Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Million Dollar Baby" (2004)

Scene from Million Dollar Baby
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Million Dollar Baby
Release Date: December 15, 2004
Director: Clint Eastwood
Written By: Paul Haggis (Screenplay), F.X. Toole (Stories)
Starring: Hillary Swank, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman
Genre: Drama, Sport
Running Time: 132 minutes

Oscar Wins: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actress (Hillary Swank)
-Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman)

Oscar Nominations: 3
-Best Actor (Clint Eastwood)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Aviator
-Finding Neverland

And the winner is...

Everybody likes a film with a happy ending. There's something cathartic about having the hero save the day or overcoming adversity in some capacity. It's practically what has driven most of cinema's most successful films. However, there's something that seems immediately antithetical to director Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby with this in mind. In fact it's suspicious, considering that Eastwood has rarely been fond of sentimentality. With a film in which Hillary Swank fights for honor in the boxing ring, it managed to become a sensation while sparking countless debates on what is good story telling and what actually constitutes a spoiler in public conversation. Beyond all of these presumed gimmicks, the film is one of Eastwood's career bests and one that continues to pack a punch as time has gotten away from its novelty concept.

Much like the film's initial reception, it was difficult for the film to get approved. Writer Paul Haggis had written a script based on stories by F.X. Toole that he felt were very moving. He initially planned to direct the film, but came across a variety of problems. For starters, he was set to also direct Crash around the same time. When he got Eastwood involved, he fell in love with the script calling it bleak, but beautiful. He also insisted on jumping from just actor to also directing and co-producing. He insisted on getting it made, but even his main studio Warner Brothers wouldn't fund him the requested $30 million due to belief that nobody would go see a bleak story. He ended up only asking for half with Lakeshore Entertainment providing the rest as well as international distribution rights. When the film finally got off the ground, it became Haggis' first produced screenplay following a career in TV sitcoms.

The roles fell into place pretty quickly. Hillary Swank was initially seen skeptically because of her size. She was small and many believed that she wouldn't be convincing enough. As a result, she trained for five hours a day, learning boxing routines. She also would put on 20 pounds of muscle as a result. She was so dedicated to character that she even reacted to injuries similarly. During one instance, she received a severe cut to her foot. This resulted in a rather nasty infection that could easily have hospitalized her. She noticed in time and took a brief break from filming to recover. Did she tell any of her co-workers? Nope. She believed that had it been her character, she wouldn't have told them either. Eastwood would later claim that he was impressed with her work, believing that she had a great work ethic.

The film, upon release, was an unprecedented success. Between the time of Academy Award nominations and a little time after the ceremony, the film never left the box office Top 5. If this wasn't impressive enough, the film ran for a total of 6.5 months in theaters, grossing $216 million by the end. It was a critical darling with many praising it for being an amazing film full of great moments, including the tragic third act. It was encouraged to not divulge of the third act's big twist, as many believed that it would take away from the experience. Others believed that the twist was too depressing and should have ended on a happier note. Eastwood would simply respond with the belief that his film was about The American Dream and would not have a pretty picture ending. Defenders of the dour ending included Roger Ebert, who claimed that it was a classical structure and that cinema should be judged on how it uses its plot, not by what's expected. 

The film collected 7 Oscar nominations total. Among its various challenges included Eastwood's acting nomination, which put him as the only fictional character in a year full of biopic characters. He would also become the oldest person to win Best Director at the age of 74. Considering that he only began being nominated for Oscars 12 years prior with Unforgiven, it was astounding how many he managed to rack up in a little over a decade, including more nominations for the previous year with Miracle River. By the end, Million Dollar Baby tied with Chariots of Fire for the most Oscars won by a sports film at 4. In an honor that barely counts as an achievement, the film also became the first Best Picture winner to be released on both HD DVD and Blu-Ray. 

The film's legacy isn't as distinguished as most. Even Eastwood's next few films would have more of a cultural impact, including a few collaborations with Haggis on scripts such as Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. Haggis' directorial effort Crash would win the following year, and would proceed to be considered the worst Best Picture winner in history. Still, the belief that films couldn't be profitable and dark was shattered. To some extent, Eastwood's entire filmography hinged on similarly plotted stories and - depending on your view - Million Dollar Baby's ending was more cliche for the director than effective. However, the film also spawned a momentary interest in the Irish language, especially regarding the phrase "Mo chuisle," which was featured on Swank's robe. While its ending still divides audiences, it still remains one of the most successful boxing movies in history.

For those that love a good boxing drama, there are few that are as immediate and soul crushing as Million Dollar Baby. Mixing the director's affection for dark subject matter, the story is brought to life with great performances, including one of Swank's career best. It's a film that showed the value of pride and the unexpected struggles that can come from nowhere. Even if there's disagreement with how the ending works, it still tells a unique and specific story that captures a deeper emotional core. Is it Eastwood's best? That's arguable, though it's even more impressive that he's still churning out relevant films at 74, especially ones that capture the box office for months instead of weeks. It's a great film about great struggles, and its uncompromising vision alone makes it one of the most impressive winners of the decade.

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