Million Dollar Baby: The Oscar Goes to the Boxer

One of the first subjects to be recorded on film was boxing. As far back as the 1890s, boxing fans could watch live footage of Gentleman Jim Corbett slugging it out with his foes on an Edison Kinetoscope. Not much later Hollywood discovered that boxing also made a great subject for fiction films. On one level there’s the sheer spectacle value of two prime athletes engaged in a dangerous duel, but at a deeper level boxing reflects something fundamental about the American system. Unlike team sports boxing is fought by a lone competitor, and therefore highlights the individualism at the heart of the American character. Furthermore, boxing eschews the complex rules and strategies that disguise and distance the combat motif at the core of all sports. Boxing offers a stripped down presentation of pure combat, a concentrated dose of the struggle we face every day competing within a winner-take-all economy.  

Perhaps it’s somewhat obvious that boxing in America serves as a metaphor for capitalism. After all, one need only look at the title of Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby to see the connection between triumph in the ring and success in the marketplace. What’s less obvious is how movies about boxing can be critical of the American system even while appearing to condone it. That’s certainly the case with Million Dollar Baby, a film that has been condemned by political pundits almost as loudly as it has been praised by film critics. In fact, the condemnation and the praise should be seen as opposite sides of the same coin. In the lead up to Oscar night, the numerous rebukes Million Dollar Baby took from both sides of the political spectrum only validated the critical praise it received as “high art,” since it takes on a serious subject without any apparent ideological stance. The more controversy it attracted, the more Oscar-worthy it seemed.

This is not to suggest that Million Dollar Baby doesn’t deserve its numerous awards. Hillary Swank does a great job of portraying the hopeful female boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald, and it’s about time Morgan Freeman won an Oscar for something. His role as Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris is as good as anything he’s done prior. The real question is whether Million Dollar Baby should have won the Best Picture award. If the best picture is the one with the potential to upset the most viewers, then the answer is yes.  

Million Dollar Baby, adapted from a story in F. X. Toole’s Rope Burns, comes straight out of that tradition of double-edged boxing movies that present us with the rise and fall of the main character for a plot. Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) may be the best boxing movie of this type ever made. It’s hard to imagine a more thunderous portrayal of a fall from fame than Robert DeNiro gives as the 1940s boxing legend Jake LaMotta. An earlier example of this rise and fall phenomenon is Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul (1947) in which John Garfield plays Charlie Davis, a boxer who will do anything to escape the poverty of his youth. In classic rags to riches fashion, Charlie rises from chump to champ, but of course, by the end, he loses everything. Movies like this show us that the rewards for making money “hand over fist” come at a high price: the destruction of the soul as well as the body.  

Million Dollar Baby doesn’t waver from the time-honored rise and fall formula, but it does offer several interesting twists. First of all, as everyone knows thanks to Hillary Swank’s Oscar, the boxer in this story is a woman. That hardly seems worth mentioning in this enlightened era, but it’s controversial in the narrative. Maggie’s own trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) thinks of women’s boxing as merely “the latest freakshow.” During a visit to her hometown, Maggie’s mother suggests that she find a man so people will stop laughing at her (presumably because she’s engaging in a man’s sport). At 31, Maggie is also told she’s too old to start boxing, but her age and sex are just minor obstacles, hurdles that sweeten Maggie’s numerous victories during her rapid ascent. The more important twist comes during Million Dollar Baby’s even more rapid decline. Unlike most boxing movies, Million Dollar Baby divides its tragic descent over the fates of two characters, neither of whom has that inherent tragic flaw that would inevitably bring down a Jake LaMotta or a Charlie Davis. Instead, these are people for whom the American dream was never really intended. Their only flaw was not knowing that their ship wasn’t meant to come in. In the end, Maggie’s body is destroyed, but it is Frankie’s soul that is lost.    

Whereas boxing movies like Rocky (1976) affirm the basic solvency of the American dream by showing that if you just work hard enough and believe in yourself long enough you’ll win in the end, Million Dollar Baby calls that dream seriously into question. By leaving us with two lives destroyed, it shows us not only that dreams don’t always materialize, but believing in dreams can have devastating and far-reaching consequences. In that sense, Million Dollar Baby is a particularly painful American tragedy. It could just as easily have been a feel good story about an over-the-hill female boxer who works hard to earn the respect of her curmudgeonly trainer and eventually wins it all. This approach certainly would have made the film more popular. Instead, Eastwood brings that dream just within grasp only to have it crash to the mat, utterly defeated. That’s what earned him the respect of the Academy.

The best of Eastwood’s late-career films have been tragedies. In films like Unforgiven (1992) and Mystic River (2003) he seems particularly interested in dismantling illusions—facets of the American dream—that he, or the stone faced characters he’s played in so many roles, helped to create. Unforgiven destroys the dream that the sinner (a gunfighter) can ever really reform. Mystic River crushes the hope that revenge can ever really be satisfying. Still, there is something in these movies, and most poignantly in Million Dollar Baby, that connects them to the iconic image of Clint Eastwood that began in Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (1964). Eastwood’s films always feature a strong individual faced with an impossible situation who will do what he feels is right no matter what. The more tragic the circumstances, the more the false colors vanish, until only this mythic Eastwood image remains.  

 

This article was originally published in my CineMatters column for The Baltimore View, March 2005. Joseph Christopher Schaub