, Ben Affleck. Much more rarely, in just a moment, you can tell that a performer has it, whatever “it” is. From those promos, I knew that Hilary Swank had it. Anyone who was old enough to know what was going on during the 1970s, beheld a colossus in the young Robert DeNiro. He was both a life force and the hungriest actor in the business. DeNiro was always challenging himself, and always willing to sacrifice more for a role than anyone else, whether it was spending weeks learning Sicilian for The Godfather Part II (1974); learning the saxophone for New York, New York (1977); or training for months before filming, and then putting on 60 pounds in the middle of filming Raging Bull, in order to play boxer Jake LaMotta, both as middleweight champ and as a fat, middle-aged, has-been.

Hilary Swank, who reportedly put on 20 pounds in training for Baby, has that sort of hunger, ambition, and talent. Her ring work is every bit as good as DeNiro’s (maybe better), and in and out of the ring, she will break your heart.
She’s a prohibitive favorite to win her second best actress Oscar. Behold the new colossus!

Morgan Freeman’s one-eyed, old pug, “Eddie ‘Scrap Iron’ Dupris,” has been like a wife to Frankie for about thirty years. Eastwood exploits Freeman both on-camera and as narrator, which is a great advantage for any movie (think Se7en and The Shawshank Redemption). As narrator, Freeman’s pipes sound the worse for wear, but he still uses his voice better than anyone else in the business, managing somehow to give brilliant, clean, line readings in an even tone, yet without falling into a monotone. (Compare that to lazy George Clooney’s monotone.) And Freeman has a stage presence where he can command attention, while doing “nothing.” He is physically convincing as an old man who fought 109 prize fights, and wasn’t retired until the age of 39. His “Scrap Iron” and Frankie trade barbs with the dark humor of survivors who have lost much, but who have not thrown in the towel. Such a dark movie requires as much humor as possible.

I’m reminded of O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, and the gallows humor of the ill-fated “James Tyrone Jr.” and “Josie Hogan” (the late Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst).

Freeman is up for best supporting actor, his fourth nomination (following Street Smart, Driving Miss Daisy, and Shawshank), and is favored to finally win it. I hope he does.

The picture has a lean, powerful screenplay by Paul Haggis (thirtysomething, EZ Streets), who does dark better than anyone, based on the stories Rope Burns, by the late F.X. Toole, himself an old cut man (and surely, like Frankie, an Irish Catholic -- Francis Xavier?).

While Million Dollar Baby was filmed in color, for much of the movie, you wouldn’t know it. As shot by Tom Stern, it is a study in shadow and light.

It has a powerful yet restrained score, also by Eastwood, that works on the viewer like Larry Holmes’ jab, and which, like Stern’s cinematography, inexplicably was not nominated for an Oscar.

Eastwood used much of the production crew that has been his mainstay for years. (He founded his own production company, Malpaso, over thirty years ago.) Thus, the editing is by Joel Cox, the production design by Henry Bumstead, and Lennie Niehaus, who used to also score Eastwood’s movies, arranged and conducted his score. You’ve come a long way, Rowdy!

If you give Million Dollar Baby half a chance, like the ticket-seller lady said, you’re gonna cry.

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