Some are born auterus. A rare few grow into auteurs having started off as meticulous metteurs, honing their craft along the way. Perhaps Clint Eastwood is the only filmmaker who started off as a himbo in sphagetti westerns and then became an iconic star while also ploughing an unobtrusive furrow as a filmmaker. Though Oscars are not usually the infallible guides to achievement – given the razmattazz of showbiz, the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing, the glitzy art of public relations that are such an intrinsic part of the whole glitzy show – they do end up recognizing merit in unlikely places. Clint Eastwood is the shining example. He has invested hackneyed genres with contemporary meaning but without shouting from the rooftops, flaunting “the look at me, ain’t I clever” bravado. Eastwood had a cult following as a star and now, that cult following has overflowed into acclaim for Eastwood the lowkey auteur. It’s time to look at this phenomenon.
“Girlie, tough ain’t enough”… It’s a loaded line that acts as a catchphrase, sums up the theme, describes the two main characters as also their dramatic conflict that reaches a deeply affecting resolution, and finally with succinct poetry, salutes the true commitment that tough love demands. The line is also a cliché. It takes genius, unshakable self-confidence that comes from deep conviction and courage to make a cliché the heart of a masterpiece. Clint Eastwood has it all and to prove it, he makes a film about a boxer, and a woman boxer at that! With not even a whiff of a likely romance and yet a profoundly moving story, about a gritty young woman and two grizzled men, which plays out like a brooding melody written for a cello and two violins. Million Dollar Baby is all this and more. It is hard to make this confession, because normally, a film about boxing (with the exception of Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull ) raises my critical hackles in an instinctive act of self-preservation. To put it simply, I just dislike – if not actively hate – boxing and attempts to glorify/justify/explain the bloody sport. But then, Million Dollar Baby comes with haunting, melancholic poetry under its guts, glory and heartbreak tale to sneak past your guard. Add the sheer persuasive skill of its austere narrative, depth of emotion and layered meanings under the sinewy structure – you have an ambivalent classic for the post-feminist age.
You thought Clint Eastwood was way past dealing knock out surprises. The good ol’ man with no name of the spaghetti westerns has made a habit of Oscar doubles when he turns a worn out genre inside out to deliver simply superb films. Million Dollar Baby is probably his best film in a directorial career that blazed a new trail with Unforgiven. It is a film with body, heart, and dare I say it, soul. The body is supple and lean ; the heart, intensely empathetic – to avoid the word compassionate, now cheapened by the self-righteously conservative Bush doctrine. And as for that elusive entity soul, it whispers like unspoken poetry between the frames and under the lines. The poetry is seemingly casual yet premeditated, harsh and tender, and glimmers through the muted, noir lighting that breathes out pessimism by the lungful. The poetic intent is acerbically echoed by Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) as he reads Yeats aloud in his trademark raspy voice, in the unlikely environs of a stark office overlooking the bare-boned, high-vaulted gym. It’s strange how well the vowel-softened name Frankie – everyone calls him that – suits the weather-beaten, world-weary, poetry-reading, priest-baiting tough guy character than the more formal Frank. The film is full of such thoughtful contradictions that belie their deliberation and seem organic to a story that triumphs over the inbuilt danger of trite sentimentality.
At the receiving end of all this poetry-spouting is an equally gruff Morgan Freeman, under whose long-suffering expression lurks the amused smile of affectionate tolerance for the inexplicable quirks of an employer who was also his manager a long time ago. In the tart-tongued forbearance of Ironsides Dupris (Freeman), the director finds the perfect voice to frame the narrative. Eastwood’s choice for the wisely unobtrusive narrator is an ex-boxer who has lost one eye and yet sees everything with a clarity denied the others. This tone of detached affection is a brilliantly mordant touch.
And the million dollar baby of the title is Maggie, a 30-year old waitress who has gravitated to Los Angeles like millions of others, chasing an impossible dream. Hilary Swank seems destined to play gender-benders – her first Oscar was for Boys Don’t Cry – guaranteed to keep film scholars and feminist theorists busy for decades, deciphering the subtext and debating its seminal significance. The second Oscar was a foregone conclusion. As the raw-boned, gawky Mid-west girl with no education and even less pretence but with gut-wrenching courage under the contempt-inducing vulnerability, Swank defines the blood, sweat and tears that great acting demands. As Maggie launches into a grueling career of pummeling, punching and honing her fighting prowess to outlast younger contenders, you can’t imagine anybody other than Swank in the role.
Time for a digression I simply can’t resist. It was sheer chance that I happened to see on cable an early Swank film where she flags off this career of taking on the world – and her own demons – by willing her body to do the mind’s bidding. In the tritely formulaic The Next Karate Kid, Swank plays a discontented upper-class, orphan who finally wins her never-ending high school battles thanks to the martial arts taught by a kindly old Japanese man. The film was laughably predictable – but Swank swans through the inanities with a nice mixture of adolescent awkwardness and her discovery of innate grace. There is yet another element of predestination in the uncanny coincidences between her real life and the seminal role she was chosen for. On Oprah, during a pre-Oscar show, Swank talked of her working class divorced mother who drove down with the teenager to LA with just 80 dollars or so. The mother had lost her secretarial job and she seized on it as a liberating opportunity to let young Hilary chase her dream of acting – even if it meant living in a car and calling agents from public telephones! It is an amazing act of faith in a talent that has been redeemed by such stupendous success – material for a script awaiting an enterprising writer.
Eastwood the director keeps the focus trained on the three characters, with Dupris slipping with consummate ease between being detached observer and engaged participant in the brutally tender drama that unfolds. Seemingly tough as nails, he is a real softie . Dupris keeps the shabby gym in order, as the boss struggles over Gaelic texts in between keeping an eye on the few boxers doing their workouts. It is Dupris who spots the talent under Maggie’s determined – if ill-directed – punches, unmindful of the jeering men. Dupris is adroit, in the way he casually manipulates Frankie to notice Maggie’s promise and nudges the cautious coach to throw an appeasing crumb at the eager young woman. Maggie is tenacious as a little terrier, snapping at Frankie’s heels, begging, badgering and sassing him to take her under his wing. Caution seems to have become Frankie’s middle name, because he feels guilty that he did not throw in the towel after Dupris’s eye was badly cut up in a fight all those years ago, resulting in the loss of that eye. Frankie loses a promising young black boxer to another manager because he keeps putting off the big fight, deeming his protégé not yet fully prepared.
Something about Maggie’s persistence and the rather lonely figure she cuts in that all-male bastion gets through to Frankie. “Tough ain’t enough” is also a motto strung across a banner in the coach’s shabby office – without the demeaning girlie suffix. The arc of the film is the growth of a girlie into a fighter – a fighter in every sense, not just the ring. Maggie shrugs off Frankie’s dismissive put downs with the amiable cheeriness of a persistent puppy, calling him Boss – against his express commands – whenever he deigns to spare her a word. Soon, he is giving more than the occasional word and Maggie is his new protégé, christened La Grusha for its Celtic sound without knowing what it means.
The first lesson is elementary: she must move her feet and not just hit out at the punching bag from a stationary stance. A subsequent shot shows Maggie’s scruffy-shoe clad feet mince with a dancer’s gait while waiting tables. Maggie is sadly, pathologically typical and also extraordinary, almost inspirational. She is white trailer trash from Missouri and the only time she is happy in her bleak miserable life is when she is boxing. She is old for a boxer looking for a career but Maggie has the innocent ferocity of a repressed child when she finally gets into the ring: she knocks out her opponent flat out within minutes of the first round. Frankie has to drill it into Maggie that people come to see a fight that lasts at least a few rounds. A quick learner, eager to please the boss, she complies but still sends the other girls reeling from her quick clean blows. The actual fight scenes are few in a film about the triumph of an unknown star and the unexpected tragedy that ends a brief brilliant career. Even in those few scenes – except for the climactic title fight where Maggie’s crippling injury is captured in slow motion – what comes across is not the science of the sport but Maggie’s pure sense of joy and exultation without the necessary touch of malicious intent and violent impulse. That is why, the tragic irony into which the film fades away, the unexpectedness of the ending is so quietly devastating – yet, there is a strange uplifting spirit that lingers and stays, offering a humane and philosophic comfort that no formal religious doctrine can.
Eastwood doesn’t fight shy of taking religious dogma on. Frankie is a Catholic who baits the youngish priest with questions on the Virgin Birth and the exact corporeal nature of the Holy Trinity. The tone of the banter establishes that it is boringly familiar and childishly repetitive – the rules are set and it changes when Frankie is faced with a moral dilemma that only he can resolve. The script is based on Rope Burns, a collection of boxing stories by F.X.Toole, a pen name for an author described as “a veteran boxing cornerman”. The writing is remarkable for the nuances of conversation as they reveal the strength and degree of relationships. The priest appears in less than half a dozen scenes but the tone is as distinct as the needling, terse exchange of near insults between Frankie and Dupris – it tells you instantly that they both go a long way back and the hows, whys and wherefores drip off the conversational tap, like a leaky faucet left dribbling.
The talk between Frankie and Maggie follows a different pattern: from terse commands to grudgingly granted familiarity, desultory small talk on a long drive to her Missouri home deepening to impulsively given confidences dredged from a painful childhood. The alternately lit faces on this drive is a masterly matching of sound and shifting image, a subtle underlining of the importance of listening if conversation has to have meaning. Eastwood arrives at this meaning and takes us along on this journey into a troubled past and nudges us towards a happier present and promising future…But life doesn’t fulfill all the promises it holds out so tantalizingly. Frankie and Maggie learn this great essential truth, together and individually. Between getting battle ready and the slow savoring of first victories, something else happens. What started off as the traditional mentor and student relationship is now an unacknowledged in so many words but a full-blown father-daughter bond… surrogates Frankie and Maggie have been searching for all their lives without being aware of it.
Frankie is a loner. We first see him putting away yet another letter that comes back unopened from an estranged daughter we never see or hear. Nor does Dupris ever enlighten us why they are estranged while he writes the last, long letter to the daughter telling her what kind of man her father is. Maggie is more forthcoming. The person she misses most, who understood her most, is her father who died. The rest of her family is ghoulishly rapacious – they come to LA when she is lying stricken in hospital but visit her at the fag end after taking in all the touristy sights in garishly vacationing clothes, only to demand her signature on papers that will sign over her money to them! These scenes are unnecessarily grotesque and the only flaw in an otherwise impeccable film. However, it underlines the depth of affection between two people who find an anchor and purpose in life – something that goes above and beyond the professional ties that brought them together.
The gravitas of dark themes sits with easy grace on Clintwood the director who seems to drawing from the depths of experience to build up a remarkable oeuvre – there, I said the critically over-loaded word, a word no one ever thought would one day describe the work of a star who gloried in being Dirty Harry. The unlikely auteur now overshadows the star who had perfected the lean mean laconic screen persona. Mystic River, made in 2003, is a probing essay on the inescapability of shared guilt and the permanent trauma of childhood sexual abuse, It is relentless in its exploration of scarred psyches and the grinding banality of Boston’s working class Catholic neighborhood. But the tone is non-judgmental and a deep understanding of flawed human nature raises it above the police thriller format in which this complex narrative unfolds.
Another string to Eastwood’s creative bow is his role as composer. Mystic River has a complex score that swells and ebbs to capture the film’s many emotional strands and multiple themes. The simple, melodic score of Million Dollar Baby has the quiet poignancy of a lonely guitar being plucked unseen in a dark night, echoing the muted, mono-chromatic tones of the cinematography.
The Clint Eastwood legend has branched out to embrace a remarkable auteur and an iconic star. The menace of the growled, make my day, punk is relegated to memory. There is a mellow, self-mocking tone to the roles he plays, to complement the range of emotions and themes he explores with incisive insight and warm empathy as director. Now, Eastwood evokes poetic effusions – surprisingly from the New York Times, which pens an ode to his “leathery masculinity”. Another American critic takes a cue from the star-director’s upright litheness and likens the pared down narrative to the lack of any superfluous flesh on the spare frame. Americans – at least the critics – love it when a genre is revitalized by an iconic star. Genre films validate Hollywood history with a reassuring confidence in the vitality of a formula that can excitingly break free of hallowed generic conventions – even subvert them – while apparently adhering to the rules. It is like having your conventional cake and licking the critical icing too.
What is remarkable about Million Dollar Baby is how seamlessly the conventional stru-cture and subversive departures are woven together. The clean precise lines of the chosen genre float and meld into the narrative’s fluid spontaneity, and this fluidity doesn’t overflow into emotio-nal excess. The restraint of less being more, the discipline it demands is achieved by the creation of classic noir ambience. Million Dollar Baby is in color but the overwhelming impression is the artful poetry of black and white, the balance of shadow and light – and to extend the dualities, cynicism and faith, hope and despair, loneliness and bonding.
Now for the unforeseen fallout from the Oscar triumphs of a film not wildly popular with the mass audience. In early April, Becky Zerlentes, a 34-year old female boxer died after being knocked out with a head injury and died without regaining consciousness. Tragically, she had told her coach that this was to be her last match. It again raises the rationale – physical, emotional and psychological – of women’s boxing, amateur and professional. Journalist Leah Hager Cohen came out with a book, Without Apology (Random House) in which she examines the lives of four adolescent girls in a Boston boxing club and the relationship between female aggression and femininity. From observer, Cohen became a convert to the boxing creed and confessed her new found love on the highly-respected National Public Radio in an hour-long interview with live callers-in. 95% of the callers questioned the author’s equation of boxing with assertion of aggressive female power. Linked to the danger of physical injury is the betrayal of feminism by such unthinking adoption/imitation/glorification of male role models. WWF is one thing but female boxers are an entirely different matter.
Old-fashioned disapproval coexists with the enthusiastic embrace of female aggression by a minority of women, This makes Million Dollar Baby the perfect text for feminist film studies. The film is a fable for the post-feminist age. Textbook feminism will read in Maggie’s fate the ultimate punishment for a woman daring to succeed in a male sport even as it ostensibly celebrates female aggression. That is so 70s! But where does aggression end? The female guards of Abu Ghraib reveled in degrading their Arab prisoners by flaunting their sexuality and asserting brute power. A tide of revulsion has swelled under the patriotism of many thinking Americans.
Curiously enough, Million Dollar Baby’s Maggie is almost asexual and she remains the girl child forever, seeking the father’s love and admiration. For her, boxing is not only a source of joy but the only means to escape the morass of demeaning status and poverty that is the lot of white trash. Nothing is held in as much contempt as white trash in America. It is seen as betrayal of a self-imposed and divinely ordained destiny of success that all hardworking whites are supposed to be born with. Maggie’s means of escape from this deadly swamp of poverty is her body – not in its sexuality but as an instrument of skill and power. Now that we take women’s aspirations and success for granted, the mantra is to succeed at whatever one has chosen and devil take the doubt. Choice is the key word. Yet, there is unease at the valorization of the female warrior in a man’s field. One wonders…would a desi avatar of Maggie generate this ambivalence? We do have the cult of Shakti, who at least in popular perception, contains within herself aggressive female power and femininity.
An ex-English lecturer drifted into the world of films through a series of happy accidents. Regular contributor to London-based South Asian Cinema as member of its editorial board. Currently columnist on current cinema for Man’s World. Contributing to Frontline, the Hindu, Cinema in India the NFDC quarterly, Zee Premier, Screen, Bombay Magazine, Independent, Sunday Observer, Gentleman, Deccan Herald, Illustrated Weekly. Wrote for the New York based Film Comment, International Film Guide and the BFI website. Have served on international juries in different film festivals. Based in Mumbai, India.