January 30, 2005
So I got suckerpunched by Million Dollar Baby and wasn’t too happy about it. I won’t go into detail on that because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. But I will comment on the film as Oscar contender: It isn’t Oscar-worthy. It isn’t a great film. It’s effective, and entertaining, and absorbing, but it’s still a formula genre picture and it’s full of cliches. Several plot holes too, and a very rushed pace that was unsatisfying.
Yet, there has always been something interesting about Clint Eastwood’s films that I can’t really put my finger on. It is something to do with his interest in gender relations. He seems to choose projects–formula genre projects, yes–that leave room for him to deal with his own old-fashioned “grizzled” (over-used word) masculinity confronting a new kind of assertive femininity. All of his films have fantastic chemistry for this reason, and here again the chemistry between Eastwood and Swank is sparkling. It’s apparent way back in my favorite of his films, A Perfect World (an overlooked gem that you should rent if you can) with Laura Dern as FBI agent sparring with Eastwood as a Texas Ranger. He seems to be reluctantly fascinated with these tough-but-still-feminine broads, and it seems to have its culmination in his support of the girl boxer in Million Dollar Baby. I sort of see it as Eastwood–now looking every bit of his 75 years–passing the torch and finally coming to grips with this “new woman”.
That’s not to say that this is a feminist film, by any stretch of imagination. It’s a very male film. It’s not about a girl boxer, really, it’s about Eastwood’s character. She, like many other sacrificial lambs in big Hollywood films, exists merely to teach the white male a lesson. She is the martyr. She enters his life a perfect submissive–eagerly eating up his insults and patiently waiting for his attentions to turn to her, and then becoming the perfect empty vessel for him to implant with his knowledge and training. She may have a mean right hook, but she succeeds by her unquestioning devotion and loyalty to him. He even re-names her with a Gaelic nickname, has it embroidered on her robes, but won’t tell her what the name means. And she accepts that. And when we find out what it means–”My Darling”–it’s so touching that you don’t really think about the fact that the name isn’t a name really, it’s a sign of his possession. She has no name, she has been erased. She’s just his darling.
But that’s sort of an extreme reading. The film is clearly portraying these two as surrogate father and daughter for each other, as his daughter isn’t speaking to him and her dad is long gone. She’s eager for his guidance because she’s never had a father, and he’s getting to make up for being an absent father to his daughter. And it works, you feel very good that these two people have found each other. (Oh and the truly gorgeous little girl in the truck is one of Eastwood’s many, many, many real-life daughters. The man has plenty of daughter material to mine.)