Year Released: 2004
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman
(PG-13, 137 min.)
Academy Awards (2005)
Actor in a Supporting Role: Morgan Freeman
Actress in a Leading Role: Hilary Swank
Director: Clint Eastwood
"We are punished by our sins and not for them." Elbert Hubbard
Are we cursed to live in an age when all the best stories have already been told? What is left then, except to retell them, perhaps adding a macabre twist or two?
In some sense like the aged Michael Caine and Robert Duval in Second Hand Lions, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman of Million Dollar Baby are two retired adventurers living out a dull end-of-days existence. No longer in the ring themselves, they coach others, with Eastwood’s specialty his unique ability to stem bleeding just long enough to allow his fighters to deliver a winning blow.
Million Dollar Baby begins as a sort of feminist rendition of Rocky, featuring Hilary Swank in the role of aspiring contender. Equipped more with determination than talent, she sets about getting Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn to train her.
The film is narrated by Freeman, a half-blind ex-fighter who now manages Frankie‘s gym. He is the sightless prophet who sees things he would prefer not to, resigned to counsel those who will not heed his advice. His mournful voice is as old as Greek tragedy, its story as inevitable.
Eastwood is superb in the understated role of retired boxer now content to live his days out in his drab “Hit Pit Gym,” training new talent. The same throaty whisper is there as in the Spaghetti Westerns and the “Make My Day” Dirty Harry movies, but he now throws away his lines with the maturity of a gifted actor.
From his first “I don’t train girls” reaction to Swank’s Maggie, we know, of course, that it is only a matter time before he is drawn in by her.
Not wanting his boxers in championship matches until they are fully ready, Frankie, if anything, is too cautious. This reluctance loses him his best athlete who goes on to win the welterweight championship under a manager more willing to take some risks. Maybe that is why he finally agrees to take on Maggie, and why he ultimately decides to once more take some chances.
Predictably, under Frankie’s tutelage Murphy begins to flourish in the ring, but what follows is anything but predictable. After some initial success, she decides to use her tidy savings to help out her downtrodden family. Their ungrateful acceptance of her generosity, framed by worries of being forced off the welfare roles, is one of the more insightful and satisfying subplots of the movie.
One the other hand, however, many of Frankie’s interactions with the world seem somewhat contrived and superficial. We have purposely ambiguous and veiled references to an estranged daughter as Return to Sender missives pile up at Frankie’s door, which he files meticulously in a very full box. The nitpicky mystery writer in me cannot help but question, as Return to Sender usually indicates a faulty address, so why keep sending them? If it is his daughter who refuses his letters, as we are supposed to gather, wouldn’t they have come back differently?
Frankie has attended mass “every day for 23 years” as attested to by a too young to have been there priest, yet he constantly peppers the cleric with theological insults. In an agnostic jab Frankie compares the Holy Trinity to Snap, Crackle, and Pop of Rice Krispies fame. A less flippant quip would have registered spiritual doubt. This one seems petty and adolescent.
It is mostly when he spars with Scrap (Morgan Freeman) or Maggie (Hilary Swank), that Frankie seems real. We learn as much about him by his reticence as we do by his infrequent words. He calls Scrap a blind loser, and lets Maggie continue workouts at the gym only because he’s unwilling to give up the six month dues she has paid in advance. He ridicules her efforts all the while refusing to give her the advice she begs for, almost as if he is trying to be the meanest man in the world. So much so that we suspect this is Frankie’s attempt to numb himself from feeling anything at all. When his emotions thaw from ice to slush, we welcome each negotiated word of praise, every reluctant apology or stoic smile.
A hard luck all heart Cinderella sports story this is not. It only deceives us by pretending to be heading that way. And for all the atmosphere of the sweaty gym, all the sage commentary about the importance of footwork, breathing, or protecting yourself in the ring, it is not even a story about boxing. Million Dollar Baby is instead a stinging rebuke to happy endings, a painful exploration of life's existential anguish, and most of all, a tale of love and redemption.
The one time Frank leaves his self-condemned purgatory –indeed Hit Pit Gym is somewhat reminiscent of the second of Dante’s great trilogy –is when Maggie treats him to some real homemade lemon meringue pie at an out of the way café not far from the trailer park in Alabama where she grew up.
A bone thin, muscle hard specimen, Eastwood’s Frankie nevertheless lusts for this decadent dessert. Perhaps he finds its tart flavor compatible with the vinegary face he shows to the world. Or, carrying the metaphor a bit further, one might even say the light meringue, soft, sweet, and vulnerable, is every bit Frankie, too.
At any rate, he declares the pie as close to heaven as he‘ll ever get, and indeed, many will find that assessment painfully true.
Lemon Meringue Pie
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 cups hot water
3 egg yolks, slightly beaten
1/2 cup strained fresh lemon juice
4 tablespoons lemon rind, grated
Combine sugar, cornstarch in pan and gradually stir in water. Cook over moderate heat until mixture boils 1 minute, stirring constantly. Beat a little of the hot mixture into the egg yolks, then beat them into hot mixture in saucepan. Boil 1 more minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, Blend in the butter, juice, and rind. Pour into baked pie shell and cover with meringue while still hot.
*Measure out the meringue ingredients before you make filing. This way the meringue can be spread on the filling while it is still hot and this will prevent it from melting along the bottom.
3 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
6 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
In a clean glass or metal bowl beat the egg whites on medium speed until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in the sugar until the peaks are stiff and glossy. Finally beat in the vanilla. Bake in a preheated oven at 325 degrees for twenty minutes. Let cool on a rack and then refrigerate.
Recipe Source: Brown County Cookery, recipe by Ruth Moore