Million Dollar Baby
Review Date: 3.15.05
Now playing in all the major theaters, Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby is the movie that cleaned up at the Academy Awards. Now that I have finally-and reluctantly-seen it, I wonder why.
It's interesting that the title of the movie points to the one thing the movie itself elides in the relationship between Frankie, the trainer (Clint Eastwood) and the eager untrained white trash woman Maggie (Hilary Swank) who shows up at his gym as an aspiring boxer: money. No matter how much of a has-been Frankie seems to be, it's her family, not him, who's consumed by greed for the potential wealth this human commodity promises and, eventually, achieves.
By now, you probably all know the story: Maggie shows up at the gym; Frankie resists, snarling that he doesn't train girls, until the mediating efforts of Eddie (Morgan Freeman) finally win Frankie over to Maggie's cause. It turns out that Frankie has a professional wound: he's just lost his prize fighter to a manager who will put the guy in challenging fights and take some risks with his body to win big bucks. Frankie is plagued by guilt from having allowed Eddie-who was not his fighter back then-to box until he lost sight in one eye. Guilt and remorse-the stuff of masculine love, the movie suggests--binds the two men forever and they complement each other perfectly, with Frankie giving Eddie a job and Eddie getting Frankie in touch with his feelings. Pause: from the get-go the racial politics of this tale, which resonates mythically as some kind of deep statement about America and masculinity, are problematic: Eddie is the janitor, Frankie's the owner; Eddie's the mediator, Frankie's the strong hard silent wounded type. As far as Maggie goes, Eddie becomes her mother, while Frankie is her father. What gives?
Maggie is badly parented by her white trash mother; her father, dead, remains mythically beloved in her mind. Frankie has some trouble with his own daughter, receiving back every letter he sends with "return to sender" stamped on it. Thus Maggie and Frankie refind in each other, the idealized lost father-daughter bond, a bond the "real" mother in the story tries brutally to interrupt. Eddie, meanwhile, mothers, and does it well, perhaps because he is a Black man, partly blind, and completely loyal to the father. Come on!
Set in the present, and coming hard upon a slew of movies about female boxers, Million Dollar Baby is forced to say a lot, perhaps unwittingly, about race. Maggie becomes the great white hope, her robe emblazoned with a Gaelic phrase that stirs the northern races as she enters the ring to duke it out with a Black German ex-prostitute who fights dirty. How did America miss this? Is it because the heart-warming, heart-rending pathos of the father-daughter relation and the myth of American class uplift crowded out the rest? Is it because there's a "good" Black man in the mix? It seems to me that our movies often get away with unsettling racial messages by inserting one good one for all the bad ones. Maggie's the one good one too, the poor white who wants to make something of herself, unlike the obese, greedy, lazy, ex-con, single mother collection that is her family of birth.
I am panning this movie, it's true. But I won't say it didn't absorb my attention or move me. It did; it has a power no one can deny. The power of myth, one might say. Enough power also to lull us into believing that the enterprise of deriving profit from the ruin of economically disenfranchised bodies presented as spectacle (I mean boxing, of course) is, instead, a heartfelt paternal mission of love. I'm panning it because it's so powerful, because we believe it.
Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.