Tuesday, December 14, 2010

MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004): Movie With a Split Personality

Million Dollar Baby is really two incompatible movies in one.  The first half of the movie is Rocky and the second half is Coming Home – only with a female lead for each part, and with each part being less satisfactory than the original.  Though maudlin, the first half of the movie is better.  Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) desperately wants to be a boxer and desperately wants to be trained by Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood).  Frankie (definitely from the “old school”) wants no part of handling a woman boxer, but because of the prompting of Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman) and Maggie’s perseverance Frankie eventually gives in and becomes her manager.  
Frankie is not a happy person.  Eddie used to fight for him until he lost an eye in a fight that Frankie could have halted.  Frankie now feels guilty about it, though it’s not within his character to ever be able to express that guilt.  But because of this incident, Frankie won’t allow his other fighters to take their shot for fear that one of them will be injured.  Eventually, all the other fighters but Maggie leave him.  Now Maggie has her own problems.  Maggie is poor and her family is trailer trash and Frankie has a daughter who does not speak to him.  Thus, making up for what’s missing in their lives, a sort of father/daughter relationship is then formed between Maggie and Frankie, and Maggie fights her way up to a title shot by knocking out several successive fighters in a row.  We cheer for Maggie.  We know she’s in for a tough fight against the champion, but she seems to figure out her opponent’s style after a few rounds.  Unfortunately, rather than be humiliated by an upstart fighter, the champion cold-cocks Maggie at the end of one of the rounds after the bell has rung and Maggie’s head strikes the stool that’s setting in her corner.  Maggie doesn’t win her title (there’s no such thing as a disqualification in a boxing movie.)  Instead, Maggie breaks her neck and ends in the hospital.  This abruptly ends Part I and begins Part II of the movie.
The second part of the movie is agonizing.  Maggie is paralyzed from the neck down and will never walk again.  She’s fed through a tube and only pleasure in life comes from the visits by Eddie and Frankie.  Maggie’s family makes a visit only in an effort to take control of Maggie’s newly found wealth.  Her mother, her pregnant sister and her sister’s live-in boyfriend, by the way, have no redeeming qualities, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they would show no sympathy and attempt to take advantage of her under these circumstances.  Her mother who previously disdained Maggie’s choice of boxing as a profession now seems immensely willing to take advantage of the fortune Maggie made from that profession while Maggie is lying helpless in a hospital bed.  Nevertheless, Maggie repels them by refusing to turn over her wealth. Maggie screams, has a tantrum and tells them to go away.   Also, she makes her wishes to Frankie known that she no longer wants to live.  Finally, in the most controversial moment of the film, Frankie assists Maggie in committing suicide.  Frankie injects Maggie with a lethal dose of adrenaline and we thank God that her misery has ended.  Somehow, we are supposed to feel grateful that Maggie did get her chance at the title, though under the circumstances it is understandable why the audience might miss this point.  (Freeman’s narration doesn’t clear things up.  Freeman speaks knowingly about the secrets of boxing while psychoanalyzing Frankie and Maggie, and we have to conclude that he is God Almighty - a role he eventually does play - yet he never speaks in anything but murky clichés.)
Boxing is a great plot device for people who struggle to get to the top only to see their dreams crumble around them.  Roberto Duran, Carlos Monzon and Muhammad Ali all came from poverty.  Muhammad Ali became a fighter because he wanted to find the teenagers who stole his bicycle from his poor Louisville, Kentucky neighborhood.  Duran, while a child, used to swim to an island every day to steal fruit from a plantation owned by a millionaire.  These three fighters were probably the greatest I have ever seen.  Duran was lightweight champion for seven years and may never have been defeated if he had not decided to take on heavier opponents.  Monzon did not lose a fight in his last 80 professional appearances.  And Ali’s entire story is well known and was the subject for a couple of bad boxing movies.  Yet as phenomenal as they were, the downfall of the three fighters was even more telling. Duran mysteriously threw a fight to Leonard; Monzon was convicted for murder after throwing his wife off of a balcony; and Ali suffers from Parkinson’s disease that was likely brought on by being punched twenty thousand times in the face.

I hope that someday soon someone makes a believable movie about boxing.  I am more moved by the real thing – real boxing and real poverty - to what is depicted on the screen.  With the exception of The Great White Hope and the television version of A Requiem of a Heavyweight starring Jack Palance, I find most fight films unsatisfactory.  The Rocky movies (I’d like to make an exception with the first Rocky movie, but I can’t) and Cinderella Man really are choreographed depictions of professional wrestling.  Movie critics think the fight scenes in Raging Bull are realistic because the movie is filmed in black and white and because Jake La Motta is shown beating his wife.  (In reality, La Motta was a gifted fighter who won championships because of his boxing skills rather than by mugging his opponents.)  The first fight scenes in Million Dollar Baby are not quite so sensational as in the movies just mentioned, but Eastwood can’t resist staging an absurd title fight between Maggie and a champion who was formerly a prostitute - and who probably enjoys torturing small puppies.  Directors of fight films often resort to grandstanding or depicting all who stand in the way of the hero as evil. 
There are a number of good things to say about Million Dollar Baby.  Million Dollar Baby has an element of tenderness that is rarely shown in a boxing movie.  (This makes it a more moving movie, but it does not make it believable.)  Clint Eastwood is limited as an actor, but he always looks the part.  And Hilary Swank is believable as an athlete, though she’s not believable as a fighter.  She’s too self-sacrificing, too apologetic to really go after her competition in the ring.  Swank’s portrayal of Maggie reminds me of the role Mariel Hemingway plays in Personal BestPersonal Best is a critically praised movie that would have been much duller than it turned out to be if not for the presence of Hemingway.  Hemingway is the overachieving track star who is too physically limited and emotionally innocent to ever be more than second best in her sport.  Yet she does achieve that runner-up status by her own perseverance.  Maggie also will never be more than second best in her sport, yet it will be a second place status that she had to earn.  It’s too bad that Eastwood could just not have come out and said that rather than bring up the plot contrivance of having her neck broken.
So why did Eastwood stick the two stories together?  I’m guessing that he’s too insecure as an “artist” to ever end the movie on an uplifting note.  To do that would be to mean he was selling his movie on a commercial and sentimental appeal.  God forbid that Clint Eastwood could ever be sentimental!  Unfortunately for him, much of the first part of the movie is sentimental and pasting on a bad ending will not change that.  It must be noted that without that second part this movie would probably have never won an Academy Award.  Again, that’s what the Oscars have been, not just in recent years but throughout its entire history – an awarding of a pretense of a good movie rather than the awarding of a truly good movie.  (I can barely remember what the competition was for the Oscar that year – and it was only two years ago – so I’m not sure whether it deserved its Oscar or not.  Movies are getting to be very forgettable.)
Probably Million Dollar Baby was not a bad choice.  It was just too long.  Maybe moviemakers will soon come to the conclusion that an eighty or ninety minute movie filled with content is superior to a two-hour film with lots of filler, but that probably will not happen soon.  But I do think I would have liked Million Dollar Baby more if it had just hacked off entirely its second half.  Still, a promising beginning to a movie, however mediocre it is in many ways, is still better than the majority of award winning films that are lame from beginning to end. 
September 19, 2006  
©  Robert S. Miller 2006

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