Worst Best Picture: Is Million Dollar Baby Better or Worse Than Crash?

million dollar baby

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2004 winner Million Dollar Baby. Is it better than Crash?

Roger Ebert gave a spoiler warning in his review of Million Dollar Baby because the movie isn’t about what it appears to be about. It’s been a full decade, but I’m still really reluctant to talk about the bulk of this one. Every single other movie on the list doesn’t really need this warning (short of possibly Rebecca, but not really) but if you don’t know what happens in Million Dollar Baby and you don’t want to know, I suggest you go watch it before you read this. It’s just not possible to talk about the movie without getting into the best part, which is the big reveal of a second act. I’m not going to actually say how it ends, but it’s important to know that this movie isn’t what it appears to be, and if you don’t know what it is, for real, go watch it first.

They marketed Million Dollar Baby as a boxing movie. They showed it as the story of Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), the traditional old boxing trainer who might be a little washed up but “still got it!” and Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), the upstart female boxer who has lots of moxie but needs to learn the ropes. It was called the “female Rocky” and it looked a little obvious. I never understood how a movie that transparent could win, but I also never really looked into it. I put it off until the end, which is why we’re just getting to it now.

That was a mistake, because this is possibly the saddest movie I’ve ever seen that wasn’t about genocide. It’s a movie about the right to live as you want. It’s a movie about legacy and the fear that you’ve misplaced your trust in the wrong beliefs or people. It’s a vital look inward into self, and there just so happens to be some boxing in it. The entire campaign to tell people what this movie was about, to borrow a sports term, was a goddamn head fake.

Maggie wants to box but Dunn “doesn’t train girls.” This is firmly in what can be called the “Gran Torino arc” of Eastwood’s career. He’s still the actor he used to be, but the roles he has to play now are a lot different. Rather than his old “beaten down early in life by hard circumstances” now he’s just a reflection of what time does to a person. He’s made up his mind about what he’s going to do, dammit, and now he just needs all you kids to go to hell. Maggie won’t take no for an answer and demands to be trained. She has innate talent but no training at all, and Dunn is impressed enough by her attitude that he takes her on.

They train and she wins a bunch of fights and it goes how you’d think it would. So far, so good. The first act is a traditional boxing story, and it’s pretty cookie-cutter one. There’s nothing to see until Maggie takes on a dirty fighter in Europe who knocks her out with a sucker punch after a round is over. Maggie lands with her neck on a stool and she is paralyzed for life.

That’s where I have to leave the story, but it becomes a story about difficult topics then. Maggie’s family can’t accept the life she made for herself and they can’t accept the new life of lifetime paralysis that she has been struck with. Dunn had trouble accepting being a trainer for women and has even more trouble with the survivor’s guilt of being able to walk. Maggie wants to believe that her victories mean she realized her dream, but the reality of her life being struck by irreversible tragedy as a result of it makes that difficult. It is one of the saddest movies of all time, period, and you have to watch all five stages of grief play out on screen.

Million Dollar Baby has problematic elements. Jay Baruchel plays a really strangely used “simple” character (it’s not really discussed if he has an actual issue or if he’s just “simple” so I’m not sure how to say it delicately)  and the movie tries to assign other characters morality based on how they treat him. Morgan Freeman plays Dunn’s partner, but he’s largely there to provide narration and someone for Eastwood to grimace at, even though he won an Oscar for the role. Largely, everyone but Eastwood and Swank gets so little to do that they aren’t necessary outside of the fact that you need supporting characters for the main ones to have someone to bounce off. Maggie’s stupid, Southern family is especially depressing, since they represent a tremendous failure to provide something interesting. They’re just dumb and are obsessed with material possessions, the foolsThey don’t know that what matters most is what’s in here, in your heart, you clowns! For real, though, their presence is a huge tonal departure, and while it’s supposed to be it lacks any hint of nuance.

None of the faults ruin the movie, and this is an absolute must-watch. It’s just not perfect, but that’s not enough of a crime to damn it.

The Best Part: Hilary Swank won for Best Actress, and she absolutely earned it. If the sadness of her trying to still play the plucky, hopeful character she is through full-body paralysis doesn’t get to you, then you should check and make sure that your blood is still red.

The Worst Part: I think the nice way to say this is that this movie lacks subtlety. The real way to say it is that Million Dollar Baby swings a club with some of its dumb characters. Maggie’s family has to be established as cold and uncaring “white trash” people who don’t appreciate that she’s following her dreams, okay, cool. But they don’t need to have six fanny packs for five people and speak like they’re SNL parodies of the South. With a little lighter touch they could come off as really mean, but in this case the message isn’t “your family may leave you in dark times” it’s “these cartoon people hate this real woman for having a real struggle.”

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It is tremendously better than Crash. Even if it was just the first 40 minutes of the movie as some kind of boxing short film where the message was “Clint Eastwood learns that gals can punch, too!” it would be better than Crash. Michael Pena is in both and might be better in Crash, though, and that’s as close to a compliment as I’ll go.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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