Million Dollar Baby

In Columns, Features, Pieces to Peter's Puzzling World by Peter Webster

This is a hard time for me. The first of March is the one-year anniversary of my son’s death. I really don’t know what to say about that, except, I’m depressed, cry fairly often and at little things, and miss him terribly.

It’s all normal stuff, of course-part of the grieving process. The movie “Million Dollar Baby” has a connection to death that hit me like a sack of wet sand.

Most of you have heard of “Million Dollar Baby,” with Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Hillary Swank. Eastwood directed it. The “Oscar Race” had it in the lead. As cynical as I am about the Oscars, I think the movie deserved one or two or three.

For me, this is a million dollar movie. I think it’s great-one of the great American movies.

I have to warn you: I’m going to give away the big ending. That’s where the movie reaches out and gives us an emotional shaking. That’s the most important part of the movie.

On a mailing list for Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a question recently came up about euthanasia- “mercy killing.” The question came from an essay about the movie. Whoever wrote the essay believed the film advocated the deaths of disabled people because they can’t live “normal” lives and are somehow inferior.

At the same time, conservatives attacked the movie for advocating “death with dignity” and such. Both the Left and the Right attacked the movie for being politically incorrect.

Eastwood reportedly said he didn’t get it: that’s the way the story went, no more, no less.

As a rule, I like Eastwood’s movies. My dad worked for him, editing many of his films, from the early 1970s through the early 1980s. That gives me a certain bias. Not a particularly large bias, though (in my family, the relationships are complex although not very close): the movies-like “Every Which Way But Loose”-with the ape were incredibly corny and incredibly
successful at the box office). “Magnum Force” appalled me. “Firefox” put me
to sleep.

Now, Eastwood has come into his own. What I admire is the technique, the quality of the finished product. His movies are fairly conventional and easy to follow. “Million Dollar Baby,” for example, has a beginning, middle, and end. The movie has no tricks with time, weird symbolism or unexplained elements.

Camera angles don’t get in the way; lighting assists the scenes rather than dominate them. Light and shadow are used as much as in the old days of black and white movies. Eastwood knows how to pace a film: his movies move briskly along, everything in them is relevant to the story lines.

He’s able to draw good performances out of

The story is told in retrospect by one of the characters. The title character, Maggie, is a woman boxer, played by Hillary Swank. She comes from poor white southern family with no prospects for anybody. She
wants to be a boxer, because if she can’t do that, she’ll be a waitress for the
rest of her life.

Eastwood plays Frankie, a broken down fight trainer; Morgan Freeman is Scrap, an equally broken down ex-boxer who hangs with Eastwood.

These are people who live without options. They’re doing the best they can do given the circumstances of their lives. Maggie’s determination leads to a tragic accident; she chooses death rather than total paralysis.

That seems right for the character. It takes an extremely physical and competitive person to be a prizefighter. Once that’s gone, she sees no alternatives.

It’s a bleak movie.

Eastwood makes bleak movies. “Bird,” “The Unforgiven,” and “Mystic River” are not feel-good films. Happy endings are not his schtick.

That’s OK: life doesn’t have many happy endings. If I want a happy ending I’ll watch a one-hour TV melodrama.

“Million Dollar Baby” is about hard people in a grim, nitty-gritty profession. None of them are particularly insightful or articulate.

They’re just kind of average-good people, but average. Morgan Freeman vanishes as an actor and becomes the part of Eastwood’s buddy. Eastwood’s good in his role, too: grizzled and tough.

Hillary Swank is an actress I’ve never much liked.

I changed my opinion after seeing her in this: she’s very good portraying Maggie, leading a life of driven desperation.

Eastwood is a pro: a moviemaker rather like the studio directors of the 1930s and 1940s: extremely competent, economic with his story telling.

And he can be counted on to not give pat endings. 2003’s “Mystic River” left audiences silent. That’s one way to judge the emotional impact. Later on, members of the audience put themselves back together enough to start talking.

It’s the same with “Million Dollar Baby.” At the end we ask ourselves, what would I have done? What might I do, in this situation?

That’s the idea of a good story: it ropes in the viewer or reader and forces questions because we’ve got used to the characters, got to know them, and accepted them as real. Then the big question comes along and we have to look at ourselves.

Does the movie promote mercy killing or death with dignity? The question is irrelevant to the story. Critics like to “deconstruct” movies and books.

Some critics are liberals and some are conservatives; it gives them something to do. What “Million Dollar Baby” does is to ask each of us the question about the value and values of life.

We make our own decisions. We have to walk our talk, when it gets right down to it. We have to.

Did you see the movie? What are your views on euthanasia? Let us know at or join the Online Forum.