By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"I saw it as a challenge," Eastwood says. "It’s one thing to play a soldier who goes out shooting at people. It’s another thing to play a soldier who’s got some other dimension as to why he’s there in the first place, where he’s been in the past and where he’s going. This role had that. And it’s very ambiguous at the end — you don’t know where he is, you don’t know where it all goes. Look, I’m not going to go remake Every Which Way but Loose as a 74-year-old man. What’s the advantage of maturing as a filmmaker if you don’t take advantage of it, do things you haven’t done before? I couldn’t have played Frankie Dunn as a 35-year-old guy."
Adapted from the short-story collection Rope Burns, by the late F.X. Toole (the pen name of veteran fight trainer Jerry Boyd), Million Dollar Baby focuses on the relationship between Dunn and Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, in a brilliant performance), a promising female fighter whose passion causes Frankie to grudgingly lift his embargo on training "girls." As they work together, Frankie and Maggie engage in a sort of ethereal ballet, between a father and the daughter he’s never known, and between a daughter and the loving father who died too young. (Perhaps Eastwood is here playing a ghost for the third time.) But those expecting to find, in Million Dollar Baby, an estrogen-intensive variant of Rocky or The Karate Kid are sure to be disappointed. Though the movie’s boxing sequences, in which Eastwood strips the soundtrack of nearly all but the heart-shuddering thunder of the fighters’ punches, rank among the most searing that have been put on film. Like Toole’s stories, Million Dollar Baby is also thick with the sweaty, hardscrabble reality of smalltime boxing clubs and undercard bouts. It knows how boxers fight their hearts out before audiences of mostly empty chairs for purses that are barely enough to pay the month’s rent, as they yearn for a title bout that may never come. While there is triumph in Eastwood’s film, it is of the sort that comes at a high price.
It’s tough medicine, and Million Dollar Baby was a tough picture to get made, despite Eastwood’s clout and the combined critical (six Oscar nominations, two wins) and commercial success (more than $150 million at the box office worldwide) of last year’s Mystic River. Which, as Eastwood is quick to point out, is nothing new. "I liked the Million Dollar Baby script a lot," he says. "Warner Bros. said the project had been submitted to them and they’d passed on it. I said, ‘But I like it.’ They said, ‘Well, it’s a boxing movie.’ And I said, ‘It’s not a boxing movie in my opinion. It’s a father-daughter love story, and it’s a lot of other things besides a boxing movie.’ They hemmed and hawed and finally said that if I wanted to take it, maybe they’d pay for the domestic rights only. After that, I’d be on my own. [The rest of the funding was eventually secured through the international sales company Lakeshore Entertainment.] We took it to a couple of other studios, and they turned it down, much like Mystic River was turned down — the exact same pattern. People who kept calling and saying, ‘Come on, work with us on stuff.’ I’d give it to them, and they’d go, ‘Uh, we were thinking more in terms of Dirty Harry coming out of retirement.’ And who knows? Maybe when it comes out they’ll be proven right."
In the introduction to Rope Burns, Toole writes about "the magic of winning and losing in a man’s game, where men will battle with their minds and bodies and hearts into and beyond exhaustion, past their second wind, through cracked ribs and swollen livers, ruptured kidneys and detached retinas." He might just as soon have been talking about making movies. "I think I’m on a track of doing pictures nobody wants to do, that they’re all afraid of," chuckles Eastwood. "I guess it’s the era we live in, where they’re doing remakes of Dukes of Hazzard and other old television shows. I must say, I’m not a negative person, but sometimes I wonder what kind of movies people are going to be making 10 years from now if they follow this trajectory. When I grew up there was such a variety of movies being made. You could go see Sergeant York or Sitting Pretty or Sullivan’s Travels — dozens of pictures, not to mention all the great B movies. Now, they’re looking for whatever the last hit was. If it’s The Incredibles, they want The Double Incredibles. My theory is they ought to corral writers into writers’ buildings like they used to and start out with fresh material."
Asked to pinpoint the appeal of Eastwood’s films, the noted French film critic, publicist and distributor Pierre Rissient, who has known Eastwood personally since the 1960s and has worked on the promotional campaigns for a number of his films, says, "It’s their classicism. His pictures stand the test of time because they don’t try to be trendy or modernist. He just makes the films, in the tradition of the great storytellers of the ’30s and ’40s." Clint Eastwood is now something of a classic himself, a cultural icon as chiseled into our collective consciousness as any of the faces on Mount Rushmore. Yet such was not always the case. A $75-a-week contract player at Universal in the 1950s, Eastwood floundered in bit parts in pictures like Revenge of the Creature and Francis in the Navy. Then, in 1959, he landed a supporting role in the Rawhide television series, where he would remain until the show’s 1966 cancellation — excepting one summer production hiatus when Eastwood, frustrated by the one-dimensionality of his character on the show, made the impulsive decision that would lay the groundwork for the rest of his career. Not speaking a word of Italian, and for a salary of only $15,000, he boarded a plane to Rome to play the lead role in a "spaghetti Western" with the working title The Mysterious Stranger. That film, of course, turned out to be Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, the international success of which (coupled with that of its two celebrated sequels, For a Few Dollars Moreand The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) helped give Eastwood a second shot in Hollywood pictures — one he wasn’t about to squander.