Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Paul Haggis
Adapted from: Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner by F.X. Toole
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Mackie, Jay Baruchel, Brian F. O’Byrne, Mike Colter
Nominations: Picture, Director – Clint Eastwood, Actor – Clint Eastwood, Actress – Hilary Swank, Supporting Actor – Morgan Freeman, Adapted Screenplay, Editing
Wins: Picture, Director – Clint Eastwood, Actress – Hilary Swank, Supporting Actor – Morgan Freeman

Boxing is an unnatural act, ‘cause everything in it is backwards.  You wanna move to the left, you don’t step left; you  push on the right toe.  To movie right, you use your left toe.  Instead of running from the pain, like a sane person would do, you step into it.  Everything in boxing is backwards.

Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris, Million Dollar Baby

Choice and chance are prominent throughout Million Dollar Baby, just as free will and predestination were prominent throughout Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Alexander Hall, 1941).  It’s fitting that boxing films would use two usually opposed ideas to emphasize their themes, with each getting in a jab here and there before the final decision is presented to us.

Reams of pages have been written about Million Dollar Baby’s third act, both supporting it and opposing it, but often gets overlooked/ignored/forgotten in what’s been written is how the previous 90 minutes influence many of the characters’ choices during the film’s final 40 minutes.  Taking this step back to review the narrative puts both Maggie’s and Frankie’s decisions into their proper perspectives in that while everything beforehand might not have been leading to the film’s ultimate ending, it was definitely leading to a similar ending for the characters.  It’s difficult to see how Maggie doesn’t fall into a funk or even depression once her boxing career begins to slide before coming to an unwanted conclusion.  What then for her?  While loyal and caring, she doesn’t seem like the type who would take over for Scrap; and while smart, determined, and motivated, picturing her taking over the Hit Pit from Frankie and/or training boxers doesn’t jibe with her overall persona.  (Not that she couldn’t do either, but with her passion, anything less than her successes in the ring seem like they’d fall short of her expectations and desires.) 

If I was thinkin’ straight, I’d go back home, find a used trailer, buy a deep fryer and some Oreos…  Problem is, this is the only thing I felt good doin’.  If I’m too old for this, then I got nothin’.

Maggie Fitzgerald, Million Dollar Baby

Frankie’s non-relationship with his daughter seems to be what gives him such an investment in his fighters.  He may have failed as a father, but perhaps he can at least find success as a surrogate father and mentor to others.  Unfortunately, he has a fear of falling short in those roles the way he did as a father that he coddles his boxers too much, protecting them from disappointment.  That fear is what leads to Willie to find another manager; it also contributes to Frankie putting off fights for Maggie.  Thoughts to consider: had Frankie agreed to a title fight for Willie Maggie would probably be okay; had Frankie moved Maggie through the circuit quicker she might still be okay; had Frankie been a bit more thorough with getting a second corner man Maggie fights another day.  These choices make a world of difference, and only one of them need to have gone another direction for the film to take a whole new shape.

There’s a poignant sign on the wall where Maggie works the punching bag: “Winners are simply willing to do what losers won’t.”  We might take it as an established part of the gym, but from what I can find, the gym itself was a set—meaning the sign was an obvious choice.

On the surface, it means what it says.  Winners will do something beyond what losers do.  In a boxing environment, this would apply to training and dieting; but what exactly does winning in life mean?  Yes, succeeding in a career or financially or with personal relationships are sound measures of winning, but when applying the phrase to Maggie and Frankie, we can see how apt it is to them and their situation.  Maggie knows she can’t live the life she wants, needs; Frankie does not want—can’t, even—fail again as a father.  It’s easy enough for both to just wave the white flag and accept what life has given them, but one thing we have to remember is that “everything in boxing is backwards.”  Winning has an entirely different connotation for Maggie after breaking her neck, just as winning for Frankie has shifted to being there for someone he cares for and loves.

At their first meeting, Frankie tells Maggie that “tough ain’t enough.”  Both Maggie and Frankie are tough, to be sure, but in the end, Frankie’s words hold true.  You can be tough to no end, but it when it comes down to facing down a daunting opponent, having heart goes a lot further than being tough.