I remember seeing Million Dollar Baby in the theater with a group of girlfriends. Hey, it’s an empowering story about a female boxer, is critically acclaimed, and won the Oscar for Best Picture! All I can say is that we were all sobbing… SOBBING at the end of the film. This included a friend who was skittish about going to feature films in the first place, because of the emotional commitment (we though the movie would be relatively benign and inspiring!). I’m surprised she ever went to the movies again.
That said, Oscar-winning films don’t always stand the test of time. Million Dollar Baby won trophies for Best Actress (Hilary Swank), Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman), Best Director (Clint Eastwood), and Best Picture of 2004. Does it stand up ten years later? Heck, yes it does! (I say as I use my shirt as a bib to wipe away tears…)
Million Dollar Baby is a father/daughter love story under the guise of a hard-scrabble boxing tale. Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank) is a tough “girlie” from white trash beginnings, who only has one dream–and it is not to wait tables for the rest of her life (though that is her reality). Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is a cranky trainer, whose boxers tend to move on from his tutelage just as they are getting good. Perhaps he is too hesitant, full of regrets from his own past. Frankie’s ramshackle boxing gym is watched over by ex-boxer Scrap (Freeman), who lives in a small room in the back, and who is the rock-solid soul of the film. When Maggie shows up at the gym, she basically forces her way into these men’s lives, whether they want it or not.
Eastwood, with his raspy, squinty-eyed delivery, is as flinty as usual. His reluctant Frankie discourages Maggie with every insult possible. She’s a girl. She’s too old (she’s 32). She has no discipline. Etc, etc. But Maggie has determination and a dream, and she literally has nothing to lose. She slowly starts to melt Frankie until they have a tough-love relationship, creating a surrogate family (he has an estranged daughter, and her late father is the only one in her family she loved). As Maggie starts to prove herself in the ring, with a killer first round knockout punch, the stakes get higher. (No spoilers here… but ohmygod… SOB!)
The casting of the film is perfect from the trio of leads to the supporting characters of the motley young men at the gym. It’s as intimate as a stage play (visually, it sometimes feels like one, with the harsh dark shadows of the corners of the gym as Maggie diligently practices into the wee hours). It seems like it would be an action film (yes, the boxing scenes are tense), but Million Dollar Baby is actually an emotional and eventually wrenchingly moving character study. I liked the film a lot when I saw it the first time, but now admire it even more as a lovely story about finding your true family.
New since the previous Blu-ray release, the 10th Anniversary Edition includes feature commentary by Producer Albert Ruddy, plus a featurette “On the Ropes” where the Eastwood, Freeman, Swank, Ruddy, screenwriter Paul Haggis, and more, reflect on the film that no one wanted to make (about “a girl boxer”). Carryovers from the previous release include “James Lipton Takes on Three” where the Inside the Actor’s Studio host interviews the three leads, “Born to Fight” about the world of boxing, and “Producers Round 15” about the development of the film from story to screen.