In 1931, as the Depression tightened its grip on the American imagination, a very young Bing Crosby recorded a Harry Warren jazz ballad with the words, “I found a million dollar baby in a five-and-ten-cent store.” The song became a hit, and its singer went on to become one of the great icons of popular culture. The country had lost confidence in itself, and Bing’s soothing voice assured people that despite their tough economic circumstances, in human terms, they were worth a million dollars. It’s not completely true, of course. Poverty and failure can degrade humanity, but before dismissing people as five-and-ten-cent types, it’s wise to examine the criteria for assessing their value.
Million Dollar Baby sounds trite and slangy as the title of Clint Eastwood’s new exploration of the defeat, resilience and triumph of the spirit, but it turns out to be perfect. As he showed in last year’s “Mystic River,” Eastwood knows some people face enormous roadblocks in life by accident of birth and happenstance. Some defy their apparent destiny and triumph; others accept defeat and stop trying; still others try and fail, and that is the cruelest human tragedy. In “Mystic River” (2003), Eastwood looked at an entire Irish-American community that scripted its own downfall. In “Million Dollar Baby” he narrows focus to look at three very different people, two of them Irish-Americans, dime-store losers, but underneath the appearances, worth a million.
The title character, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), has held a losing hand as her birthright. As one character comments: “She grew up knowing one thing. She was trash.” Maggie comes out of the Ozarks in southwestern Missouri, where her 300-pound single mother stays on in her trailer park, surviving with her other daughter, also a single mother, on welfare checks, augmented by claims of nonexistent children. Her brother is in prison. Maggie believes that life holds more for her than a life of waitressing in diners until she can afford to buy a used trailer of her own. She heads to Los Angeles, finds work in yet another greasy diner, where she slips table scraps into her apron pocket to stock her refrigerator. In the meantime, Maggie nurtures a dream of putting her life together in the volatile new sport of women’s boxing. She’s determined, but at 32 may be too old to learn the skills to gain self-respect in the ring.
Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) has seen his best years slip away. In his day, he was a top corner man, and put enough together to buy a seedy gym, The Hit Pit, where he trains boxers. Ever cautious about moving his fighters along too quickly, he plots their progress so carefully that they resent the slow pace of their careers, and when they show promise, they leave him for more aggressive agents, bigger purses and a quicker title bout. Frankie’s life is woven of failures. After his wife died, he and his daughter had a falling out in the Irish way, and have not spoken in years. She returns his letters unopened. Frankie makes fitful attempts to learn Gaelic, and reads William Butler Yeats. He says his prayers before bedtime, attends Mass every day, and drives the pastor to an outburst of profanity with his insistence on one-sentence explanations of the Trinity and the Immaculate Conception. His life changes when the girl (she seems much younger than her years) with the Irish name would take her dreams into Frankie’s gym and demand that he become her trainer. He scorns the idea of “training a girl,” but before long he seems to have found the daughter he lost.
The third loser is Scrap (Morgan Freeman), an ex-fighter who began his career in the segregated South, fought his way to a title bout and then stayed around for one bout too many and lost an eye. Frankie, his corner man at the time, knew the extent of the injury and could have stopped the fight, but failed to protect his fighter. As a result, Frankie lives with the guilt of that night, and Scrap lives with his failure, cleaning the toilets and showers, mopping the locker-room floor with bleach and sleeping in a corner of the gym. He and Frankie have a funny philosophical conversation about the reasons for wearing socks with holes in them, but if he had money for better socks, he suspects he might just spend it on the horses. Scrap functions as a half-blind Tiresias, whose wise voice-over comments reveal more about the characters than they know about themselves.
“Million Dollar Baby” is no more about boxing than “King Lear” is about inheritance law. For the first half of the film, the plot moves swiftly but predictably through the prescribed and tired steps of the sports-fantasy genre. How often have movies given us the talented athlete reaching success under the guidance of a gruff but skillful trainer? But the plot is incidental; this is a film of character. Maggie and Frankie each grope toward redemption of a kind, and in the process they realize how much they need each other. It’s a love story without romance. Scrap, with his own story of near-success and then apparent-failure, mediates her ambition and Frankie’s protectiveness. The three form a kind of trinity of mutual love and support—father, daughter, spirit—that Frankie had struggled unsuccessfully to understand in his theological conversations.
In its last 40 minutes, the film changes direction abruptly and enters a downward vortex that washes away illusion and pretense. In the final sequences, the three have the opportunity to discover what is really of value in their own lives and in the lives of the other two. The remarkable script of Paul Haggis rides the whirlpool with dignity; without flinching it carries us down, down into the darkness while avoiding Hollywood melodrama. It reaches for the tear ducts without bypassing the brain. I’d like to say more about this, much more, but I can’t without softening the devastating impact of the film itself.
The cast plays off one another with rare skill. Eastwood, now 74, lets Frankie’s voice sink to a strained rasp as though this exhausted man must struggle to fight one more round in life. At this point he wants only “to live alone in the bee loud glade.” When his latest prospect tells him he’s moving on to another manager, Frankie takes one more body blow with dignity and disbelief, but his shoulders seem more rounded after the conversation. Hilary Swank has no bravura scenes, but under her “hillbilly” twang and lack of social graces, she radiates determination and dignity. She will do what Frankie tells her, but she will not be subservient to him. She insists on buying her own speed bag to use in the gym. As she counts out the small bills and coins from her tips, the sporting goods salesman looks on in disbelief, but she never looks up or offers a word of explanation. Morgan Freeman has made his own the role of wise man and sympathetic mentor. Scrap has been where Maggie is, and he knows Frankie better than anyone, but he won’t crowd either of them.
Father Horvak (Brian O’Byrne) won’t crowd Frankie either. Initially exasperated by Frankie’s theoretical questioning, when Frankie faces a real, life-and-death question, this intelligent, compassionate priest hears him out, offers his opinion clearly but not imperiously and then leaves him alone in the church to make his own decision.
If I were to nitpick—and it seems churlish to do so with a film of this rare quality—I would question the overdrawn caricature of Maggie’s family. They appear twice in the film. In their first scene, their aching ignorance and ingratitude for Maggie’s help embarrasses her; in their second, their callous self-interest cuts her to the heart. In this final meeting, Maggie finally summons the courage to tear herself away from her roots. This wasn’t the ending she envisioned for herself or her family, but like Frankie she has the courage to take one more blow with dignity as well as with regret.
Paul Haggis adapted the script from a short story in Rope Burns, a collection of fight stories by a veteran corner man, Jerry Boyd, writing under the name of F. X. Toole. Clint Eastwood did his own quiet, lyrical score, which forces reflective attention on the interiors of the characters rather than the action.
All the ingredients come together to make a gentle, but insistent statement that in an earlier era would have been called Christian humanism. Regardless of the term we use at present, we can embrace the sense of worth that Eastwood finds in his characters and that the characters find in one another. They are vulnerable without being weak; strong without becoming hard. They are like Yeats’s poetic cabin: Of clay and wattles made.