Million Dollar Baby
THE CHARACTERS AND STORY
Adapted for the screen by Emmy-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis, Million Dollar Baby is based on a short story from the collection Rope Burns, by F.X. Toole.
Toole spent years working as a “cut man” the member of a boxer’s team whose job it is to patch up his injuries so he can continue fighting and his stories vividly capture the essence of life in the ring.
Legendary producer/director/actor Clint Eastwood chose Million Dollar Baby as the follow-up to his highly acclaimed, Academy Award-winning 2003 drama Mystic River upon reading Haggis’ script.
“What interested me about Million Dollar Baby is the fact that it isn’t really a boxing story,” Eastwood says. “It’s a love story about a person who is distressed about his non-existent relationship with his daughter, and who then finds a sort of surrogate daughter in this young girl who is dying to make her mark on the world as a boxer.”
Eastwood stars in the film as Frankie Dunn, professional boxing trainer and owner of The Hit Pit, an old-school boxing gym nestled in the gritty heart of downtown Los Angeles. The Hit Pit is Frankie’s life, and he divides his time between the seemingly disparate activities of training fighters and attending Mass which he’s done almost every day for the past 23 years. Unable to forgive himself for becoming estranged from his daughter long ago, he sends her a letter every week, and the next week the letter always comes back, unopened and marked ‘Return to Sender.’
“Frankie is searching for redemption,” says Eastwood. “He’s an Irish Catholic guy who’s in his senior years, and he’s become disillusioned with his church and his lack of a relationship with his daughter. The dilemma with his daughter is very tough on him, and it’s left a huge void in his life.”
Throughout his long career, Frankie has trained and managed some talented boxers. Some of them have even made it to the big time, but it’s never Frankie who got them there. He always tells his fighters that above all else, they have to protect themselves, but it’s his own need to protect them and himself that eventually drives them away. Once his boxers learn all they can from him, they move on to managers who are willing to put their fighters on the line for a title.
“Frankie’s reluctance to put his boxers in title fights has caused him to have some disappointments,” Eastwood relates. “He’s become ultra-conservative and unable to spot when they’re ready. Even though he’s still training fighters, he’s kind of retired in his mind.” Frankie’s managed to keep himself safe for a very long time until Maggie Fitzgerald walks into his gym.
Maggie grew up dirt-poor in the Ozarks, but over the years she’s managed to put a lot of miles between herself and her past as she pursues her dream of becoming a professional fighter. In boxing, Maggie finds purpose, pride, and some of the only true happiness she’s ever known. Without it, she has nothing and regardless of the fact that she is untrained, and at 31 is considered too old to begin a fighting career, Maggie refuses to give up on the one thing that makes her feel good in life.
“Why does someone want to become a boxer?” asks Hilary Swank, winner of the Best Actress Oscar for her searing performance in the 1999 drama Boys Don’t Cry.
“To go in the ring and hit and be hit is not something I really understood until I started training for this film. But for Maggie, not only is boxing her way out, it’s something that she loves. I can certainly relate, because growing up, my family lived in a trailer and we didn’t have a lot of money. I started doing plays at the age of nine. It’s what I loved and I wanted to do it forever, and I connected to that part of Maggie.”
“With Maggie Fitzgerald,” says Eastwood, “you see the struggle of somebody with great ambition who has very little education, and very little support from her family. She’s somewhat cynical about where her life will go if she doesn’t complete this goal.”
In Frankie, Maggie sees the man who can help her to achieve her life’s ambition. “She’s watched him mold boxers into incredible fighters,” says Swank, “and she is set on him he’s the one for her. She has these blinders on, and she is absolutely unrelenting.” Frankie, however, sees only disaster in the prospect of training the young woman, and bluntly refuses to even consider it when Maggie first approaches him.
“Frankie has a basic prejudice towards the idea of women fighting,” says Eastwood. “He treats it very frivolously. He’s a traditionalist he thinks of boxing in terms of the way it was in the old days. So that prejudice is an obstacle for him to overcome before he can become enamored with the idea of taking Maggie on.” In truth, there’s a much more complex reason for Frankie’s reticence.
“He’s protecting himself emotionally as he goes through life,” Eastwood elaborates, “and he’s protecting himself from becoming involved in any relationship, even a father/daughter one.”
But Maggie refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer, and instead spends frustrated hours at the gym every day between double waitressing shifts struggling to learn on her own until she can find a way to convince Frankie that she’s worth the risk. Scorned by the male boxers, the only encouragement she gets is from Scrap, an ex-fighter who serves as the gym’s caretaker. Scrap slyly throws Maggie small tips to help her improve her technique, and at the same time, nudges Frankie in her direction.
“Scrap is the first one who recognizes the potential in helping this young lady along, even though Frankie is very much against it,” says Eastwood.
“Scrap sees that Maggie’s got just about all it takes to make it,” says three-time Oscar nominee Morgan Freeman, who plays Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris.
“He remembers himself being in her situation. And he knows that she’s not just a youngster he sees that she’s there with deep meaning and deep desire.” Little by little, with Scrap’s subtle help and her own dogged perseverance, Maggie begins to improve.
“Scrap sees Maggie’s drive, her passion and her focus, and somewhere in there he sees talent,” Swank says. “He sees the underdog in her as well, which I think he was. But she doesn’t really realize how much he’s involved in putting her and Frankie together. There’s so much beauty in a character not knowing everything that’s going on behind the scenes to help them get to where they’re going.”
Scrap and Frankie’s comfortably cantankerous relationship is the only close friendship either of them have been willing or able to sustain throughout the years. As Eastwood notes, “Frankie and Scrap are two guys who have had a certain amount of disappointment in their lives. Scrap doesn’t have anybody in the world except Frankie, and in their relationship is a certain statement about loyalty between friends.”
“They’re like two old married people,” muses Freeman, who co-starred with Eastwood in the director’s poignant 1992 western Unforgiven.
“Their banter has an age to it. Frankie is just generally PO’d, and in a lot of cases, he’s his own worst enemy, but Scrap is attached to him because he knows he has this deep well of a heart that’s seriously cracked because of his relationship with his daughter that he can’t mend, no matter what he does. It’s a source of enduring pain and Scrap is the only one privy to it.”
Scrap has a painful history of his own. His boxing career was crushed when he was blinded in one eye during a particularly vicious, punishing bout. Frankie was Scrap’s cut man that night, and although he didn’t have the authority to throw in the towel, he’s never forgiven himself for not finding a way to stop the fight.
“Frankie feels very strongly about that incident,” Eastwood says. “He kept Scrap on his feet, kept him fighting that night. He would have stopped the fight, because Scrap was really badly cut, but Frankie was able to stop the bleeding between rounds every time, allowing Scrap to continue to take the punishment.
“These are the things that weigh on this man’s life,” Eastwood continues. “And even though it doesn’t prevent him from training fighters, it certainly is another obstacle in his road to training a female fighter.” What Frankie doesn’t understand is that Scrap would do it all over again in a heartbeat and he knows that Maggie shares that same passion, and deserves the chance to see it through.
Yet even in the face of Scrap’s pointed nagging and Maggie’s relentless enthusiasm, Frankie stays firm in his refusal. But on the night of her 32 nd birthday, Frankie gets a glimpse of the pain and desperation that underscores her fervor.
“Maggie thought by the time she was 32 she was going to be a champion,” says Swank. “And here she is, still working away, still without a trainer. And she’s not a champion. And this hits her really hard. At that moment, she isn’t being this plucky girl anymore, trying to win Frankie over.”
It’s in this moment that Frankie finally relents, agreeing to take Maggie on against what he is very quick to point out is his better judgment. Eastwood sees this as a turning point in the story, as well as for the characters. “When Frankie finally agrees to train her, it becomes a love story not a romantic love story, but a father/daughter love story. Maggie is the daughter that he misses in his life,
and he’s the father that she lost at a very early age. And it’s through this relationship that Frankie really finds himself and has a rebirth of sorts.”
“This is a love story, plain and simple,” Freeman agrees. “The relationships between Frankie and Maggie, between Scrap and Frankie it’s all of a piece.” In addition to the prospect of performing in a film that deftly blends drama with a familial love story set against the down-and-dirty world of a physically and psychologically demanding sport, Eastwood’s cast relished the opportunity to work with the prolific director.
“To get the opportunity to work with Clint was amazing,” Swank enthuses. “It really was a dream come true. And Morgan is incredible, so full of grace.”
“It’s rare that you get the opportunity to work with someone you like and have a history with,” says Freeman. “Clint is still the same director he was when I worked with him on Unforgiven. He never gets in the way. He tells you what the shot is going to be and suggests maybe walking this way or that. And then he lets his actors do their job. I’d pay to work with him.”
Eastwood’s legendary talent, no-nonsense directing style and keen understanding of performance have made him a filmmaker that many accomplished actors aspire to work with. Under his direction, Sean Penn and Tim Robbins garnered Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively, for their extraordinary performances in Mystic River.
“My theory in directing actors is to not insert the ego,” Eastwood explains. “Having come up in that side of the business, I’m very sympathetic to the securities that are necessary and the insecurities that are unnecessary to make a good performance, and so I let the actors bring a lot to the table. When they bring something that’s good, fine; and when they bring something that’s not quite so good, I make adjustments to it. I try to ease into everything and then eventually the performances come together. You set a working environment for the actors and then they feel good about themselves.”
Eastwood sees Million Dollar Baby as a film enriched not only by the multilayered performances of his cast, but by the backdrop against which the characters struggle to realize their greatest desires and confront their deepest fears.
“Boxing plays an important role in the story, but this picture isn’t about boxing; it’s about human relationships,” Eastwood emphasizes. “And there are some things that go unspoken in the film. Just as it was with Mystic River, the audience has to participate somewhat in deciding where the story goes after the film ends.”
All images Copyright © Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.