I really wanted to love Clint Eastwood's “Million Dollar Baby,” this year's Academy Award-winning movie. I wanted to love it like almost no motion picture before it. I wanted to be swept away by the sensational performances. I wanted to be haunted by the darkness of its cinematography. I wanted to be shocked and drawn in by its sudden and sensational plot twist. I wanted to be moved to my limits by its psychological exploration, consumed by its emotional power. And I wanted to be well ahead of the curve in bringing the message of this unbelievable film to boxing fans.
Here at The Sweet Science we felt a special connection to this film as well. As you probably know, I am the President of the International Brotherhood of Prizefighters (IBOP), and the founders of this organization had a close relationship with Jerry Boyd (aka F.X. Toole) – who wrote the book “Rope Burns,” which contained short stories on which this film is based – and still maintain close ties to Dub Huntley, the venerable trainer and ex-fighter to whom the book was dedicated. When I say “close,” I mean “best friend” close. Because of that, we rooted for the film, and were not displeased when it won its share of awards. It was no accident that The Sweet Science had its “Million Dollar Baby” banner displayed bright and early, and kept it there virtually throughout its Oscar run.
Before the general public was exposed to “Million Dollar Baby,” there were rave reviews from nearly every critic who saw it. Those who didn't, and thus omitted it from the list of early Oscar contenders, now look like dolts. It was Roger Ebert's Chicago Sun-Times review that may have done more to boost the film's perception among Oscar voters than anything else. Ebert is one of the most respected film critics in America, and he waxed poetically as he declared the movie an instant classic:
“Clint Eastwood's 'Million Dollar Baby' is a masterpiece, pure and simple, deep and true. It tells the story of an aging fight trainer and a hillbilly girl who thinks she can be a boxer. It is narrated by a former boxer who is the trainer's best friend. But it's not a boxing movie. It is a movie about a boxer. What else it is, all it is, how deep it goes, what emotional power it contains, I cannot suggest in this review, because I will not spoil the experience of following this story into the deepest secrets of life and death. This is the best film of the year.”
I got chills.
The review went on to say:
“The screenplay is by Paul Haggis, who has worked mostly on TV but with this earns an Oscar nomination. Other nominations, possibly Oscars, will go to Swank, Eastwood, Freeman, the picture and many technicians — and possibly the original score composed by Eastwood, which always does what is required and never distracts.”
Well, let's just say I needed to see it in the worst way after hearing that endorsement. But I live in the kind of town where they're just now rolling out “Kill Bill Vol. I” at the local theater, know what I mean? So, as Eastwood's film was being released in only about eight or nine major cities at first, my only choice was to get on a train and go to Chicago.
I walked into the theater expecting to be changed by it; to come out of it with a different outlook on life, on love, on human relationships, as sometimes happens when you are watching a memorable work of art. I anticipated that I might be thinking about this film for days, weeks, even years, the way some great movies have in the past.
But while I got to the theater, I never arrived at my expected emotional destination. When I walked out of the Metroplex two hours later, I was the same person. I wasn't thinking very much about “Million Dollar Baby.” In fact, the entirety of my thoughts centered on catching a cab back to the train station. Since we couldn't possibly escape without using a boxing cliché, here it is, folks: “Million Dollar Baby” never delivered the knockout blow.
There should be some kind of law against people intimately acquainted with the boxing industry watching a boxing movie. It's just too easy to be distracted by all the discrepancies. I think if I were to watch “Rocky” for the first time in 2005 rather than 1976, I'd probably be wondering how Rocky Balboa ever got a title shot with twenty losses on his record, and which sanctioning body could have possibly rated him in the Top 10 without the benefit of any political connections. The chicken-chasing scenes may have given me a problem as well.
The realistic boxing films have been few and far between. Notable among them was John Huston's “Fat City” (1972), which starred Stacy Keach as a Northern California club fighter on the way out, and Jeff Bridges as a four-round fighter presumably on his way up. In an interesting twist, it also featured a real-life champion – Curtis Cokes – in a role that nothing to do with boxing whatsoever.
Even though it was presented as a bit of a farce, and had someone fighting for a title in his pro debut as one of its plot points, “The Great White Hype” (1996) nonetheless found some brilliance in its parody of boxing at the highest level. You had the Don King character (Samuel L. Jackson), the Jose Sulaiman-type (Cheech Marin) and a million wannabes and hangers-on you'd find out are very true to life if you only had the opportunity to inhabit that world. Upon walking out of the movie, I recall wondering just who the technical advisor was, because it contained a lot of insight that Eastwood, it turns out, has missed in his film (one of the screenwriters was Ron Shelton, which might explain some of it).
Most boxing movies don't do any favors for the sport – there always seems to be a fixed fight, a horrible ring injury or some mob involvement as a critical part of the storyline.
“Million Dollar Baby,” in its own way, continues that dubious tradition. (Of course, if you haven't seen it yet, you may not want to read any further).
The film is, for the most part, a well-acted, well-crafted story. No one can doubt Eastwood's credentials as a helmsman, although his prowess as a director has long been overshadowed by his status as a movie star. But from his directorial debut with “Play Misty For Me,” through the Charlie Parker biopic “Bird,” the iconoclastic western “Unforgiven,” and 2003's “Mystic River,” he has demonstrated a propensity to examine the dark side of human existence, exhibiting a wellspring of experience that was necessary to draw from in putting “Million Dollar Baby” together.
His source – the book by Jerry Boyd – is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in boxing, if for no other reason than it is well-informed; seen through the eyes of someone who has spent thousands of hours inside gymnasiums, observing both the glorious and dark sides of this “game.” The film is very loyal to the book; however, in the way Eastwood delivers the cinematic version – and here I go again with my boxing mentality – there happens to be a logistical flaw that spoiled the whole thing for me. Perhaps I should be faulting Boyd for this, but it was Eastwood who made the artistic decision to adapt this specific material for the screen.
As you probably know by now, the story centers around a budding female fighter named Maggie Fitzgerald (portrayed by the Oscar-winning Hilary Swank) who walks into the gym operated by trainer Frankie Dunn (played by Eastwood) in the hopes of getting him to train her. Frankie refuses, not just once but again and again and again.
I have no earthly idea why she would insist, in the face of all logic and all resistance, on being trained by this man in particular; indeed, it is established early on that the trainer has never worked with a world champion, even in this era of the proliferation of titles. But there she is, day after day, absolutely unwilling to take “no” for an answer. Considering the setting was Los Angeles, I've got to imagine that in reality she would have simply hightailed it to any of a dozen other gyms where someone would have been all too happy to watch her work the heavy bag. And if she had the basic rudiments of the talent she displayed later in the film, she'd have found a trainer easily enough, either before visiting Frankie's gym or shortly thereafter.
There is, in fact, no plausible explanation for Maggie's persistence other than that it was necessary to fit into the plotline.
Once Maggie turns pro (by now with Eastwood at her side) she's fighting before loud, enthusiastic audiences in settings that looked awkwardly like places where amateur “smokers” might be held. I'm not sure I've seen too many professional venues looking like that. But maybe I just haven't been around.
And did I see this incorrectly, or did Frankie not tell his best friend, sidekick and confidant “Scrap” (the Oscar-winning Morgan Freeman's character) for the first time about Maggie's title fight only when he was walking out the door with his bags packed for Vegas? You would think that for a half-million dollar purse, half the L.A. boxing community would have known about the fight.
That stuff just doesn't make any sense.
But that's STILL not the fundamental flaw I'm talking about.
I could handle the dysfunction of Maggie's inane family members as they thumbed their noses at her line of work from the perspective of their trailer park existence, even though by then she had experienced quite a bit of ring success. Or the heavyweight contender (soon to be champ) who went to Frankie's house to tell him he had taken up with another manager (most fighters would not have extended that courtesy, opting for contact through a lawyer instead, or no contact at all). Or the way the fighter's title victory was shown on broadcast TV (what, no HBO?). Or the scene where Scrap brings Maggie to meet a more accomplished rival manager as a way of testing her, but Maggie stays loyal to Frankie (most boxing people know the way that would have actually turned out).
No – what really screwed this movie up for me was the way Maggie's title fight was handled.
Her opponent is Billie “The Blue Bear,” played by the great female champion, Lucia Rijker. We experience enough foreshadowing to know that Billie is a dirty fighter and that she's likely to break a few rules when their encounter finally takes place. Naturally that manifests itself in the defining fight scene, when Maggie, having almost scored a TKO toward the end of a round, turns toward her corner when the bell sounds and is punched from behind by Billie – the force of the blow sufficient to knock her down and onto the ring stool, which, conveniently, Frankie has not placed upright in the corner. The result is that Maggie snaps her neck against the stool and becomes paralyzed.
Maggie's dream is over at this point, and I guess there's a double disappointment, because not only has she lost the fight, she's lost the very thing that makes her happy: being able to compete in the ring. Maggie certainly doesn't want to live a bed-ridden life, so she goes through periods of depression, which become exacerbated as skin ulcers demand that a leg be amputated.
She doesn't want to live anymore, and tells Frankie so. He writes that off, to some extent, but just to convince him she's sincere, she bites off her own tongue with the expectation of bleeding to death. That isn't successful, so Frankie goes through a requisite amount of soul-searching, visits the priest he supposedly haggles with every day, and finally decides he's going to accommodate Maggie. He sneaks into the hospital one night, shoots her with adrenaline, walks out, and disappears for good.
I hope I've capsulated the film to your satisfaction.
Now let's start talking reality.
Religious types can argue all they want about the way the film deals with the issue of assisted suicide. I find such disputes to be somewhat benign. I'm reasonably certain Eastwood wasn't reaching to make a political or social statement here, and it would be hard to believe it was Boyd's intent. What I would rather focus on, as someone who has been associated with this industry, is explore the course of events from a boxing standpoint, with an eye toward how they affect the other things the movie is supposed to be about.
First and foremost, the film implies that Maggie never reached her dream of winning a world championship. Of course this is nonsense. In any world that has even a semblance to that which is genuine, Maggie Fitzgerald would have been declared the winner of the fight, and the title, by disqualification. There is no argument about that. None.
Don't believe me? Okay, since the fight was set in Vegas, let's find out how Marc Ratner, the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, would have ruled on it.
“Obviously it was a disqualification, without question,” says Ratner. “Completely. That's why it wasn't a boxing movie. You can't lose a fight on an intentional foul. We would have held the purse. The rules on that are real clear to me.” As for how Rijker's character could get away with throwing the illegal punch, Ratner said “No professional referee would turn his back when the fighters went to their corners.”
Ratner saw another problem with that fight scene, which was set in the fictional “Las Vegas arena.”
“If you're going to have a fight like that, with a million-dollar purse,” he says, “have it at Mandalay Bay or Caesars Palace or someplace like that, with Michael Buffer or Jimmy Lennon as the ring announcer. That's what a fight in Las Vegas is like. They (the producers) skimped on those kinds of things. But maybe it doesn't matter to the general public.”
This is not to say all boxing people had problems with the film. Although I think he might be in the minority, Chris Middendorf, a matchmaker who was an art history major at Harvard, says he didn't let logistical difficulties interfere with his enjoyment of “Million Dollar Baby” as pure entertainment.
“Anybody who knows anything about being in a rowboat knows that George Washington did not cross the Delaware standing up in one, as depicted in one of America's most famous paintings, and Marc Ratner would certainly have disqualified Lucia Rijker's character and awarded the title to Hilary Swank's,” says Middendorf. “But great films, like great works of art, are able to transcend reality and take the viewer to a different place of appreciation to tell the story that they want to tell. This was a movie not about Swank or Eastwood winning or losing the title; it was a movie about people trying to achieve their dreams. Eastwood is a great director who has made a great film that is not about assisted suicide or unethical acts in the boxing ring, but about people who are beaten down but still have hope.”
Ratner would have written the movie differently, with Swank's character receiving her championship belt in the hospital so she could die with a little peace.
I find some common ground with him there, though I regard the resolution of the title fight as much more than just a minor glitch in the plot.
I saw the negative result of the bout to be the catalyst for Maggie's emotional state while she was in the hospital. The dialogue between her and Eastwood indicates that, officially, she was defeated. I believe that the desire to kill herself was fueled by the fit of depression created by the “loss,” which prevented her – in her mind anyway – from achieving the dream she lobbied Frankie so hard to guide her to, and which she worked night and day to attain. Because of that, my feeling is that her outlook would have improved considerably if she were to wake up every day to see that championship belt in its rightful place – beside her hospital bed.
Therefore, had events proceeded in a way which would have been factually correct, the story would have changed in a most fundamental way. After all, there is a huge chasm between a dream fulfilled and a dream that remains unfulfilled. Every human being is different, but I would speculate that Maggie Fitzgerald may have found some added meaning to her life – even under condition of paralysis – had she gotten her just reward.
I don't see where everyone could avoid dealing with the aftermath of this incident. You have to believe the press would have had a field day with the story, only because it's another opportunity to exploit a ring tragedy in this age of the 24-hour news cycle. We are sold on the proposition that the fight between Maggie and Billie was the biggest event in women's boxing to date, so it would make sense that the “accident” would have fueled a share of media attention commensurate with its significance. I can see it now – “Nightline's” Ted Koppel, “Hardball's” Chris Matthews and Hannity and Colmes weighing in on the dangers of boxing, or Bill O'Reilly devoting part of the “Factor” to a moral statement about allowing women into the ring. Certainly ESPN's “Outside the Lines” would have patronized the issue. Lifetime, which makes pulp movies about everything else related to women, would have been there to make an offer for “Trailer Park to Title Fight: The Maggie Fitzgerald Story.”
Undoubtedly the injustice done to this fighter would have been exposed, and as Ratner pointed out, there would be room for his own commission to step in and issue a ruling, even if it had to be after the fact and upon review of the videotape.
An investigation would have been conducted, with criminal charges against Billie contemplated. And Frankie, who was a little slow getting that stool up into the ring, would have been derelict in his duties if he did not raise holy hell with the commission in a crusade to gain some recompense for Maggie. But since the plot couldn't possibly allow for that, neither could the rules of boxing. (McCain, where are you when we need you?)
I find it to be of great concern when you can't tell an effective story and remain consistent with simple truths at the same time. To imply that scenarios like this customarily play themselves out in boxing, particularly in the state which hosts the biggest fights, does the sport a tremendous and unnecessary disservice.
In that way, Eastwood’s movie becomes nothing out of the ordinary.
The book, and the film, needed to be more intellectually honest than that.
Whenever a movie deals with boxing, we hear the obligatory comments from proponents of the film that “Well, it's not a boxing movie. It's about this, this, and this (feel free to fill in the blanks).” You can see some of that in the excerpt from Ebert's review. No wonder: if you use the tag “boxing movie” these days, people tend to stay away in droves, not unlike the way they stay away from the sport itself.
But this was intended as a boxing movie. It was a boxing BOOK, wasn't it? There are few athletic pursuits where that arduous quest for respect and self-esteem, the struggle to achieve, can be personified so well. It is certainly conceivable that one can come virtually out of nowhere and establish herself quickly as a viable entity in women's boxing, where the ranks are relatively thin. What other sport were they going to use, where a 32-year-old woman can take a fast track to the top, make some real money, then suffer a sudden, debilitating injury? Golf? Yeah, right – Maggie gets hit by a flying eight-iron. Tennis? Were they going to pull another Monica Seles number? Basketball? Sure – Maggie gets hit with a cup of water, runs into the stands after a fan, and gets pummeled into oblivion. That's just not sympathetic, man.
No, it HAD to be boxing. And as long as it's a boxing movie, the least the storytellers could have done was be true to the sport.
Ratner is right, though. Maybe the general public really doesn't care.
But I just wish that when someone decides they're going to make a boxing movie that's really NOT a boxing movie, they could avoid the sport entirely.
Am I being overly harsh? Probably. But then again, I'm in boxing.
Like I said, there ought to be a law.