(This review and the Spanish trailer below are dedicated to mi madre, who saw Million Dollar Baby when it was first released and told me that, even though the film had been nominated for lots of Oscars, I shouldn’t watch it until I was in a better and more stable place emotionally. She was right.)
Two months ago, I started Embracing the Melodrama Part II. At the time, I announced that I would be reviewing 126 cinematic melodramas and I would get it all done in 3 weeks time! Well, here we are 8 weeks into it and we are just now approaching the finish line. That’s okay, though. Even if it’s taken me longer than I thought it would, I’ve still been having fun writing and sharing these reviews.
I’ve been posting these reviews in chronological order. Though it may be hard to remember, we started with a 1927 silent classic called Sunrise. From Sunrise, we’ve worked our way through history and we’ve taken a look at films that are both famous and obscure. And now, 104 reviews later, we finally reach the 2004 best picture winner, Million Dollar Baby.
When I first saw Million Dollar Baby, I had two reactions. On the one hand, I thought it was a great film. I thought it was a film that featured great performances and which gave me a chance to experience a world that I did not know much about. I thought to myself, “This is a film that future directors will cite as an influence. This is a film that proves that, even if he does sometimes make movies like Hereafter or Jersey Boys, Clint Eastwood still deserves to be known as a great American filmmaker.” On the other hand, I thought to myself, “This film is so damn depressing that there’s no way I’m ever going to watch it again.”
And really, it is an amazingly sad film. When the film starts, of course, you don’t think it’s going to be sad. You think it’s going to be your standard sports film, the one where the underdog beats the odds and becomes a champion. For one thing, the film is narrated by Morgan Freeman and Morgan’s got that voice that makes you believe that there is some justice to the universe. Secondly, Hillary Swank is so appealing in the role of Maggie, a waitress who wants to become a boxer, that you just know she deserves a happy ending. At first, veteran trainer Frankie (Clint Eastwood) refuses to work with her but her determination wins him over. And soon, Frankie — who, in typical Clint movie fashion, has a strained relationship with his daughter — becomes a father figure for Maggie.
And as you watch Maggie find success as a boxer, you’re so happy for her. I certainly was, despite the fact that I know next to nothing about boxing beyond the fact that it’s something that I would never want to do. And when Clint starts to soften up to her, you’re not surprised. After all, he’s craggly old Clint Eastwood. He’s scary but we all know he has a heart of gold. Add to that, Morgan Freeman’s still telling the story and surely the voice of God would not allow anything bad to happen…
And then … tragedy. By the time that I finally saw Million Dollar Baby, I already knew the story’s big twist. I knew that, as a result of a brutal fight, Maggie would be left paralyzed. I knew that she would beg Frankie to euthanize her. But seriously, imagine what a shock it must have been for audiences when this film first came out.
I mean, everything’s going perfectly and then suddenly, it’s not.
To a certain extent, I was jealous of those who got to see Million Dollar Baby without any advanced knowledge of the tragedy that defines the final third of the film. When I watched the film, I found myself dreading the thought of enjoying any of Maggie’s triumphs because I knew what was going to happen. Those who watched the film with know knowledge may have been shocked but at least they got to believe, for a few scenes, that Maggie could find that perfect sports film ending.
Then again, Million Dollar Baby is a great film because it refuses the temptation to give us the ending that we all want and expect. Instead, it’s a movie that celebrates the people who will be there for you even when thing’s suddenly aren’t perfect.
That’s why Million Dollar Baby works as well as it does. Unfortunately, it’s also why it’s a film that I could only watch once.