Sunday, February 4, 2018

Million Dollar Baby

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

I’m not much of a sports fan, but I do enjoy films about sports. It may be difficult for some to say they “enjoyed” this very sad Oscar winning movie for Best Picture of 2004, but there is much to admire about it, and it somehow is able to find humor despite the tragic nature of its tale. The story is one about people with punishing pasts and how they deal with the physical and psychological blows they have sustained.
I talked about the successful use of a voice-over last week in Goodfellas, and director Clint Eastwood (Oscar winner for his direction here) uses it effectively by having the character Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman, Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor) provide it here (Eastwood must have decided that Freeman’s narration was such a positive part of The Shawshank Redemption that he would try it again). As in  Goodfellas, the narration does not replace the visual, but enhances it. Scrap’s words provide information about the fight game, but he also has a bigger picture wisdom that adds insight to the movie’s characters and events. Scrap (whose nickname can imply that all that has been left him are life’s “scraps,” or that he is “scrappy”) informs us that Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is a great “cut” man, fixing up boxers in the corner between rounds. Scrap says there are times one can’t do anything about how the fight is going, the cut is too close to the bone, or there has been a severing of a vein, and that all our efforts can’t make a difference. Of course, Scrap’s words can apply to life in general. But Frankie would work every angle he could to turn a bad situation around in the ring. We see a fighter bleeding badly from a wound near his eye. Frankie’s seemingly contradictory advice to his fighter is to let the opposing boxer hit him. The punch pushes the coagulant Frankie administered go deeper into the wound so as to stop the bleeding.
Yet, even though, as Scrap says, boxing exists because those in the fight game know that people support the sport because of a love of violence, Frankie has retreated from confronting the savagery of the sport by playing it safe with the prize fighter he is managing. Big Willie Little (Mike Colter) wants his shot at the championship, but Frankie keeps telling him he is a couple of fights away from that goal. Scrap says that in boxing, sometimes you step backward to deliver a punch, “but step back too far and you ain’t fighting at all,” in boxing and in life. Frankie has been trying to play it safe in a sport that, by its nature, defies safety. Scrap knows Frankie understands the nature of boxing because Frankie has said that “boxing is an unnatural act, that everything in boxing is backwards.” Scrap illustrates this point by showing how a fighter must defy what his body knows is best for him: “The body knows what fighters don’t: how to protect itself.” When a guy is getting beaten up, the body says to him, “Hey, I’ll take it from here because you obviously don’t know what you are doing. Lie down, now, and rest, and we’ll talk about this when you regain your senses.” So, even though the fighter should stay down for his own good after getting knocked to the canvas, the true boxer will rise up to continue the battle. He will persevere, which Scrap says is the “magic” in boxing, because, battling, “beyond cracked ribs, ruptured kidneys, detached retinas,” there is a risking “of everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.” We have here a metaphor for how we must continue to fight as we focus on our dreams while enduring the batterings that life can deal us. Willie, although very grateful for what Frankie taught him, goes with another manager, and wins the championship. Scrap tells Frankie that the real reason that Willie left him was because Willie didn’t feel that Frankie believed enough in him. From a broader view, sometimes we need the support of others to help us triumph over the punches that life lands on us.

We see Frankie saying his prayers, so we know he is a believer. But, maybe because he is a fighter at heart, he battles the impatient priest, Father Horvak (Brian F. O’Byrne), over concepts in the Catholic religion such as the Immaculate Conception and the Holy Trinity. One scene which is funny occurs when Frankie sarcastically likens this latter concept to “Snack, Crackle, and Pop all rolled into one big box.” The weary and indignant priest responds by saying, “You’re standing outside my church, comparing God to Rice Krispies?” But despite the humor here, Frankie’s questioning springs from the conflict between believing in the ideals of his religion and reconciling those precepts with his real life negative experiences. He is estranged from his daughter, to whom he writes every week, only to have the mail returned unopened, like unanswered prayers. We later learn that in Scrap’s last fight, the manager was drunk and absent, and Frankie felt it was his responsibility, as the cut man, to stop the contest, even though he had no authority to do so. Scrap lost an eye due to the beating in the match. Despite their bickering with each other, Frankie has stayed close to Scrap, having him work in his gym (the “Hit Pit,” a name that doesn’t sound encouraging), and allowing him to live there. Father Horvak says that Frankie’s showing up every day for mass for twenty-three years indicates he “can’t forgive himself for something,” and Frankie’s guilt has made him fearful, which is counterproductive in a dangerous sport.

Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, winning her second Best Actress Oscar here) shows up at the gym. Scrap’s voice-over tells us that she came from an impoverished, tiny town in the Ozarks of Missouri, “Somewhere between nowhere and goodbye.” Not exactly a place one wants to call home. Scrap says Maggie grew up knowing her whole life that “she was trash.” Given that perception it seems fitting that we watch her pick up other people’s garbage, leftovers from the meals she serves them, that she then wraps up for herself, telling the boss it’s for a dog she doesn’t have. But she gathers these food remnants because she has a plan to emerge from the trash. She is saving money by scrimping on buying food and collecting tips to pay her dues at the gym. She has relocated because she wants Frankie to manage her. Frankie’s first response is that he doesn’t want a girl in his gym, and tells Scrap to return her dues. But, she has paid six months in advance, and the gym is not doing well financially. Maggie’s drive to succeed is obvious as she stays after closing time to practice. Scrap, despite the setbacks in his life, wants to encourage the hopes of others. He allows “Danger” Barch (Jay Baruchel), a skinny, mentally challenged young man, who was abandoned by his mother’s boyfriend, to work out for free. His nickname is at odds with his appearance, but, like Maggie, he wants to rise above his disadvantages. Scrap allows Maggie to stay late at the gym and gives her some tips, as well as Frankie’s old speed bag for practice.

Frankie’s first response to Maggie is a sexist one. She tells Frankie she wants him to manage her. After she says she is tough, he says, “Girlie tough ain’t enough.” A sign on the gym wall says that winners are those who are willing to do what losers won’t. Maggie is that kind of winner. This film is about female empowerment, where women fight not only to beat opponents, but to gain respect as formidable individuals in an area which accepts male toughness as the basis to exert power. One male fighter, Shawrelle Berry (Anthony Mackie) is a bully, and he harasses both Danger and Maggie because they don’t fit the usual requirements for boxers. He makes fun of Maggie’s small breasts, but Maggie shows she can hold her own. She undermines his macho stance and reverses his put-down, pointing out his mammary obsession by telling him, “I saw your last fight, Shawrelle. Spent so much time face down I thought the canvas had titties.” Scrap tries to encourage Frankie to help out Maggie, saying she has something. Frankie’s funny reply is, “Yeah, she’s got my speed bag.” Frankie tells Maggie that she’s too old to try and become a prize fighter. She is thirty-one, and it takes five years to train properly, and then she will be going up against stronger and faster twenty-year-olds. Frankie discovers she has been working out after hours one night and she says that it’s her thirty-second birthday, and she is celebrating. She lets on about how she comes from a world of losers when she says, “I spent another year scraping dishes and waitressing which is what I have been doing since thirteen … my brother’s in prison, my sister cheats on welfare by pretending one of her babies is still alive, my daddy’s dead, and my momma weighs 312 lbs. If I was thinking straight, I’d go back home, find a used trailer, buy a deep fryer and some Oreos. Problem is, this is the only thing I felt good doing. If I’m too old for this, then I got nothing.” This speech presents how the hopelessness of Maggie’s world could lead to accepting the deaths of a young child and that of a parent as routine, and acknowledging that one is only worthy of getting a “used trailer,” and succumbing to an unhealthy lifestyle. Maggie is willing to fight against what seems like the inevitable. She tells Frankie that she doesn’t want pity, and is willing to work to earn her way. She says, “I want a trainer. I don’t want charity, and I don’t want favors.”
After losing Willie, and a chance at getting a title shot, Frankie decides to help Maggie, but only until she is ready to be managed by someone who handles female fighters. Maggie wants Frankie to believe in her, just as Willie did, but with Maggie and Frankie, it is more like a father-daughter relationship. Maggie lost her father at a young age and feels alienated from her family. Frankie no longer has any contact with his daughter. So these two are drawn together now in an attempt to fill the familial void. As Maggie improves in her training, she keeps asking Frankie if it’s time for her to have a fight. Frankie has already shown a fear of putting boxers in danger based on what happened to Scrap, and that anxiety is increased with his new boxer, Maggie. But he also fears getting too close to her and being hurt again, which is what happened with his real daughter. When he sees a manager at the gym who handles female fighters, Frankie abruptly dumps Maggie onto the other manager. He has continually told her to protect herself when in the ring, but he is now trying to protect himself emotionally, and, ironically, hurts Maggie by betraying her. She goes with the new guy who promises her a fight. Scrap and Frankie attend the match, but Frankie can see that the new manager has failed to prepare her for the fight. Scrap says he learned that Maggie was being set up to lose in order to build up the reputation of the other boxer. Frankie’s paternal instinct kicks in and he butts in, telling Maggie how to deal with her opponent. Maggie fires the new guy, saying it wasn’t a “good fit.” When the referee asks Frankie if Maggie is his fighter, he says yes, finally committing himself. Maggie knocks the other girl out. After the fight, Maggie repeats Frankie’s words about always protecting oneself, and asks if he was protecting her by dropping her. He said no, and when asked if he will leave her again, he says, “never.” Frankie is now all in.
Maggie is extremely successful, to her own detriment. No manager wants to embarrass his fighter by having her knocked out in the first round. So Frankie actually has to pay the men representing other fighters to set up matches with Maggie. In the voice-over, Scrap says that Frankie had to do want he feared - he moved Maggie up in class, exposing her to more dangerous fighters. In one fight her nose is broken, and she is bleeding profusely. This event echoes what happened to Scrap, and Frankie wants to throw in the towel. Maggie shows her determination, gets Frankie, the cut specialist, to stop the bleeding temporarily, but she must win quickly, or the blood will start to gush. She does, but they must go to the hospital afterwards. While waiting to be treated, Frankie is reading as he often does. He was previously seen reading Gaelic. Scrap asks him what he is reading now, and he says Yeats. Scrap’s funny line is, “Why don’t you talk a little Yeats to her. Show her what a treat that is.” But despite the humor, Scrap is concerned for Frankie after seeing Maggie hurt, and asks how he is doing. Frankie tries to avoid anything emotional by asking why is Scrap asking him, since Maggie is the one that is hurt. In the voice-over, Scrap’s statement about some wounds being too close to the bone fits metaphorically here. Frankie bleeds internally from the emotional wounds inflicted in his past.

Maggie has twelve straight knockouts and she is becoming well known and earning money. Frankie gets an offer to fight Billie “The Blue Bear” (Lucia Rijker), the welterweight champion, for the title. She is considered the dirtiest fighter in the ranks, and we see her grinding her glove in an opponent’s eye, and punching her when she is still on the mat. But she gets away with her infractions because the crowds love her. This fact points to how boxing cashes in by catering to the unevolved, brutal nature of humans, who support the beating of people to experience the vicarious adrenaline thrill of knocking someone else down to build themselves up. Scrap says at one point that boxing is about gaining respect for oneself by taking it away from another. It is a nasty way of gaining respect, but the boxers are putting their well-being on the line, while the spectators risk nothing. Again, in order to protect Maggie, he passes on the bout with Billie.

Scrap knows that holding back a boxer with Maggie’s drive is not what she wants. He takes her for her birthday to a diner, tells her about Frankie feeling guilty about Scrap losing his eye, and says that maybe Frankie isn’t the guy to get her to a title. He has the manager who took over Willie’s career show up at the restaurant. But Maggie is loyal to Frankie, and tells him politely that she will not leave him. Frankie does agree to have Maggie fight the British boxer, who Billie recently beat, in England. Frankie gives Maggie a robe with the Gaelic saying, “Mo chuilse” on the back. The crowd chants those words as a welcome and it becomes associated with Maggie, whose last name, as does Frankie’s, indicate they have Irish roots. There is an ethnic community feeling here from a people of battlers who have had to fight famine and poverty, and in the film it becomes universally symbolic of the struggles of all downtrodden people. As Scrap says, “Seems there are Irish people everywhere, or people who want to be.”

Maggie wins that fight and others all over Europe, and her reputation grows. But despite her victories, she cares about the health of a fighter who sustained a concussion in their fight. Frankie, knowing the nature of the game, says she can’t worry about that, and sarcastically says if she is so concerned why doesn’t she offer the other boxer the prize money. However, Maggie’s ability to show compassion despite the violence of her occupation shows what an admirable person she is. Frankie is starting to feel confident again about the chances of being part of a championship team, and his fear for Maggie fades as he negotiates a fifty-fifty split of the purse in a bout with Billie.
Frankie once told Maggie that when she had enough money she should buy her own house free and clear. Maggie, still wanting parental approval, unfortunately seeks it from her deadbeat family. She buys a house for her mother not far from where Maggie grew up so that her mom and sister’s family can live there. She makes this purchase a surprise. When she meets her family at the house, her relatives just complain. Instead of expressing gratitude, the sister says there aren’t appliances, which Maggie says are on their way. The mother says that if she has a house in her name she will lose her welfare check and Medicaid assistance. Disappointed at their reaction, Maggie still promises to send money to her mother to help with expenses. Her mother, Earline (Margo Martindale), says that people just laugh at the fact that Maggie is a boxer, a profession that is considered not fit for a woman from where she comes from, and tells her to get a man to support her. Maggie’s family of damaged people can’t find it within themselves to admit that someone like Maggie has found a way to escape their situation when they haven’t. They don’t allow themselves a chance to work their way up in the system, so they exist by scamming it. Earline won’t concede that there is a chance in the modern world for a woman to rise up on her own, because that would invalidate her own life, and so she still endorses the backward belief that a woman needs a man to get by. (This story about a woman with talent trying to rise above her low-life world is similar to the current film, I Tonya).
On the way back from the unhappy meeting with her family, Maggie sees a smiling girl with a dog at a gas station. She tells Frankie that they had a dog when she was young. The animal became sick and lost the function of its legs, dragging itself around. Her father, who was also sick (it seems all living things suffer in Maggie’s world) took the dog away one day and brought his shovel with him. When he returned, he came back alone (This story is a foreshadowing of what is to come). After the way her family just acted, Maggie says that now all she has is Frankie. He says, “Well, you’ve got me.” So the movie doesn’t get too sentimental, Frankie jokes by saying at least until they can find her a manager. Maggie has Frankie stop at a little restaurant where her father took her, and where she enjoyed some sanctuary amid the tough times of their everyday life. She remembers that Frankie wanted some good homemade lemon pie, and here he enjoys a slice that he can relish. He wonders if the place is for sale, and says he has some money now stashed away (another foreshadowing). Maggie loved her father, the one happy thing about her childhood, and that one gift was taken away from her at a young age. She here tries to recreate that feeling of happiness with her new surrogate dad.

They go to Las Vegas for the championship bout with Billie. The purse, which they will split fifty-fifty, is a million dollars, and because Maggie is the real draw, she is a million dollar baby. Even though Frankie invites Scrap to come along, he feels he has to maintain the gym. He has been reduced to janitorial work, fixing up a clogged toilet. But, the plumbing problem is a diversion so Shawrelle can get Danger in the ring and he badly beats the skinny youth. When Scrap goes to Danger’s aid, Shawrelle taunts Scrap about his age. Scrap takes one of Danger’s gloves and flattens the bully. In Scrap’s mind, he always felt he had one more fight in him, and he feels that his career is now complete. There is a feeling of satisfaction here that Scrap wins one for the underdog, which is what Maggie has done with her battles.

In the title fight, Billie again fights dirty, grinding her glove into the eye and hitting Maggie after she is practically thrown to the ground. Maggie battles back and knocks Billie to the mat for a count of nine. However, after the round is over, Maggie turns her back on Billie as she goes to her corner. Billie slams her with a blindside punch which sends Maggie falling to the mat. Unfortunately, the corner stool was placed on the mat at the end of the round. We have a slow motion sequence that has Maggie falling and Frankie reaching for the stool, trying helplessly to do what he wanted for his boxer, to protect her. Maggie’s head strikes the wood, breaking her neck and leaving her a quadriplegic. She can only breathe with the help of a respirator.

Frankie has many doctors do consultations, but Maggie’s condition is considered permanent. Maggie is not bitter nor does she break down emotionally. She is of such a generous nature that she worries more about how hard Frankie is taking things, and blames herself for turning her back on Billie. Frankie at first lashes out at Scrap for pushing him to manage Maggie, because, he says, then she wouldn’t have been placed in jeopardy. Frankie feels so guilty about another person he cares about getting hurt that he must blame someone else to lessen his feelings of responsibility. Maggie shows no anger, and can even joke with Frankie about how she said she wanted to fly to Vegas and return by car, and that’s what happened, only she came back in an ambulance. Scrap and Frankie visit often, with Frankie spending most of his time at the rehabilitation facility, saying he would just be reading somewhere else anyway, so Maggie won’t think she is taking up his time. He keeps up hope, getting a college catalog, saying she can go back and take courses. She says he should retire and get a cabin somewhere. He wants her to come, and she says sure, she will bake him pies and he can read. To hear them pretend to plan for a future that will never happen is extremely sorrowful.

Frankie tried to get in touch with Maggie’s family, leaving messages, but they show no concern as they fail to respond. They finally do show up at the hospital after spending an extended time at a nearby hotel, wearing clothes from their visit to Disneyland, paid for out of the money Maggie has been sending her mother. Instead of showing how much her mother cares about her daughter’s condition, the first words out of her mouth are a criticism, saying how Maggie’s hair looks so “greasy.” Earline has brought a business manager with her and wants Maggie to sign an agreement that would turn over the handling of her assets to the family so that her estate will, according to her mother, be preserved. Maggie asks her if she saw her last fight. Her mother says she doesn’t watch that sort of thing, and besides, she points out, Maggie lost. She doesn’t want her daughter to succeed, but feels better about herself if she labels her a loser, like herself. She can’t comprehend the possibility of her child trying to live a better life than her own. In a particularly cruel act, she puts the pen in Maggie’s mouth to sign the document. But Maggie, despite wanting her mother’s acceptance, is made of sterner stuff. She lets the pen drop out of her mouth. She tells her mother that because she was afraid of losing her welfare checks, she never signed the house’s ownership papers. Maggie tells them to get out and never come back or she’ll sell the house right out from under her mother’s “fat, lazy, hillbilly ass.”
As time goes on, Maggie’s skin develops ulcers because of the pressure building up due to lack of movement. One on her lower leg becomes badly infected, she develops gangrene, and her leg has to be amputated. As she declines in health, she asks Frankie if he remembers the story about her father and the sick dog. Frankie says he can’t help her die. She tells him that after having people chant for her, and seeing herself in magazines, she can’t live such a helpless life. She tells him that her weight when she was born was a little over two lbs, and she has had to fight her whole life to survive. She tells him, “I got what I needed. I got it all. Don’t let ‘em keep taking it away from me. Don’t let me lie here ‘till I can’t hear those people chanting no more.”

Because Frankie said no, Maggie tries to end her own life by biting her tongue, trying to bleed out. They stitch her up and she does it again. They stop her from doing it another time, but at this point it is almost like torturing a suffering person. Frankie struggles with Maggie’s request, knowing terminating her life is a sin in his faith, but letting her live is like killing her, too. He goes to Father Horvak, who of course says Frankie can’t commit this sin, but even if religion is taken out of the equation, the priest says Frankie will not be able to recover mentally from committing this act. Frankie tells Scrap that he knows the ex-boxer didn’t bring this suffering to Maggie. Frankie says he’s the one that killed her. Scrap says no, that Frankie gave her the chance to be what she wanted in her life. He says there are many people who die every day who never got a shot at what they wanted. Scrap is glad he had that chance. He says to Frankie, “Because of you, Maggie got her shot. If she dies today you know what her last thought would be? I think I did all right.”
Frankie sneaks into the clinic at night. He finally tells Maggie that mo chuilse means, “My darling, my blood.” He picked that robe to show how much he loves her, and really sees her as a daughter. With this admission, he then shows her what he feels is mercy by disconnecting her breathing tube, and giving her a shot to ease her into death. Frankie then disappears. Scrap says that Danger, after disappearing himself following his beating, resurfaces and comes back to train, showing how he can deal with his past and move on. Scrap and Maggie came to terms with their pasts, and carried on, no matter how horrible the struggle. But can Frankie?
We now see the source of the voice-over. Scrap is writing a long letter to Frankie’s daughter, trying to tell her what kind of man her father is, hoping that maybe she will open and read a letter from him, if not from her father. Scrap writes that he does not know what happened to Frankie. He offers that maybe there was “nothing left in his heart. I just hope he found someplace where he could find a little peace … somewhere between nowhere and goodbye.” The last shot we see is of that restaurant close to where Maggie grew up, where she shared some good moments with her father, and where Frankie ate the lemon pie. We see a figure that could be Frankie through the curtains in the window. Perhaps he could still feel connected to Maggie in the one place where she found peace by sharing her love with the fathers in her life.

The next film is Throne of Blood.

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