Million Dollar Baby is a powerful drama about the demands and risks of chasing one’s dreams. Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) is a diner waitress, with a white trash background, who dreams of becoming a champion boxer. She approaches Frank Dunn (Clint Eastwood) about becoming her trainer, but he turns her down because he doesn’t teach girls. With the encouragement of former boxer/ gym janitor Eddie (Morgan Freeman), Maggie continues to train until Frank cannot abide her poor form any longer and starts to give her pointers. Within a year-and-a-half, Frank has shaped Maggie into a winning boxer with a chance at her first title bout.
Based on a collection of short stories by F.X. Toole, Paul Haggis’s adaptation could have been a mass of bad sports movie clichés. The script and Eastwood’s perfect direction avoid every single one of them. The focus is not on the final outcome but on the rigorous process of training and level of commitment it requires. Maggie’s progress is plain to see as she goes from clueless novice to confident pro, and the entire trajectory of her development is thrilling to watch. That said, it would be an injustice to label this as just a sports movie, because first and foremost it is a story about people needing one another and having the ability to ask for help. The story also takes a completely unexpected detour at the halfway mark, turning the movie into something else entirely.
Swank has an angular beauty and she looks terrific here in unbelievably buffed condition, but she cares little for vanity. For this exceptionally gifted actress, the role is of primary importance, and she gives it her all in another Oscar-worthy performance. Eastwood understands he’s too old to still play a romantic lead, so here he assumes the gruff father figure, displaying his usual stoicism alongside a newer, much softer side. Freeman essays the faithless sidekick role, generally a thankless task were it not for his importance also as the story’s narrator. To invoke a few sports clichés, this underdog film came out of nowhere, delivered a knock-out punch to the senses, and emerged a victor as one of 2003's more emotional films.
Nominated for seven Academy Award nominations, the film won 4 Oscars for Best Picture, Actress (Swank), Supporting Actor (Freeman) and Director. The other nominees were Eastwood for Best Actor, Adapted Screenplay and Film Editing. The film’s win was a bit of a surprise, as character comedy Sideways had been scooping up most of the earlier critics’ awards and biopic The Aviator had taken almost all of the various technical guild prizes leading into the Oscar ceremony. Ultimately, industry respect for Eastwood’s late-career renaissance led to Oscars for Million Dollar Baby over four other contenders that will probably have more lasting appeal.
(OTHER NOMINEES: The Aviator / Finding Neverland / Ray / Sideways)