I was in a pub recently with a few friends, when the conversation turned to films, as it usually does at some stage of the night. We started naming actors, and seeing how many films we could remember that they featured in. The actor we found to be most memorable was Clint Eastwood. This somewhat unscientific process indicates that while Clint may not have made more films than anyone else, he has certainly featured in a significantly higher number of ‘memorable’ films than most.
With his latest venture, Million Dollar Baby, he has done it again. Million Dollar Baby is based on the short story of the same name, in a book of boxing-based stories, Rope Burns – stories from the corner by F.X. O’Toole. It tells of the relationship between young Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), driven to become world champion, and seasoned cynical trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) who reluctantly agrees to take Fitzgerald under his wing. This is not a film about boxing – don’t go in expecting another When We Were Kings. Rather, it is a story about two people, set against the backdrop of the boxing world.
The film also stars Morgan Freeman as Scrap, a retired boxer who now serves as Dunn’s sidekick. Freeman fulfils a similar role to that which he had in The Shawshank Redemption, as a character who appears to have lived a difficult life but survived to tell the tale. It is no surprise that Freeman will play Nelson Mandela in the film of Mandela’s book, Long Walk To Freedom. He brings a casual gravitas and authority to the role (“I gravitate to gravitas”, he once said) and describes his character as “all-accepting” and “non-judgemental”. A typically accomplished performance earned Freeman a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this year’s Oscars.
Hilary Swank has also been nominated as Best Actress in a Leading Role. Described by Freeman as a “tough lady”, and “a dancer who can anticipate your every move”, Swank was nothing if not committed. Asked to put on 10 pounds of muscle in 90 days, she put on 19. As part of a high-protein bulk-up diet, she drank flax oil, consumed up to 12 egg-whites in a single sitting, and woke up in the middle of the night to take protein shakes. She boxed for 2 ½ hours a day, and worked weights for 2 hours a day, 6 days a week. Like her character, she was born in a trailer park in Nebraska, and she obviously shares her determination. Like her character, she has found something that brings satisfaction: “Maggie has a line in the movie where she says boxing is the only thing I ever felt good doing, and that’s how I feel about acting”. For the role of Maggie Fitzgerald, Swank also had to develop a boxing psyche. She explains that initially when sparring, she would apologise if she struck her opponent. Following some severe words from her trainer, this was but to one side, and she developed a merciless streak that is essential in competitive boxing. Swank’s performance is excellent, simultaneously tough and fragile. She may not win the Oscar this year, but it will be a shock if she eventually retires with just a single gold statuette to show for her efforts.
Along with a nomination for Best Director, Clint Eastwood has also garnered a Best Actor nomination. This is a typically understated performance from Eastwood, a man who has a minimalist style similar to that of Steve McQueen. McQueen was known to eschew detailed monologues or speeches, believing that more could be conveyed by a facial expression, a shrug, or simply by a silence. It seems Clint Eastwood is another noted supporter for the theory that 70% of all communication is non-verbal.
As with two of his most famous directorial efforts, Mystic River and Unforgiven, Eastwood also composed the music for Million Dollar Baby. The music here is consistent with his acting style, and consistent with his other compositions. No thundering fanfares, no triumphant orchestral pieces, just a simple piano sequence that underlines rather than dominates the key events in the film.
Overall then, Million Dollar Baby is an excellent film, well worth €8 of anyone’s money. It is superbly acted and is directed with a minimum of fuss and intrusion, but not lacking in attention to detail. You get the impression that the actors are totally immersed in their roles and actually became their characters for the filming process. It will be a travesty if Swank in particular is not rewarded for her achievement.
Clint Eastwood seems to generate nothing but the most positive of comments. Morgan Freeman described working with him as “a joy”, “it’s like coming home”. Hilary Swank describes him as an “icon”, “a legend”, and “a part of film history”. Let’s hope that particular chapter of history has not been completed just yet.