I once read an article in London’s Evening Standard in which a journalist took England’s most famous female boxer, Cathy Brown, to see Million Dollar Baby. Brown had recently knocked out Hungarian Viktoria Varga after just two rounds– exactly the type of fight Hilary Swank’s character, Maggie, excels at in the film. I’ve seen the film again recently and nowadays it’s even more satisfying to watch Swank swing out a meaty arm and knock someone senseless. I just wish we could CGI a #metoo tattoo on her knuckles.
But what is it with boxing and films? Why does boxing transfer so well to cinema when, for example, movies about hockey or football frequently suck? Say what you like about Sylvester Stallone, but I can’t help but remember my pre-adolescent stirrings at the sight of his armpits in Rocky. (If you think you’re disturbed by that, imagine how I feel.) Scorsese got more from one shot of blood dripping from rope in Raging Bull than he was able to muster in 3 hours of the crap Hughes bio-pic, The Aviator. Would On The Waterfront have been quite so moving if Brando had been, say, a failed golfer? There’s something evocative about the strength, sadness, and end-of-the-line desperation of people who get beat up for a living.
Boxing is drama reduced to a simple conflict– two people face to face with only fists and their minds as both weapons and defense. The sport has a structure that is inherently cinematic: The rounds of only a few minutes a piece, interspersed with terse exposition, loads of blood as eyelids get sliced open and noses re-arranged while pretty girls in hot-pants stroll around holding up placards. Plus boxing films have the climactic potential of the old KO! Add two condoms and a pizza and you’ve got an enviable Saturday night.
Million Dollar Baby relies on a lot of standard cinematic relationships, and it is all the better for that. Eastwood is too experienced to avoid the necessary and enjoyable cliches: He knows their power. Swank’s Maggie is a classic underdog, born of the trashiest family in a trash-filled town, and freely confesses that if she were thinking straight she’d buy herself “a used trailer, a deep fryer and some oreos.” Eastwood’s Frankie is a world-weary old trainer with a heart of gold, who helps his boxers with their automotive problems and worries about their health. The story is told in flash-back, in voice-over. And who’s doing the voice-over?? It’s only the buttered gravel voice of Morgan Freeman. The man who could read the back of a tampon packet and make it sound folkloric.
Eastwood and Paul Haggis, the screenplay writer, also rely on one of my favorite movie conventions: The Same Sex Non-Sex partner. Think Laurel and Hardy, Voight and Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, Butch and Sundance. (In fact, the only film cliche I like more than the Same Sex Non-Sex partner is The Makeover. I just adore it when someone in a movie takes a beautiful person with glasses on, makes them up, and suddenly. . .guess what?! They look like a movie star!)
Eastwood and Freeman are world-class SSNS partners. I would happily watch hours of footage of these two characters, Frankie and Scrap, shopping with double-discount coupons at the Piggly Wiggly. The best SSNS couples express their affection through rudeness and honesty. After Frankie’s #1 fighter coldly dumps him for his rival, Scrap observes, “It wouldn’t be so sad if you weren’t so old.” Exactly.
That’s exactly right.
And that’s exactly why Frankie has taken as his motto: “Always Protect Yourself.” He doesn’t want his fighters in over their heads, because they might get hurt; yet he doesn’t want to get attached to them because he might get hurt. And that’s doubly true with women. He doesn’t want to train girls because it’s not only painful to watch women get beaten up, it’s a painful reminder of girls who are no longer around to watch at all.
However, Frankie forces himself to throw caution to the winds: After several refusals, he allows Maggie to fight Billie, the WWF champion. Billie’s a dirty fighter (we are told she’s an ex-hooker from Berlin, so presumably she’s a little cheesed off, what with us winning the cold war and her giving all those low-paid blow jobs). And, in an exceptionally dirty move, Billie throws a series of illegal punches which culminate in Swank’s spinal column getting snapped.
Which brings us back to what Cathy Brown–remember the English boxer?–thought of Million Dollar Baby. She felt that the film enacted a big fear that people in the boxing world have always had about women’s boxing: “That a serious injury to a woman boxer might destroy the sport. I think some people will come away from this film not wanting to see women box in real life. That would be a shame. We train as hard as men, we fight as hard, and we have the same right to be in the ring.”
I can see why Brown would worry about that, but in fact this film reflects quite well on women’s boxing (though rather less well on ex-hookers from Berlin). What I would say to Cathy Brown is this: A. Please don’t kick my ass, and B. Maggie traveled places she’d never imagined visiting, earned beaucoup bucks, excelled at a sport she loved, and found a very meaningful relationship with Frankie. As Scrap points out, “People die every day after mopping floors. Never got their shot. If she dies today she’ll be thinking ‘I did all right’.”
In short, thank Christ for Clint Eastwood. The dude delivers clunkers sometimes, but hey, he’s still delivering. In Million Dollar Baby he made an intelligent, serious, thoughtful film. He doesn’t have the soundtrack shout his intentions at us (are you listening, Scorsese?? Howard Hughes was deaf: I am not). Now that Woody Allen’s lost the plot and Coppola’s a wine-maker, we’d better take good care of Old Man Eastwood. So eat your greens, Clint baby. . .and I’ll forgive you for the empty chair speech. Eventually.