Million Dollar Baby is a drama about an ambitious female boxer who seeks guidance from a long-time trainer. The two, each with their own family issues, bond like father and daughter, until a devastating setback.
The other nominees for Best Picture that year were The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray and Sideways. In addition to Best Picture, Million Dollar Baby also won Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Freeman), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Swank) and Best Director.
"Million Dollar Baby" starts out like any typical sports film: where an underdog seeks training in order to accomplish big, possibly unrealizable goals. In this case, Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank) has a harder task ahead than many: starting older than is recommended, a female in a male-dominated field, and seeking the guidance of a hardened trainer, Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), who initially has no interest in helping her.
Through her determination and positive attitude, she manages to convert him to her cause. That's when the movie really takes off: as the two train for what could be an impressive late-blooming career.
But the movie is much more than a sports film. Both Maggie and Frankie are alienated from their families. In Maggie's case, we find out why as soon as we meet them: her family are selfish, mean-spirited, and demanding. In Frankie's case, we have no idea why he and his daughter are on poor terms, only that his letters to her keep coming back unopened.
Frankie and Maggie form a bond, in essence becoming each other's family. He gives her the nickname "Mo cuishle," though he doesn't tell her that it means "pulse of my heart" or "my darling." This bond would be tested, though, in extraordinary ways. And that's where, in order to avoid spoilers, I've got to stop.
Whatever you might think about the ending of his film, there's no doubt that it is a new breed of boxing movie: one that highlights personal relationships above everything else. The understated writing, courtesy of screenwriter Paul Haggis (based on a book of short stories by F.X. Toole), aids the equally subtle performances of Swank and Eastwood, who perhaps deserved the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, if he hadn't been up against Jamie Foxx's portrayal of Ray Charles in "Ray."
It's difficult for a quieter movie to compete successfully for Best Picture against showier films, message movies, and biopics. In this year, three of the films (The Aviator, Finding Neverland and Ray) were biopics. The critics' darling, Sideways, was more of a dramedy than a drama, an humor traditionally has a harder time at the Oscars. Thus, like a late-blooming boxer, Million Dollar Baby, and its controversial ending, took the title.
Rating: **** (4 out of 5 stars)
It's difficult, but not impossible, to write about this film with no spoilers!