Morgan Freeman

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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Worst Best Picture: Is Unforgiven Better or Worse Than Crash?

unforgiven

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 1992 winner Unforgiven. Is it better than Crash?

Only three Westerns have ever won Best Picture: UnforgivenCimarron, and Dances with Wolves. Two of those are among the worst on the list, in my opinion, but does that make it a coincidence or do I just hate Westerns? What does that mean for the third, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven?

I certainly don’t hate Westerns by rule, though I’ll admit to being more unfamiliar with the genre than others. I like Tombstone and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which feels a bit like saying that because I’ve seen Empire and Jedi a million times each I can talk about sci-fi as a genre. But out of my element or no, Unforgiven won in 1992 and must be compared to Crash.

Eastwood plays Will Munny, a retired murderer (do you ever really retire from that, though?) who just wants to live out his life quietly. When a prostitute in a nearby town is disfigured, another young gunman named The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) seeks him out and asks him to help him get the reward by murdering the two men who harmed the girl. They’re joined by Munny’s old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and the trio heads out to kill two evil men in an evil town.

It seems fairly straightforward and it mostly is. Three mildly complex “good” guys have to go catch two totally uncomplicated “bad” guys. The only wrench in the works is that the sheriff of the town of Big Whiskey pardoned the two men responsible and won’t tolerate any weapons in his town. Sheriff “Little” Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) reasons that if only the lawmen have guns, they can keep the populace safe. There’s a not-so-subtle message of gun control in this movie, but considering everyone with a gun has basically the worst life ever in a Western, it’s hard to consider that viewing of Unforgiven reasonable.

Munny, The Kid, and Logan show up in Big Whiskey and have to find a way to murder these two assholes before Little Bill takes their guns and throws them out of town. They’re met with resistance, and in the resistance lies the depth of the film. It’s internal, since “the game ain’t in them no more” for Munny and Logan, as they say, and it’s external, since Little Bill is basically running a kingdom that they’ll need to topple to reach their goal. With the added (but obvious) problem that The Kid might not be the fearless gunslinger he claims to be, the deck is pretty stacked. There’s some lightness to the struggles — especially a scene where the other two learn that The Kid maybe, just maybe, can’t really see — but for the most part, Unforgiven is dark as all hell. I may not be telling you something new by saying a Western called Unforgiven isn’t a happy journey, but it goes in some unexpected places that I don’t want to spoil.

Unforgiven‘s win falls in between Schindler’s List and The Silence of the Lambs, so it feels a little dwarfed by the competition. That said, it’s far-and-away the best Western to ever win and it did so mostly without issue. The problems that critics found to point out in Unforgiven feel slight now, and the overall message about the senselessness of violence is still a powerful one. I may not be a good go-to on Westerns, but I think Unforgiven definitely falls in top handful of Best Picture winners.

The Best Part: The ending, which I can’t talk about in any way. Clint Eastwood can at best be called a “complicated” figure in today’s world, but his performance in Unforgiven is both terrifying and riveting, and he makes the entire thing work. Now he just needs to stop saying crazy shit to empty chairs.

The Worst Part: There’s a short diversion from the plot towards the middle of the movie where a famous gunfighter named English Bob (Richard Harris, in a real weird turn) tries to infiltrate Big Whiskey. To call him armed is to sell him short, and Little Bill isn’t having any of it. It serves as a way for Unforgiven to show that Little Bill is ruthless and doesn’t tolerate weapons in his town, but then they essentially repeat the scene when the trio comes in a few scenes later. It could be argued that it’s important because English Bob’s biographer decides to abandon him and instead tell the tale of Little Bill, but even though the biographer is used as a narrative device through the rest of the movie, he’s certainly not necessary. It’s not bad, it’s just unimportant and it breaks up the sense of an inevitable march of one group against an entrenched foe.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s miles better, and it may be the last Western to win for a long time. Dances with Wolves is a really strange mess of a movie and it’s nearly unwatchable even a few decades later. Cimarron, the only other Western to win, is even worse. The “subcategories” of Comedy, Western, and Musical are discussed a lot with regard to Oscar winners, because the great majority of these are sad, long movies about horrible things and worse people. Unforgiven is more than a novelty on the list, though. It’s a truly great story told through great performances, Western or no. Eastwood isn’t my favorite person in the world, but he does what he does better in Unforgiven than in anything else, and you’ve really got to see it to believe it.

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

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.

Worst Best Picture: Is Driving Miss Daisy Better or Worse Than Crash?

dmd

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 1989 winner Driving Miss Daisy. Is it better than Crash?

I was a history major in college. In every good discussion of race through American history, someone always mentioned that context was king. It’s easy to say “times were different and people were worse,” but you have to be able to put yourselves in some historical shoes to really get it. It’s not just about America’s troubling past, it’s about why people believe what they believe and act like they act.

A movie like Driving Miss Daisy does a lot of “what” without a lot of “why.” It’s a story you probably know to some degree: Morgan Freeman drives an old white lady around. That’s basically it. The old white lady (Jessica Tandy) in question is also Jewish, which I wasn’t aware of going in, but most of the “otherness” of the movie is all in white vs. black.

I gave it away in the intro, but if you had to guess what year a movie about an older black man driving an older white woman around as they learn about cultural differences and how to overcome them came out, would you have said 1989? The year the Berlin Wall reopened? That’s the craziest part, to me. The movie spans a few decades around the 50s and 60s, which helps to complicate the “should I feel this gross watching this?” element of it all.

It’s not a racist movie. The duo talks about MLK. They experience racial violence and are disgusted. They get stopped by racist cops. They share experiences over most of the twilight of their lives. It’s not racist, but it’s… awkward.

There’s just not a lot going on here. The lesson seems to be that if you’re already not racist in Georgia, you won’t be extra racist to Morgan Freeman. It just feels so unnecessary and so hokey outside of a few genuinely touching moments. It’s not quite sunny enough to feel as surreal as Gigi but it certainly is on-the-nose enough about race to feel at home on the shelf with Gentleman’s Agreement. The journey isn’t “mean racist lady” to “nice old lady,” it’s “mean old lady who hates Morgan Freeman” to “somewhat less mean old lady who loves Morgan Freeman.”

Watching this in 2014 is weird, but not for the same reason a lot of these are weird. With this one you just start to wonder what people will think about 1989 that people then needed this movie. It’s a well done buddy movie with an interesting pairing — James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury are playing the duo now, and man, what? — but it ends up feeling pretty slight compared to some movies on this list.

The Best Part: The near-universal love for Morgan Freeman is deserved. He’s pretty spectacular in this role. He’s warm and hopeful, but he’s also a complete character. He’s loyal to the characters he’s sided himself with, but he’s not above making a play for a raise through leverage. He’s fascinating, and he’s what saves this from being a full-on weird relic.

The Worst Part: Dan Aykroyd was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the son who hires Morgan Freeman. I’ll admit I’m sour on Aykroyd a little now because he’s become somewhat of a professional weirdo and hasn’t been in a good movie for a very long time, but he’s still downright bizarre in this movie. His Southern accent involves lots of “o” sounds, and he’s given the unfortunate task of violating “show don’t tell” to remind the audience they’re watching a movie set in Georgia. He keeps walking on screen and announcing things like, “You sound like Governor Talmadge!”

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The character of Miss Daisy is Sandra Bullock’s character from Crash, but with some sort of a lesson. I talk about this part of Crash a lot. If you’re curious, most of her part of the movie is actually on YouTubeCrash is all built on people going from bad to worse in one way or another, but only poor Sandy goes from worse to… no change at all. They don’t redeem her or punish her. She’s just left as a constant device. Miss Daisy’s character doesn’t have much of an arc, either, but at least her relationship with her chauffeur does. Once again, the world of Crash is a meaner place than a movie where two cops call Morgan Freeman “boy.”

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 |

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.