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Million Dollar Baby: Best Picture, 2004

The 77th Annual Academy Awards were hosted by Chris Rock. In a decidedly odd year for the Academy, Million Dollar Baby received seven nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Clint Eastwood, also the film’s director), Best Actress (Hilary Swank) and Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman). Major contenders included Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator (11 nominations, 5 wins), J.M. Barrie biopic Finding Neverland (7 nominations, 1 win), Ray Charles biopic Ray (6 nominations, 2 wins) and Sideways (5 nominations, 1 win). Despite winning more total Oscars (including Best Editing), The Aviator (a dreadful film) lost the two major awards to Million Dollar Baby: Best Picture and Best Director. Sideways took Best Adapted Screenplay, and Ray took Best Actor (Jamie Foxx in the title role). Swank and Freeman won their respective nominations (her second Oscar, his first).

In the film, Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), an old, gruff boxing trainer, reluctantly agrees to coach a female boxer named Maggie Fitzgerald, a determined waitress who dreams of a better life. Freeman is Eddie Dupris, a former fighter who takes care of Frankie’s gym (and narrates the story). As Frankie navigates Maggie towards success in the ring, their relationship deepens and he confronts long-buried emotions regarding his estrangement from his daughter. Maggie, meanwhile, finds in Frankie someone who cares about her far more than her nasty white-trash family back home. Unlike most conventional boxing films (of which there are a surprising number), and, for that matter, most sports movies, the ending proves to be something of a controversial downer (more on that in a moment).

Of course, the backbone of Million Dollar Baby is Freeman’s excellent narration. Honestly, is there a film out there that couldn’t stand to have the voice-over support of Morgan Freeman? He always brings a touch of class, even to inferior material, and this (decidedly not an inferior effort) is no exception. Boxing films, as a rule, generally fail to interest me. I dislike them even when they are well-made enough to warrant appreciation (as Raging Bull is). The saving grace of this movie is that it is not really about boxing, but about two lonely people who fill a gaping void in each others’ lives.

What makes Million Dollar Baby work above all are Hillary Swank’s strong, gutsy performance and Eastwood’s subtle, gruff one. Their quiet moments together are as touching and meaningful as any on-screen relationship I have seen, and all the more powerful because their relationship is affectionate rather than romantic. The necessary fights and training sessions are mere window dressing to the real heart of the film. Their performances make the necessary intermediate scenes (i.e. where the Eastwood character pretends that he will have nothing to do with training the Swank character, although the audience already knows otherwise) watchable and even enjoyable, despite their predictability.

As I mentioned earlier, the film’s ending (in addition to being different) is a source of some controversy, and certainly sets it apart from the average sports flick (indeed, from the average movie). It seems a pity to divulge the ending for fear of spoiling the film, but now that I have danced around it enough to scare off those who do not wish to be spoiled, I shall at least note that it concerns the issue of euthenasia. It is also worth noting that at least as many viewers might dislike the end of the story because it is less than happy as would object ot it on moral grounds. However right or wrong the decisions of the film’s characters may be, though, their actions at least feel germane to the people we have spent the previous two hours and change getting to know. Artistically, I can ask for nothing more than that, and Million Dollar Baby left me feeling good.

My personal favorite among the Best Picture contenders is decidedly Finding Neverland, a thoroughly charming, even magical film, which features excellent performances by the likes of Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, a wonderful score and all sorts of other cinematic delights. Sadly, though it received many nominations, it only won an award for its music. I felt that it should have gotten more recognition. However, my pick for the best film of the year was not nominated in the top category. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with one of the most original scripts of all time and fantastic performances by Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet (again!) and several others. Perhaps it was just too weird, but one would be hard-pressed indeed to find a more profound examination of romantic relationships, or a more deserving film for Best Picture of 2004.

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~ by Jared on June 30, 2008.

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