Made in 37 days and rushed to a few theaters at the end of December 2004 so it would qualify, Clint Eastwoods Million Dollar Baby scored a knockout in the Academy Awards, winning for best picture and best director as well as for best leading actress (Hilary Swank) and best supporting actor (the redoubtable Morgan Freeman). Despite all that, much about the film seems familiar. Freeman plays the boxing has-been Eddie Scrap Iron Dupris, a wise and benevolent black man who is neither subservient nor hostile to white folks. As in The Shawshank Redemption, his character helps the white hero deal with adversity, while his gravelly baritone does the voiceover. Hilary Swank may have trained for months to play Maggie Fitzgerald, a white trash waitress turned boxer, but there is a lot of Boys Dont Cry in her performance. And Clint Eastwood plays the man he always plays, only this time more vulnerably.
We know these characters, and this sense of familiarity is part of the charm of the film. It moves from cliché to cliché with just enough nuance and pacing to keep us entertainedbefore it suddenly veers from boxing film to assisted suicide, from Rocky to Whose Life Is It Anyway? Roger Ebert got carried away when he called the film a masterpiece, but most of the mainstream critics thought it deserved the best-picture Oscar. The dissenting voices came mainly from Rush Limbaugh, Michael Medved, and a host of religious conservatives who worried that it was an affirmation of euthanasia.
Clint Eastwood directed the movie, starred in it, and wrote the music. Now 74 and getting better with agehis successes include Unforgiven and Mystic RiverEastwood can no longer be written off as a man whose only talent is that he looks like a real cowboy. That was how he got his start, as Rowdy Yates in the TV series Rawhide, and how he became an international film star in the spaghetti Westerns. Mostly he kept his mouth shut, and his deadpan, squinty-eyed expression helped make Sergio Leones new, bleak genre work.
Leones films were neither Italian neorealism nor American-style white hats and black hats fighting it out to a reassuring moral conclusion. A Fistful of Dollars, released in 1964, made his and Eastwoods international reputations. The plot was borrowed from a Kurosawa samurai film, the unforgettable music was by Ennio Morricone, and the predominant feeling of the film was a despair reminiscent of Samuel Beckett, an existentialist endgame in which Eastwoods character makes his way through what Pauline Kael described as a reverie of violence. He kills as many people as he canthey are all eviland then rides off into the darkness alone, his thin cigar clenched between his teeth, the stink and the nicotine his only pleasures.
This image of Eastwood has made its way into the annals of neuroscience. A 2004 issue of Science reports that a 30-minute segment from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was used in a functional imaging study to demonstrate that different peoples brains see the world in the same way not only in contrived experimental settings, but also in more natural conditions. The study found that the brains registered the imagesparticularly the close-ups of facesin similarly intense ways. We will have to wait for better neuroscience to tell us why the face-sensitive fusiform gyrus produced such vigorous responses, particularly to the Eastwood close-ups: my own hunch is that all five brains in the study were working overtime trying to decode the undecipherable emotional message conveyed by the Eastwood squint. He was a man with a permanent poker face who never showed you his hole cards. Pauline Kael said of him, in these early films, Clint Eastwood isnt offensive; he isnt an actor, so one could hardly call him a bad actor. Hed have to do something before we would consider him bad at it. Eastwood went on to do Dirty Harry and Magnum Force, films that Kael dismissed as carnage without emotion that make violence perfunctory. She seemed to despise Eastwood as well as his non-acting: to her he had made the sociopath, who kills without feeling, a hero.
Kael was right that Eastwood will never be a great actorat least not her kind of actorbut his lean and disciplined physical presence on the screen has endured and made him what many better actors can only dream of being, a Hollywood star (one who eventually branched out into film comedy, directing, producing, and composing). He has masculine authority without alpha-male swagger and conveys strength without bulging muscles. He does not have the traditional Hollywood kind of sex appeal: he is as cool with women as he is with everything else and waits for them to make the first move. That may not have appealed to Kael, but generations of women have had a different view, and men have admired his masculinity without envy or resentment.
The cold-blooded killer is one side of the coin, but the other is stamped with the image of avenging justice. One book written about the Eastwood image has heroized him as the epitome of physical courage, supposedly the most essential moral virtue. And one distinguished legal academic describes Dirty Harry as an exemplar of the values that the populace can no longer find in the lawyer-ridden criminal-justice system.
Eastwood almost always plays the outsider who refuses to succumb to the corrosive corruption of the system. He is a loner, but in Million Dollar Baby we see for the first time some of his loneliness. An aging trainer and ambivalent manager of boxers, Frankie owns the Hit Pit, a seedy gym. The caretaker is Morgan Freemans Scrap, a has-been boxer who lost an eye in his last bout, with Frankie in his corner trying to persuade him to throw in the towel. These two have been through the wars together; and the friendship that grew out of shared adversity is sustained by a locker-room humor that masks acts of kindness. Even more important, Scrap can see the trouble behind Frankies poker face and knows when and how to help him.
This admirable friendship between an aging black man and a white man allows the audience some upbeat feelings as the drama builds. Racial harmony reigns in the Hit Pit, and when a black fighter picks on a hopeless white kid with dreams of glory, Scrap goes to his defense and proves that he can still take charge with his fists. And it is Scrap who will convince Frankie to train and manage Maggie Fitzgerald, the girlie fighter from the trailer park in western Missouri.
Early in the film there is a fight scene in which Frankies heavyweight contender gets a gash in his cheek that may cost him the fight and his bid for the championship. Frankie pushes the cut man aside and expertly deals with the bleeding. It is obviously a temporary measure, and the panicky boxer asks what to do. Stepping back as the bell sounds, Frankie calmly says, Let him hit you in the face. The bout resumes, the boxer offers his unprotected cheek, and the elated opponents punch causes the blood vessels to constrict and stanches the bleeding long enough to let Frankies fighter win by a knockout.
This is a film about life in a seedy boxing gymnasium, but the style is not gritty realism. Instead Million Dollar Baby is a kind of fable inhabited by characters we recognize but who live only in Hollywoods make-believe world.
Frankies know-how is unsurpassed, but he is a loser; his heavyweight prospect is already moving on to a manager who knows how to do business and can get him a title fight. It turns out that Frankie is burdened by guilt and reticent about pushing his boxers ahead, afraid they will be overmatched and ruined. Scraps lost eye is only one of the reasons; the rest are never made clear. He is alienated from his family and daughter, and in contrition he goes to Mass every day, prays on his knees every night, and sends letters to his family that are returned unopened.
He is a manager without a fighter and a father without a daughter when Maggie Fitzgerald shows up at the Hit Pit wanting him to train and manage her. It is a match made in heaven, but only because the wise, benevolent Scrap makes it happen. A film that avoids gritty realism, it is also entirely without sex or sexual overtones. It is a story about loneliness and the possibility that when our families fail us we may still be fortunate enough to find parents and children who will love us.
Maggie turns into the boxer she dreamed of being, and in the process Frankie obviously replaces her lost father. But Frankies nightmare becomes a reality when Maggies neck is broken and her body paralyzed in her title fight. This is not the perfunctory violence that made Eastwood famous. This film confronts the human consequences. Now Frankie faces the agony of Maggies wish to die, and he is the only one who can help her do it. Her relatives are vultures interested only in what they can scavenge from her ruin.
The final scenes of the move trace Maggies hospital course as a paraplegic, and her disastrous complications are as improbable as her earlier boxing successes. But this is a fable, after all. The bedsores, gangrene, and leg amputation make us understand why a woman whose entire life was physical activity would prefer death. And Maggie, who is not in a persistent vegetative state, makes her desires very clear. The father she loved as a child mercifully killed their crippled dog, and she wants Frankie, the only father she now has, to do the same for her. Frankie is trapped between his Catholicism and his love. And his love cuts two ways: she is all he has in the world, and he wants to hang onto her, but she tells him she has had her moments of glory and asks him to put her out of her misery.
If this is a trap for Frankie, it is a challenge for Eastwood, and he meets it in his familiar lean and disciplined manner. Yet even Pauline Kael might agree that there is something different here. Clint Eastwood may never get an Oscar for best actor, but there is something new in the sorrow of that aged and wrinkled face. It is one of Eastwoods finest moments.
Alan A. Stone is the Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Harvard Law School.