Warning: this review contains massive spoilers for a film that came out in 2004
I mean it. If you have not seen Million Dollar Baby, and think you might watch it some day (and I really recommend it, one of the best Best Picture winners), stop reading now.
Million Dollar Baby won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2004, and three others: Clint Eastwood for Best Director, Hilary Swank for Best Actress and Morgan Freeman for Best Supporting Actor. The Aviator actually won five Oscars on the night, and I might make that my next viewing. The Oscar for Best Picture the following year was won by Crash, which was actually released before Million Dollar Baby. I don’t make the rules, I just report them. The Hugo that year went to The Incredibles, and the Nebula to the previous year’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
The other Oscar nominees were The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray and Sideways, and I haven’t seen any of them. The only other films from 2004 that I have seen are The Incredibles, as noted last weekEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though I fell asleep half way through; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanDownfallBefore Sunset, the sort of romance that I love; The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, many many times; and the Steve Coogan / Jackie Chan Around the World in 80 Days, which is truly dismal, including Arnold Schwarzenegger as an oriental prince. IMDB users put Million Dollar Baby 4th on one ranking but only 43rd on the other, one of the weirdest splits I have seen. Personally, I would rank it alongside Downfall as my favorite film of the year, just ahead of Before Sunset. (Crash, by the way, is 16th on one ranking and 40th on the other.) Here’s a trailer, which impressively barely hints at the denouement.
There are a couple of actors from previous Oscar Winners. Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman are the two male leads here, as and were also the two male leads twelve years ago in Unforgiven, which like Million Dollar Baby was directed by Eastwood.
Freeman of course also drove Miss Daisy three years earlier.
A much more obscure returning face is stuntman Ted Grossman, most famously the first person killed by the shark in Jaws, who is one of the ringside doctors here, was a Peruvian porter in Raiders of the Lost Ark and a deputy sheriff in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. None of the shots I could get of him was much good.
The film is about a woman boxer, Hilary Swank’s Maggie, and her relationship with Eastwood’s Frankie, an embittered Irish-American boxing trainer who has lost all the women in his life, with commentary and sidekickisms from Freeman’s Scrap. Fighting really is not my thing, but I know a little about women fighters in that my old friend Rosi Sexton, who I have known since she was 16, was at one stage Britain’s leading woman Mixed Martial Artist (or cage-fighter if we want to be casual) – this after her first-class degree in maths from Cambridge and her computer science PhD. She retired from fighting in 2014 and was the runner-up in the 2020 leadership election of the Green Party of England and Wales. So any preconceptions I may have once had about professional fighting being an exclusively male preserve were long since knocked out of me by her (though not literally). Rosi was one of two women fighters profiled in a BBC documentary in 2009.
I’ll just also note that Frankie is learning Irish (“Gaelic”), which is one of the relatively few times we hear a language other than English in any Best Picture winner (having said which, we recently had Hungarian in Chicago, and Elvish in The Return of the King) and I suspect the only time we will hear Irish in any Oscar-winning film at all. However, Eastwood’s/Frankie’s pronunciation is really terrible; he seems to be learning exclusively from a book, without any coaching from people who actually speak the language; and his stage name for Maggie, “Mo Cuishle”, is wrong – it should be “Mo Chuisle”, though the “s” is indeed pronounced “sh”.
OK, now we get to the massive spoilers. You have been warned.
The first two thirds of the film are about the gradual maturing of the relationship between Frankie and Maggie as she erodes his reluctance to become her trainer and manager. It’s beautifully done. The chemistry between Eastwood and Swank is among the best depictions of a quasi-parental relationship that we have seen in one of these films. The world of boxing is shown unromantically, including through a number of subplots involving other boxers and managers, and we cheer for Maggie as she overcomes these obstacles and achieves success in various places (which, er, all look rather similar but with different decorations on the walls to try and suggest that they may be in different parts of America or Europe). If the film only consisted of the first hour and a half, it would still be a lovely character study.
But two-thirds of the way through, the story takes a massive swerve. In the most important fight of her career, Maggie’s neck is broken by a foul blow from her opponent, and she is paralysed from the neck down for the rest of her life. Frankie continues to care for her, and eventually, at her request, assists her death. The two threads here are Maggie’s courageous accommodation to her new circumstances (incluing a dramatic showdown with her deadbeat biological family), and Frankie’s internal debate about euthanasia (there’s a tremendous scene with a priest, who Frankie has been baiting throughout the film). Here in Belgium, euthanasia has been legal since 2002, but we are ahead of the game. Legal or not, this is an awful subject, and although of course a film treatment needs to sensationalise it a bit for the drama, I felt that Eastwood carried it off tactfully and well here.
I got a lot more out of Million Dollar Baby than I was expecting to, and I’m putting it in my top ten Oscar winners, just ahead of last year’s Return of the King and behind The Bridge on the River Kwai. Next up is Crash, of which I know nothing except that the screenplay is by the same writer, Paul Haggis.
The film is based on one or possibly several short stories in a book by F.X. Toole, which I have had difficulty in getting hold of – it is long out of print, and new EU import regulations complicate the process of acquiring it from most of the English-speaking world. I have ordered it, and will report back when I do read it.
1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011)