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Tough ain't enough
A film review of MILLION DOLLAR BABY by Camus

Did you see The Rock? Yeah, I know, apologies for reminding you that Michael Bay (or rather Michael Bay movies) are still out there somewhere. Screenwriter William Goldman sat open mouthed as the movie's spectacular car chase destroys half of San Francisco. He says in his essay Who Killed Hollywood...

It goes on and on and I remember thinking as I watched: Connery has to get away because, if he’s re-captured, the whole thing was pointless and should have been cut. Guess what? Cage re-captures Connery.
I was describing my anger at this sloppiness to Clint Eastwood one day. "It's crazy," I said. "He already had Connery as a prisoner, so the entire car chase turned out to be simply a waste of movie time and millions of studio dollars. It made no sense."
Eastwood, who is smarter than most of us, looked at me for a moment, then said "Bill, today the car chase is the sense."
From the book The Big Picture
by William Goldman

Well earlier this week, Eastwood got the Oscar nod for Best Director and Best Movie. Maybe today (or at least tomorrow) is about STORY. Make us care. Clint Eastwood is as durable a movie icon as you could wish for and he knows how to make movies the way movies used to be made and thank God someone is still out there practising and excelling at their craft. When Eastwood picture dissolves, it means 'a passage of time', the staple meaning of a traditional mix. When Eastwood cuts to a building, we know where we are and the next cut will invariably take us inside the building. Eastwood frames traditionally, cuts traditionally and thank you Academy members last night for giving a loud holler welcoming back narrative to the fold. Old fashioned it might be but hell, at least it IS fashioned, crafted, made with passion and do you know how refreshing it is to see a movie that delivers the emotional goods without the computer butting in for a moment? Very.

Eastwood allows his stories and his remarkably talented casts to dominate the craft and there is not one 'look at me' shot in the entire man's oeuvre. As a director he is invisible. As an actor (I mean the man is 74, remarkable) his screen presence is now embedded inside a public consciousness that has grown up with him. I was too young for Rawhide, too insular for Sergio Leone (I did later make up for this appalling lack of foresight) and too knee-jerk liberal for Dirty Harry. Eastwood was just a trigger finger and I often made the mistake that many have. You can't see Eastwood for the "Freeze!". He was so much the cop/hawk politician that his sensibilities were often submerged by other people's assumptions (perhaps I mean just my own) regarding the clichéd political biases of the right. That he is a talented musician and jazz aficionado seemed to preclude him from most stereotypical right wing thinkers. I was wrong. My God, the haunting, lyrical score for Million Dollar Baby was written by, you guessed it, Clint himself. When does he sleep?

I was in California in 1982 and had a reason to visit the Warner Brothers lot. I passed by Eastwood's production offices, Malpaso, and was amused to note that he had three parking spots reserved with his name stencilled on each. Naïvely I thought "The absurdity of Hollywood power, the granting of things no one man could possibly need." And then I grew a brain and figured he may have a few guests popping by who may be driving. In L.A.? It's feasible.

For myself, Eastwood is on an incredibly interesting journey. His movies seem to mirror what I believe to be his changing tastes, the way we change when we get older and he riffs on his younger subjects and characters but adds depth from experience. Unforgiven is the 'real' B side of the gun-slinging automaton he excelled at in his early days. The assured and mature Bridges of Madison County tells of middle aged passion in a way that seemed real and was never less than entertaining. In fact, in Eastwood's career as an actor and director, you can see Shakespeare's ages of man pass before you, in full celluloid glory. Clint has really grown up on screen and it's a sight to see. Age has upped his vulnerability quotient and it's precisely that vulnerability that makes his characters more rounded, more believable, characters you invest in.

Despite my rampant and unassailable passion for David Fincher's extra-ordinary and groundbreaking Fight Club, fighting is neither something I personally enjoy nor condone. Even though Malcolm McDowell got hurt for saying to David Warner (as H. G. Wells and Jack The Ripper respectively) something along the lines of "The uncivilised man is the first to turn to violence." I'd still have attacks of spurious morality if I find boxing on TV. I might take a cursory glance but I keep thinking "Money…" Is there any other point? There can't be anything good about two people trying to knock each other out, can there? But then the world would be a poorer place without Mohammed Ali, that's for sure. So it's a good thing that Million Dollar Baby could have been about needlework - the thing isn't 'the thing'.

But (tut tut) Million Dollar Baby lies its ass off in its trailer. OK, maybe it doesn't lie but hell, it plays the 'female Rocky' card as three aces but the movie damn well full houses you. I checked off all the inspiring sound bites from the trailer in the movie in under an hour or so, so was astounded when the prize fight came up a good thirty five minutes away from the actual end of the movie. I will not spoil anyone's enjoyment of the film by giving anything away but with good movies, you can't really second guess the direction the film takes. If it had ended Rocky style, it would not have been as uplifting as that sweaty fairy tale because Clint was taking us down different, darker alleys, sowing seeds, giving his fellow actors enough rope to lasso major awards. And did they ever.

Hilary Swank is Maggie Fitzgerald, what's known in the American South as 'trailer trash' with a gloomy future knee deep in fat and suds (and re-electing born again Christians as President). She believes that with the right training, she could be (I can't believe I am typing this) 'a contender…' After some modest success, her parasitical family (quite the most odious and despicable characters I have seen on screen for a long time) leech and leech again. At one point in the film, their disrespect and infinitely horrific disregard for Maggie floors me. When the pen drops you'll know the moment. Swank is utterly believable, even as a rather fast knocker-outer female boxer. She has the moves and that steadfast precision of knowing how and when to move in a scene. It's almost as if she knows the framing of each shot, so comfortably she exists inside the screen's four lines. Her Oscar was deserved for technical merit alone. As I have not seen the performances of all the other nominees, I won't go down the very dubious road of comparisons. I'll leave the absurdity of the annual Academy blow out to be munched up and spat out by my fellow Outsider, Slarek, here.

One of Frankie (Eastwood) Dunn's ('done', get it?) previous fighters, having lost an eye after his 109th and almost final bout, is Eddie 'Scrap Iron' Dupris, played by Morgan Freeman. Now correct me if I'm wrong but doesn't Morgan Freeman exude such presence and authority, it's hard for an audience not to see Morgan Freeman and see the character instead? Yes, he'd have a devil of a job convincing us playing an elf but he is a consummate actor with a barrel load of skill and charm to boot. But I have not seen him lately in a role that seems to stretch that stoic 'seen-it-all' tough when he has to be persona he's adopted for a decade now. He has gravitas by the bucket load and he may have interesting problems playing a nasty character because the man is so honest on screen. But it's also (Shawshank-like) Freeman's voice over that keeps Eastwood's movie laced up. It's a lovely surprise to find out he's not actually delivering a voice over for our benefit.

But whichever way you cut it, it's Eastwood's movie all the way. It's heartening that his estranged relationship with a daughter who continually returns his letters unopened is never resolved. That would be too Hollywood to have her wander back into his life. The movie ends on a minor key that leaves you wondering after the credits if the man actually found the peace he was looking for. But as a study in loss, redemption and renewed hope, Million Dollar Baby is your ticket.

Whether it was 'better' that The Aviator is a silly question, the kind that Hollywood likes to ask and answer every year in an 8 hour telethon. Marty Scorsese will have another shot. I mean he's a mere nipper at 63 compared to Clint...

Million Dollar Baby

US 20045
132 mins
Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood
Paul Haggis
Tom Rosenberg
Albert S. Ruddy
Paul Haggis
from stories by
F.X. Tool

Tom Stern

Joel Cox
Clint Eastwood
production design
Henry Bumstead
Clint Eastwood
Hilary Swank
Morgan Freeman
Jay Baruchel
Mike Colter
review posted
3 March 2003