Million Dollar Baby find easy cover for its flaws in the inspired acting of Morgan Freeman, Clinton Eastwood and the beguiling Hilary Swank. Audiences are accustomed to Eastwood=s minimalist hard-boiled approach – here he plays Frankie Dunn, boxing trainer,cut man and impresario of the Hit Pit, a gritty fighter’s gym in East Los Angeles. Frankie nurses dark wounds buried deep within his psyche, looks to religion in vain for answers, and eventually shuffles off to a limbo of permanent disillusionment. This is not a Rocky lookalike movie.
Morgan Freeman’s character, Scrap, was added to the script for balance and counterpoint. Scrap is not to be found in the short story of the same title by writer and former cut man F. X. Toole, but his stoic wisdom and brooding presence adds philosophical depth to the story and a resonant narrative voice. Scrap is the name of a former contender well past his prime, rather like the one in the Simon & Garfunkel song, The Boxer. “I am leaving…I am leaving…but the fighter still remains”…..
The simile is figurative, however. The character portrayed by Morgan Freeman is too old for the ring, but his fighter’s heart never abandons him. He never wallows in self-pity, never succumbs to self-doubt, and following the ancient wisdom of boxing, stalks forward behind his jab, probing for the heart of his opponent. Scrap’s missed the mark for the title shot long ago and lost an eye besides; now he lives permanently in a sideroom alongside the gym and tries to help Frankie understand and forgive himself. He also helps with the boys. Boys?
“I don’t train girls”, Frankie tells Maggie Fitzgerald, when she first begins to pester him to train her.
“And tough ain’t enough!” one of Frankie’s favorite maxims.
Women are no longer such a new thing in boxing as they were ten years ago when feminine flailings were too ugly and horrible for afficionadoes of the sport to watch. Just one generation later, there are women fighters who can feint, slip, move, jab and hook, and fire power shots in a way often indistinguishable from their male counterparts. Nor do female fighters of today fit cruel stereotypes. Maggie Fitzgerald, played by Hilary Swank, is lithe, long-legged, graceful in movement, a statuesque beauty. People who frequent boxing gyms these days will often find this no stretch of the imagination.
Maggie thrives under Frankie’s tutelage, his management of her labors. She sometimes bristles under Frankie’s ‘old-school’dictums and there is humor in the contrast between Frankie’s sclerotic wariness and Maggie’s earnest and determined eagerness to succeed. The appeal of Swank’s character lifts this film from a mere good story to the level of an American tragedy. The closeness between fighter and trainer, the mix of intimacy, hardness, compassion and the ecstasy of the shared mutual dream is written on Maggie’s bloodied face.
She’s a phoenix rising out of a trailer park trash heap. She wallops like a man. She postures like a tomcat on steroids but her femininity bubbles up, exuberant, vulnerable and fragile as eggshell china, and she grows on you as she grows on Frankie and you want to get behind her as Frankie steers her through the multilayered infernos of boxing hell.
Of course Maggie trips up when she hits the big time. That’s a fairly common thing in professional boxing, I don’t have to tell you. Boxing is about obstacles. Everything that happens in the ring and around it is an obstacle. Punches. Knockdowns. Pain. Loose talk. Losing. Even winning can be an obstacle for boxers. Unfortunately, Maggie=s setback is not just a temporary one and here’s where the movie becomes agonizing. I don’t know how much agony is appropriate in a movie but let’s just say It was a mismatch within the interlocked fates of Frankie Dunn and knockout artist Maggie Fitzgerald.
I mentioned earlier where Frankie went. You’ll have to see for yourselves where Maggie went. The good news, if you can call it that, is that old Scrap is soldiering on, holding it down at the old Hit Pit in East Lost Angeles, among a cast of characters you are not likely to see at the country club picnic this year.