The highly praised sports drama movie Million Dollar Baby – directed, co-produced, scored, and starring Clint Eastwood – was released in theaters in 2004. The movie revolves around a woman’s fulfillment of her dream of becoming a professional boxer. The protagonist, played by Hilary Swank, faces a path of social redemption through sports. But what may initially look like a typical sports movie soon strays from the genre. Indeed, the movie deals with human dilemmas of profound impact. It addresses generational relationships and the possibility of overcoming the problems of incommunicability that result. But above all, it is striking in the way it deals with the thorny issue of euthanasia.
In this way, Million Dollar Baby is an ethical, political, and philosophical movie that hits the viewer hard just like a punch in the stomach. It focuses on universal themes such as pain and dignity and wants to offer a metaphor for human existence.
Never give up on a dream
Million Dollar Baby tells the story of a 32-year-old waitress named Margaret “Maggie” Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). Maggie is very determined to pursue a career in boxing. So, she enlists the help of an experienced coach, Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) to follow her on this path. At first, Frankie rejects the proposal, because he doesn’t train women and also because he thinks she is too old to start training. However, Maggie still begins to hit his gym and gets some advice from Frankie’s former boxer and friend Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman). Eventually, Eddie persuades Frankie to be Maggie’s coach. Soon, Frankie realizes that Maggie’s will and stubbornness are the only weapons through which she seeks redemption. And boxing is the only way out of her miserable life. Thus, the two will begin a strenuous journey that will lead them to bond indissolubly.
The inspiration for the movie comes from a short story in the collection Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner by F.X. Toole (pseudonym of boxing trainer Jerry Boyd). This material – shaped and adapted for the big screen by Paul Haggis – impressed Clint Eastwood who decided to take the helm of the movie. With his essential direction, marked by realism and dark tones, Eastwood provided the viewer with an intense movie that does not leave one indifferent.
Eastwood also composed the music for Million Dollar Baby, as he did for his other movies such as Mystic River (2003); Flags of Our Fathers (2006); and J. Edgar (2011). Acoustic guitar and piano dominate the minimalist soundtrack. The main theme Blue Morgan” which opens and closes the movie is melancholy and sorrowful.
Million Dollar Baby was critically acclaimed worldwide and won four Oscars at the 77th Academy Awards: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actress (Swank); and Best Supporting Actor (Freeman).
Sport as redemption
The main characters of Million Dollar Baby are a group of outcasts who try to emancipate themselves through boxing. But the sport is not the key to success, victories, fame, and money. It is really just a vehicle to seek a better life or make amends for past mistakes. Indeed, in this movie, sport is the backdrop to a deeper story about the importance of human bonds and the ultimate sacrifice that life sometimes puts in front of us.
On a cinematic level, Million Dollar Baby represents something rare. Not surprisingly, sports movies starring a woman are few compared to those centered on a male protagonist. More to the point, boxing has always been considered a purely male sport. Therefore, even in movies, as in sports, there are still gender inequalities and a clear disparity. Indeed, there are very few movies – such as the recent I, Tonya (2017) – that depict the hardships of a woman trying to find space in a male-dominated world. Conversely, there are several titles – such as Rocky (1976); Ali (2001); Warrior (2011); and Southpaw (2015) – focusing on men’s rise to success.
In addition, the choice of protagonist for Million Dollar Baby was difficult. Eastwood feared Swank’s physique was not suited to play a fighter. But Swank underwent hard training for three months. Eventually, she gained 19 pounds of muscle by training almost every day with a real boxer. This wasn’t the first time Swank stepped completely into the shoes of her fictional character. Indeed, for Boys Don’t Cry (1999) she dressed like a man for months, lost weight, and practiced having a deeper voice. Her physical transformation for Million Dollar Baby recalls those of Christian Bale for The Fighter (2010) and Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler (2008).
The losing class
Million Dollar Baby outlines a story that deals with multiple themes. Among these, that of the clash between different generations, already covered by Eastwood in Gran Torino (2008). On one side there are the older generations represented by Frankie and Eddie; on the other Maggie’s younger generation. At first, between these individuals seems to reign incommunicability. However, the encounter with Maggie manages to scratch Frankie’s traditionalist and prejudiced armor and give him a new purpose.
I’m 32 and I’m here celebrating the fact that I spent another year scraping dishes and waitressing, and according to you, I’ll be 37 before I can even throw a decent punch. This the only thing I ever felt good doing. If I’m too old for this, then I got nothing.Mary Margaret “Maggie” Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), Million Dollar Baby
Lastly, there is Eddie, a wise, selfless man, and former boxer who lost an eye in a boxing match. What unites these characters is their belonging to the defeated category. Each one of them is looking for redemption. Their path is marked by pain but, despite everything, they always manage to maintain great dignity and integrity.
Another important theme is the father-daughter relationship. Frankie, a man full of regrets, rigid, and lonely, no longer has any relationship with his only daughter. Maggie has been fatherless since childhood. The two, wounded by life and disillusioned, will establish a true family bond. And it is precisely this intense relationship that will eventually lead Frankie to the brink of an atrocious moral dilemma.
Between controversies and pessimism
Despite its success, Million Dollar Baby also sparked some criticisms for having introduced a complex and sensitive topic that is still at the center of ethical, religious, and political debate: euthanasia. But Eastwood does not make Million Dollar Baby a dissertation on euthanasia nor a condemnation or acceptance of it. Indeed, he leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether what they witness is right or wrong.
Million Dollar Baby is strongly pessimistic. There seems to be no chance of happiness for the main characters. The movie is an allegory of life according to Eastwood’s vision. Everyone is born with aspirations and dreams, struggles to achieve them but is destined to fail when they come up against the cruel reality. Such themes are not new in Eastwood’s filmography which features recurring topics such as sacrifice; family; forgiveness; revenge; war; and more. Moreover, in his works, Eastwood often outlines American society and its shattered dreams. In Million Dollar Baby he shows a political and social portrait of a group of outcasts who, in spite of everything, continue to fight honestly not to fall into an even deeper abyss.
In conclusion, Million Dollar Baby is a bitter movie where morality and faith intersect, but in which any kind of judgment is set aside. A movie that, unlike what it may seem, in the end, lets a glimmer of light shine through.