The Best Picture Winners: Million Dollar Baby (2004)

| February 8, 2018

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

I have personally lived long enough to see the great transformation of Clint Eastwood’s career from the quietest western hero as The Man with No Name to the most talkative police detective as “Dirty Harry” Callahan and into a late-career output of brilliance as one of the most gifted of American filmmakers.

To be honest, it is his work as a director that impresses me the most.  Here is a man who is as familiar to Americans as the flag, The Statue of Liberty and the Cadillac, but as a storyteller, his work bears comparison with the likes of Hemingway.  That’s especially true with Million Dollar Baby, a humanist drama that wears the façade of a boxing picture but inside possesses the heartbeat of real life – actual real life, not a phony recreation.

Out of the 30+ films that he has directed since 1971, Million Dollar Baby is his crowning achievement.  Much like the original Rocky it isn’t so much about boxing as it using boxing as a metaphor for life, for reaching potential, battling personal demons, and for being able to take what life has to throw at you.  It comes through a career defining performance by Eastwood as a grizzled old L.A.-based boxing trainer named Frankie Dunn who reluctantly agrees to train a scrappy Missouri waitress who wears down his resolve.  She is Maggie (Best Actress winner Hilary Swank) a mid-western kid with dreams of breaking away from her lazy, shiftless trailer-trash family and taking a shot at a better life.

What comes of this story has nothing to do with gimmicks or plot devices, it has to do with people; it has to do with taking a shot at the American dream, but also in characters who are crippled by the aches and pains of the past, of the crippling ailments of regret and battling this thing called life.  That is seen most beautifully in an Oscar winning performance by Morgan Freeman as a former boxer who sees the story of Frankie and Maggie from the sidelines

I am straining not to give away too much, but I will say that there are themes to be explored not just about determination but about battling this thing called life and making decisions that will chart the course of destiny.  There edges and corners to this story that we don’t expect. Even the familiar formulas of the other films feel fresh and new.  This is a special film.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.