THE Best Picture: Million Dollar Baby (2004)

By Christian DiMartino

Say what you will about Clint Eastwood- many, in recent years, think he’s a meanie-butt-boomer-conservative. In ways, sure. But that doesn’t get in the way of the fact that I love the man. Eastwood is a Hollywood icon, and whether or not you like him as a person, it would be hard to deny just how talented he is. Not just talented, but multi-talented. Eastwood is turning 91 in May, which frightens me, but the guy is still going strong. Since 2010, he has made eight movies- in both 2014 and 2018, he made two movies in those years. Mind you, he’s had his missteps (I didn’t care for The Mule, but it had its moments, and The 15:17 to Paris was at times painfully bad), but he made a movie as good as Richard Jewell when he was 89. I know that when I turn 89, I’ll barely be able to write a sentence.

See, Eastwood is a great filmmaker- he doesn’t always make great films, but when he does, they’re usually pretty special. He’s also a damn fine actor too- most think of his younger, western days, but watch something like The Beguiled. He kills. Eastwood also dabbles in music, which is strange, but then again he did make Jersey Boys and Bird, so it’s not that strange. In terms of choosing Eastwood’s finest directorial outing, everyone probably has a different answer, but it probably really comes down to three: his Best Picture winning western Unforgiven, his close-to-Best-Picture-winning Mystic River, or his second Best Picture winner, Million Dollar Baby, though surely the argument could be made for Letters From Iwo Jima, American Sniper, Play Misty for Me, etc. My vote goes to Mystic River, but sometimes I teeter towards Million Dollar Baby.

Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby was indeed Eastwood’s second Best Picture winner to date. Eastwood, 74 at the time, also became the oldest Oscar winner for Best Director. It was also filmed in 37 days. That’s right, Million Dollar Baby, which won Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actress (Hilary Swank) and Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman) was made in 37 days. How he could make two movies as emotionally grueling as this and Mystic River back to back and beyond me, but how he could pull off an achievement this grand in 37 days will always make me tip my cap.

Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby is a masterpiece; a sports film that pulls anyone in, regardless of your interest in any sport, invests you in the lives of each of these characters, and by the end, kicks your heart so hard in the ass you won’t know what hit you. Eastwood’s film is an achievement of writing, directing, and especially acting. It was barely able to screen in time for the Academy Awards (usually movies premiere at all of the film festivals and start gathering their buzz), but the momentum for Million Dollar Baby was so strong that it came in at the last minute and pulled off a victory. A victory that, I believe, it deserved.

Million Dollar Baby follows a grouchy and strict boxing coach and physical trainer named Frankie Dunn (Eastwood, in one of his finest hours on screen). Dunn has been doing this forever (remember, he’s 74) but he has one key rule: he doesn’t train girls. In walks Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank), who is flat broke (she works as a server and she eats whatever scraps are left over) but has huge dreams of making it big time as a boxer. She is super determined, but Dunn won’t train her because of his golden rule. Yet after consistent persistence, and a little assistance from Dunn’s friend and co-trainer Eddie (Freeman), he decides to take Maggie on. The two form a pretty strong connection and friendship, and he builds Maggie up to be quite the big deal. Yet Dunn also faces the harsh truth of why he didn’t train girls in the first place.

Million Dollar Baby is at times so heartwarming you want to hug the screen. I particularly love a scene involving Freeman and an aspiring weakling named Danger (Jay Baruchel). I won’t dive into the details, but it’s pretty awesome. The screenplay by Paul Haggis (of the much hated Best Picture winner Crash) is rather excellent too, filled with its fair share of funny moments. Yet it’s the film’s final act that is filled with so much emotional power, it is pretty hard to shake.

Eastwood was at least given a Best Actor nomination here, and he should’ve been. Sure it’s the grouchy old man role we’ve seen from him, and yet this one is done a little different. In that final act, there is a lot of soul put on display from him, and it’s really phenomenal acting. Speaking of phenomenal, Swank more than deserved her Oscar here, and her work here is so strong that I wish she would get another role that’s worthy of her (girl, what are you doing?). Freeman is wonderful too, as sort of Dunn’s confidante and voice of reason.

Million Dollar Baby would go onto win Best Picture over the likes of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (Eastwood got to win four Oscars before Scorsese could win one), Alexander Payne’s Sideways, Marc Forster’s Finding Neverland, and Taylor Hackford’s Ray. I love all of those films… but the Academy made the right call on this one. Million Dollar Baby is indeed a winner, and it deserved the win.

Million Dollar Baby: A+

Best Picture

Did Win: Million Dollar Baby

Should’ve Won: Million Dollar Baby

Best Director

Did Win: Clint Eastwood- Million Dollar Baby

Should’ve Won: Eastwood

Best Actor

Did Win: Jamie Foxx- Ray

Should’ve Won: Johnny Depp- Finding Neverland

Best Actress

Did Win: Hilary Swank- Million Dollar Baby

Should’ve Won: Swank

Best Supporting Actor

Did Win: Morgan Freeman- Million Dollar Baby

Should’ve Won: Freeman, or Clive Owen- Closer

Best Supporting Actress

Did Win: Cate Blanchett- The Aviator

Should’ve Won: Blanchett, or Natalie Portman- Closer

Best Original Screenplay

Did Win: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Should’ve Won: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Best Adapted Screenplay

Did Win: Sideways

Should’ve Won: Sideways

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