Jessica Campbell rewatches 2004 Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby for the first time since theatres and addresses memories of Terri Schiavo and Oregon’s 1994 Death with Dignity Act.
If you haven’t seen Million Dollar Baby, please don’t read this re-view. Go watch it, and then you can read on if you want. Consider this a spoiler alert, and take my word for it that the unsullied viewing experience will be worth it.
No, really, go watch it. I just returned the University of Washington library DVD copy, if that helps anyone.
I’ve written about a handful of movies for this blog, and each time I had plenty to say about how my first look at the movie differed from the viewing a decade later, because of intervening events in culture, or moviedom, or sometimes my own life. Well, other than the obvious “this time I knew what was going to happen,” I don’t have a darned thing to say about that this time. Million Dollar Baby hasn’t aged a day. (Apparently Clint Eastwood hasn’t either; the 84-year-old director/actor/writer/composer/you-name-it has directed nine feature films since then, the latest of which, American Sniper, comes out this winter.) Million Dollar Babywon four Academy Awards—Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood, Best Actress for Hilary Swank, and Best Supporting Actor for Morgan Freeman. It was a good year for Best Picture nominees; I cried at Finding Neverland, smiled at Sideways, hummed at Ray, and nearly jumped out of my seat with glee at Cate Blanchett’s channeling of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. But I left the theater speechless after Million Dollar Baby. In part, I think it has stayed the same for me because there isn’t much in my own life that matches the external/situational material of the plot. And in part it’s because the movie is just so full and so compelling—or perhaps the better word is “merciless”—in its own right.
For the first hour and a half, Million Dollar Baby is a boxing movie. Well, a boxing movie with more Yeats and more wistful touches to the score than most, but still. It’s exciting and suspenseful in the way any decent sports movie is, just with a lot more going on outside the ring. (I don’t even remember what was happening in Cinderella Man except that it had something to do with the Depression, right?) Anyway, Million Dollar Baby sports (see what I did there?) the familiar Rocky arc. 31-year-old Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) starts working out at Frankie Dunn’s (Eastwood) boxing gym in hopes that he will take her on as a trainee. No matter how many times he growls, “I don’t train girls,” she smiles back and, a little while later, asks again. Swank manages to make her seem sweet and polite even when she’s pushing relentlessly. She soon wins over Frankie’s old friend and assistant of sorts, Scrap (Morgan Freeman), and eventually wears Frankie down, too. Maggie lacks experience but is very good (there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise, of course), and she skyrockets under Frankie’s tutelage. During her rise, we meet her god-awful family; apparently working her way out of a trailer park was nothing compared to contending with a selfish mother who tears her down constantly. Margo Martindale must have less than five minutes of screen time, but it’s plenty long enough to induce cringing. Maybe the mother and siblings are presented as a little too horrible; in a movie with some extremely complex characters, it’s jarring to run into people left entirely unredeemed.
Of course, Maggie isn’t very complicated either. She tells Frankie early on that boxing is the only thing she ever enjoyed doing. Clearly it’s also the only thing she pays much attention to. She has no secrets from the past, no love interest (God bless you for that, Clint Eastwood), no motivations at all except for doing that one thing she loves as often and as well as she can. The movie is similarly focused. We never see flashbacks, and only occasionally shots of characters in their homes. Scrap’s boxing past is revealed through a few lines. We get the most side material about Frankie, but even that is very restrained. We learn that he loves to read Yeats, that he goes to Mass every morning, that he lives alone, and that he has a daughter who ignores his frequent letters because she will not forgive him for something. We never meet the daughter or even find out what caused the breach. Ultimately, Eastwood seems more interested in Frankie than in Maggie. In contrast to her simplicity, Frankie is apparently capable of treating other people with great callousness and with great kindness. It can be hard to tell which to expect in a given situation, or even to tell which he’s inflicting once it’s happening. Eastwood seems to have a self-replenishing supply of gravel in his throat that forces you to learn to read the tiniest changes to his face or tone of voice.
Maggie learns, of course. There’s clearly a surrogate father-daughter aspect to their relationship. I only thought the movie overstated that once, when Maggie takes Frankie to a diner near her hometown and tells him she used to go there with her father before he died. The rest of the time it seems perfectly natural. And, like the whole boxing plot, it leads to what the movie is ultimately about (now SERIOUSLY stop reading if you haven’t seen it and ignored my earlier entreaty): Frankie’s moral dilemma. I hadn’t watched Million Dollar Babysince seeing it in theaters; it was interesting to note how much more vividly I remembered the final half hour than everything that came before it. I thoroughly enjoyed the boxing movie part—a lot of lines are funny as hell, for one thing, which I’d completely forgotten—but the final sequence floored me so much that it overpowered my recollection of the movie as well. A refresher, in case by some amnesiac event you’ve forgotten: Maggie gets her title shot and is holding her own against the opponent, until said opponent, upset that a round went to Maggie, punches her basically from behind when they’re supposed to be heading to their corners. Maggie falls and hits her head/neck against her stool in such a way that she is instantly and irrevocably paralyzed from the neck down.
And just like that, the boxing movie becomes a hospital movie. What I love about this is that it’s true to life. In most movies that are primarily about an illness or death, you get just enough exposition to “establish sympathy” and then most of the time is spent in the medical realm. But in real life, you’re going about your business, focused on something else, then suddenly something terrible happens and your life is overwhelmed by doctor jargon and IVs, and the whole world is hospital-white. This is the jarring experience we get in Million Dollar Baby. Because you’ve invested not just a few minutes but a full hour and a half in Maggie’s life, you experience her injury more like she does.
We don’t get a sense of how long Maggie sticks it out in the rehab center before she asks Frankie to help her die, but clearly not very. In 2004, I heard that some people who had lived in similar states of paralysis for years were criticizing the movie for the relative speed with which she gave up. Remember Terri Schiavo? We were still in the thick of that monstrosity of a cultural and political debate when Million Dollar Baby was released. I’m not going to tell you what I thought about the Terri Schiavo case and why. Suffice it to say that it was on my mind a lot at the time, and watching this movie ten years later really brought it all back. Because I was still in Catholic high school in 2004, the Schiavo case and even, to a lesser extent, Eastwood’s film were hot topics of discussion. End-of-life issues are hard partly because they’re bound up with people’s religious beliefs, obviously. But it’s also because they force people to think about what life actually is. How in the world are we supposed to answer that? Maggie answers it easily—as the film previously established, all she wants to do is box. If she can’t do that, her life isn’t her life anymore. Frankie (probably like most viewers) has a much harder time.
I’m from Oregon, which in 2004 was the only state in the country in which assisted suicide was legal. There had been a MUCH-debated but ultimately unsuccessful initiative to repeal Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act in 1997, and then-Attorney General John Ashcroft instigated a judicial hubbub in the early 2000s. All this is to say that Million Dollar Baby tackled an issue that was very much in the national discussion at the time and very, very much under discussion in my state. And to its credit, it is not the least bit sensationalist. There’s no melodrama in Maggie’s request, Frankie’s tortuous decision-making process, or the final death. There’s hardly any movie at all after Frankie grants Maggie’s request. Eastwood does not seem to me to be making any particular statement about end-of-life issues, beyond “they’re really, really hard.” The film does not wrangle your sympathies in one direction or another as Frankie tries to decide what to do. His priest, predictably, simply says, “You know you can’t do it.” But Frankie responds that he feels like he’s killing Maggie either way—literally bringing about her death, or condemning her to a slow decay that will kill her spirit.
From one angle, the scope of the movie is Maggie’s boxing career. Its beginning, its heyday, its cost, and ultimately the early death that its centrality to her worldview drives her to. From another angle, and I think this one is more important to Eastwood, the scope is Frankie’s morality. Eastwood clearly does not want us to judge, negatively or positively, Frankie’s life as a whole, since we could only do that if we knew what had happened with his daughter. His dilemma with respect to Maggie is the main event. The problematic past with his daughter pulls him in both directions: he doesn’t want to do anything else “wrong” because he apparently has before and is paying dearly, but he doesn’t want to disappoint or cause suffering to another daughter figure. Characteristically, Maggie takes matters into her own hands after his initial refusal, attempting multiple times to bite her tongue enough to bleed to death. This development changes the balance of the dilemma, I think, because Frankie has no reason to believe she won’t succeed at something like that sooner or later. If she is going to bring about her own death, it might as well be less painfully; and so he brings in the huge dose of adrenaline to put in her IV.
Frankie walks out of the rehab center that night, and that’s the last we see of him. The film isn’t about what the rest of his life is like, whether he regrets his decision, whether he sees his daughter again, etc. It has the sensibility of a short story—which makes sense, given that it’s based on one of the same title by F. X. Toole (which I confess I haven’t read). That could seem strange in a feature film, but for me it works just fine. The voiceover narration, which I assume is also there because of the prose source material, works primarily because the voice is Morgan Freeman’s. Nobody has a voice like his. It’s comforting, and the result is that Scrap becomes something of a Greek chorus. We do find out at the very end that what Scrap has been narrating all this time is a letter to Frankie’s daughter, which helpfully gives us a reason for the voiceover narration’s existence. Scrap doesn’t have much of a function as a character, except for revealing a few things about Frankie’s past and creating occasions for Frankie to express himself. But Freeman is always a reassuring presence. Scrap is by turns funny and angry and compassionate, always seeing everything—so real that he seems inevitable.
There are a few other characters—Frankie’s pre-Maggie golden boy, a couple of boxing managers, several cocky young men who haunt the gym. Over ten years, I forgot about them all. But they’re like the whole boxing plot: crucial to the building of the world Eastwood insists we feel crashing down around Maggie. That world and its fall utterly convinced me just as much this time as in 2004. The screenplay (by Paul Haggis, who wrote and directed Crash the next year) is funny, evocative, and efficient. The boxing plot just sweeps you right along until it slams you into a wall. I don’t believe Eastwood uses slow-motion for any other event besides the punch that sends Maggie into paralysis. It’s a clear signal that everything is going to change at that moment. The plummet is vertiginous as hell and not easy to stand up from even as a viewer. Make sure you have a whiskey or a dog on hand for comfort, but steel yourself and watch it again.