Let’s be honest, no one wants to watch women fight unless there’s going to be bikinis and jello. But let’s set that horribly sexist world aside for a moment and dream that a woman who was nothing but trash all her life can become something bigger than herself. A fighter. Champion of the world even. Our Million Dollar Baby.
Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) owns a little no-frills gym where he trains young men to be boxers. He’s been training most of his life. He goes to church every day, often pestering the young priest afterward with odd and inappropriate questions about God. His daughter won’t have any contact with him, all his letters just get returned back to him. And he won’t let his current fighter into a championship match. Frankie may not realize he’s in a rut or see what’s right in front of him to help him out.
Maggie Fritzgerald (Hilary Swank) has been practicing at Frankie’s gym for a while. She’s a spunky woman with more ambition and heart than any man Frankie has trained. After watching her practice on her own with no training, Frankie and his partner Eddie (Morgan Freeman) can’t take watching her make her little mistakes over and over. Frankie is dead set on not training her, but after one little talk with the poor woman just trying to punch her way out of her white-trash roots, he starts training her. To train boxers, you’ve got to be tough, but Maggie hits a soft spot on Frankie.
Training Maggie isn’t just a wash. With Frankie’s help, she quickly rises to a great fighter and in no time Frankie puts her in real fights. Her technique is to win quickly, often knocking out her opponent in the first round. Frankie gives her the Celtic nickname of Mo Chuisle and it isn’t long before crowds are chanting it.
At the heart of Maggie is a fighter, in all walks of life. It’s only after she bares her white-trash roots to Frankie agrees to train her. She saves the tips from her job as a waitress to buy her own boxing equipment and as she becomes a successful fighter, she tries to help her family out by buying her mother a house. The generous gesture is only met with dismay and worry about being kicked off welfare.
It takes some real guts for a woman to portray a boxer. This is not a glamorous role for Hilary Swank, but she brings all the guts, heart and ambition that make a fighter great. She has the balls enough to bring Maggie’s winning personality through a broken nose and rise to the occasion with blood flowing through her eye. Few actresses can do that and this makes Swank completely badass. And don’t knock her in the later, more tragic half of the film. That one sentence telling off her lazy-ass mom has just as much gusto as a good right hook.
The meat of the film is that both Frankie and Maggie are lost, lonely and determined souls. And the impact they have on each other’s lives is moving, heartbreaking and nothing less than astounding. With this being a beautifully visual film with a huge heart, I can agree with the best picture award.
But just to let you know how close the pick for 2004 was for me, I was awake most of Thursday night with Sideways ready to post, wondering if I had made the right choice. In the end, it was Million Dollar Baby’s visual style, working in and out of the lights and Swank’s amazing acting that finally let me sleep. Besides, I believe there needs to be more great films with a woman in a non-traditional role. And afterwards, I looked up how much it would cost to hang a punching bag in my office, but that’s a dream for a paid writer.
“It’s the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.”