Today is Curmudgeon’s Day, according to Twitter. (Un)happy Curmudgeon’s Day! In that spirit I will take a close look at a film in which a curmudgeonly old man learns to soften up with the help of an earnest and humble young woman. I first saw this film around the time Million Dollar Baby come out and in my memory it was a pro-woman film, but watching it again now I can see that although Hilary Swank becomes the boxing champion in the story, this is nevertheless a narrative about the Clint Eastwood character, who does curmudgeonly very well. (In certain fonts his name looks very much like ‘Cunt Eastwood’, just by the by.)
The film Million Dollar Baby is directed and produced by Paul Haggis, who also gave us Crash. The script is based on a short story by boxing trainer Jerry Boyd, who wrote under the pen name F.X. Toole.
It strikes me given recent Hollywood political news that perhaps the reason female actors are getting paid far less than male actors in Hollywood can be justified within the industry by the fact that women only have to read a few lines. (This even applies in films for children.) Swank’s character gets comparatively little to say throughout, with the vast majority of dialogue happening between the two old men, or via Morgan Freeman’s voiceover narration.
If in doubt about who is the hero of a story, ask which character changes the most. At first glance this would be Hilary Swank’s character, who goes from ‘trailer trash’ to ‘boxing champ’, but this is deceptive; a ‘change of circumstance’ does not equal a ‘character arc’: a fundamental shift in worldview. The character arc belongs firmly to Clint Eastwood’s character, Frankie, who ‘learns to love again’ after past rejection from his own daughter.
None of this is to say that this particular story should have been written differently, simply to say that this is no ‘Female Rocky’, as Warner Brothers tried to market the film as.
Sentence Behind The Story: An ageing boxing trainer learns to love (and lose) again after a brief paternal relationship with a young woman who becomes his stand in for an estranged daughter.
Theme Thread: When you truly love somebody, your actions speak louder than words.
Setting: The big strugglefield of a boxing gymnasium and its surrounding underworld. (This is a story set in an ambiguous decade — it’s unambiguously American, but could be set in any number of decades of the past 70 odd years. There are few technological clues. In other words, this story takes place over Frankie’s whole lifetime — it’s a purely psychological story.)
Symbol Thread: The boxing ring as a metaphor for inner turmoil
Arc phrase: “Always protect yourself” >> “I shouldn’t have dropped my hand “, in which hands held up to protect the head in boxing are a symbol of Frankie’s tendency to not get hurt by others in relationships.
INTERESTING STORYTELLING TOOLS USED IN MILLION DOLLAR BABY
Michael Hauge writes specifically of ‘reflection characters’.
This is my term for the character who is most closely aligned with your hero – the best friend, partner, mentor or spouse whose primary function is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation and to urge the hero toward transformation. […]
The reflection character’s primary goal is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation.Michael Hauge
Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupree is of course the reflection character for Frankie Dunn. The reflection character is often a teacher, though in this case Scrap is lower in status due to being financially reliant upon Frankie. He nevertheless demonstrates the qualities that Frankie himself needs to learn. He sees the champion quality in Maggie before Frankie does and is in fact instrumental in the pairing.
Why does the character of Danger exist? Why is he needed in the story? While all of the other characters are acted in mimetic fashion, the character of Danger is hammed up, played for laughs in a comic fashion which seems almost wrong for the film. But Danger, and his over-the-top presentation, are necessary for building the setting. The audience needs to know that all the odds are stacked against Maggie’s succeeding in this male-dominated fighting world. As a welter weight who has never actually had a fight, this guy is at the bottom of the pecking order in the gym, but is still more accepted than Maggie is because at least he’s not a girl. He’s as close as it’s possible to get to a girl, however, symbolised by his tights and the way the bigger guys hassle him for them. This demonstrates (as if it’s not already obvious) the machismo of the world of boxing.
There is another reason for the character of Danger: Frankie is exasperated by him. He’s a bumbling fool. This elevates Maggie in Frankie’s eyes. She may be clueless, but it’s not because she has delusions of grandeur — she is clueless only because she hasn’t had the privilege of coaching.
USE OF CHARACTER NICKNAMES
In the case of ‘Danger’, there is a pleasing ironic juxtaposition between the character and his nickname which serves to highlight how very non-dangerous he is as a boxer. The character of ‘Scrap’ has obviously been formidable in his younger years. The world of boxing is a natural story arena in which to make the most of nick names, and other boxers are referred to briefly by theirs. The nick names function as a shorthand for their backstory.
The most significant use of a nick name is that which Frankie gives to Maggie: Mo Chuisle. We don’t learn until the end of the film that this means ‘my blood’, and that when Frankie gave her this name it meant he had accepted her as his own daughter.
In young adult fiction, John Green also makes much use of nicknames as a way to say a lot about a character without saying anything at all. (The Colonel, Eagle, Pudge etc.)
USE OF A VOICE OVER NARRATOR
Scrap is also the storyteller, in a film which makes heavy use of his voice over narration. As Robert McKee says:
There’s only one good reason for voice over narration: counterpoint. Woody Allen is the master of counterpoint narration.
Incidentally, this aspect of film shares a lot with picture books — in a picture book, if the words simply explain the pictures, it’s not working as a picture book. Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott use the phrase ‘ironic counterpoint’ in their excellent text How Picturebooks Work. Likewise in film, if the voice over narration simply describes the scenes it is talking down to the audience.
Morgan Freeman is well-established as a certain type of narrator. In The Shawshank Redemption, too, he plays a character/storyteller who has already been through his own version of character arc before the story of the (white) hero begins. In his narration he has generally these characters have had much time to reflect and to therefore offer insight the characters themselves don’t yet have.
Have we ever seen a white man narrating the character arc of a Black man come out of Hollywood? Sometimes the insight of a black storyteller character is so deep that he almost tips over into Magical Negro territory — a familiar trope in American stories. However, compared to Freeman’s characters in The Shawshank Redemption, Bruce Almighty, Azeem and Batman Begins, the holey-socked, down-and-out Scrap doesn’t exactly subvert this trope, but perhaps narrowly side-steps it.
Part of the reason the voiceover narration works in this film is because there is a reason for it within the world of the story: At the end of the film it is revealed that the narration is a letter Scrap is writing to Frankie’s estranged daughter, explaining the true nature of his character and hoping the two of them will make amends.
In fairytales, a character often bears a curse and comes up trumps despite this curse. Although in fairytales curses might come about due to a witch who wasn’t invited to a party, in modern stories the curse has morphed into some lack of privilege. In Maggie’s case she bears the curse of being female. She also happens to bear the curse of being 32-33 years old in a sport best suited to the young.
The boxing robe given to Maggie by Frankie is symbolic and marks a turning point in Frankie Dunn’s character arc. In fantasy, robes often mean ‘invisibility’, or ‘blending in’, but here it signifies ‘initiation’, and is therefore more akin to the fantasy ‘crown’. (It’s a hooded cloak, after all.)
We learn in a very brief scene outside church that Frankie has a daughter. We don’t know if she’s still alive or anything about her. This explains why Frankie is uncomfortable getting involved with a young woman as a fatherly figure — he’s scared of being hurt again.
Frankie also has another ghost in relation to Scrap, which explains why he’s reluctant to promote Maggie up through the ranks even though she seems more than ready. Scrap explains this to Maggie on her 33rd birthday at the diner: Frankie feels responsible for the game in which Scrap lost his eye.
The other characters have their own ghosts — we see what a horrible background Maggie’s come from when she buys her mother and sister a house only to have them complain about it.
“I should’ve kept my hands up,” Maggie says from her hospital bed. This has been an ongoing issue, with Frankie refusing to progress her through the ranks until she can learn this properly. Ironically, since it was an illegal punch that lead to Maggie’s injury in the first place, the advice wouldn’t have helped her anyhow.
“Fly there, drive back,” Maggie requests, when Frankie asks how she’d like to travel to and from the championship round. ‘The storytelling device that seems most incompatible with the realities of actual life is foreshadowing,’ reads an article in The Atlantic, comparing it to a device such as metaphor, which exists in the real world as well as in fiction. Why does this kind of foreshadowing exist so regularly in stories?
“We try to predict the future all the time,” Pasupathi says. She speculates that the reason there’s foreshadowing in fiction in the first place is because of this human tendency. The uncertainty of the future makes people uncomfortable, and stories are a way to deal with that.
“The future is never a direct replica of the past,” Adler says. “So we need to be able to take pieces of things that have happened to us and reconfigure them into possible futures.” For example, through experience, one learns that “We need to talk” rarely foreshadows anything good. (Life has its own clichés.)The Atlantic
Sideshadowing happens in stories when a character or narrator posits a series of possible events which never have any consequences in the story. Sideshadowing draws attention to the possibility that other paths could have been taken.
A conversation in the hospital between Maggie and Frankie posits an alternative ending for the two of them. They discuss maybe moving to a cabin somewhere, where Frankie can read his books and look after Maggie.
Another possible ending is posed by Frankie just before Maggie asks him to finish her off; he’s been thinking he can get a wheelchair which can be operated by blowing through a straw and she could go back to school.
These two alternative endings serve to heighten the sadness of the actual ending. Those are both the happiest endings an audience could wish for, but the popularity of this film should put paid to the idea that successful Hollywood stories have happy endings.
What is required for the ending of a film is not happiness; it is justice. The bad force may not totally overcome the protagonist, but it always takes its toll. The endings of the vast majority of popular films are, in fact, Pyrrhic victories. […] Happiness has nothing to do with being a hero; in fact, happiness is something heroes learn to live without.Howard Suber, The Power Of Film
STORY STRUCTURE OF MILLION DOLLAR BABY
Note the symbolism of Frankie behind those bars ^^. The character arc will see him come out of his psychological cage. Note that this film is based on some short stories, one of which was originally titled ‘Rope Burns’. (It has since been retitled to match the film.)
Bars and lines of various types are fairly commonly utilised motifs across storytelling. For a literary short story example, check out “Coming Soon” by Steven Millhauser.
Frankie Dunn, boxing coach and gym owner.
His relationship with his own daughter has soured and he is unable to relate to any female around his daughter’s age. His only real confidant is the pastor at his church where he is only ever in a verbal sparring match anyhow.
He discriminates against Maggie because of her gender even though she is obviously the most committed boxing student he could hope to find.
He needs to learn how to get close to people again, and in particular how to relate to women. He also needs to learn to become a true Christian rather than simply going through the motions of attending daily mass.
Frankie wants to take Big Willie Little, pro-level boxer who he has trained for years, right through to the big-time.
Mickey Mack, big-shot manager poaches Frankie’s protégé. Big Willie goes with Mickey Mack because he feels Frankie isn’t advancing him quickly enough.
Scrap is Frankie’s sometimes opponent, functioning as his reflection ally.
His plan doesn’t work when Big Willie Little is poached by a manager. Frankie is especially devastated at Big Willie’s parting comment that Frankie has taught him all he needs to know.
Needing a new focus, Frankie reluctantly settles upon Maggie, so he starts coaching her, meaning to palm her off at the first opportunity.
He does this, but doesn’t like that her new manager is coaching Maggie to lose so that his other fighters can win, so he takes Maggie on again. He will train her to be the best or not at all. He will also protect her from injury by refusing to advance her through the ranks quickly.
There are a series of actual struggles — this is a setting which includes boxing matches, after all — culminating in a title fight with an illegal shot from the opponent which breaks Maggie’s neck. She is now a quadriplegic, dependent on a ventilator.
Frankie goes through the first three stages of grief: denial, then blaming Scrap in anger and later trying to bargain with God through prayer. (Note that when films have a reflection character such as Scrap they always ‘scrap’ with the hero at some point — it seems to have become a screenwriting rule.)
Frankie has the self-revelation that he would give his own life (freedom) for his daughter (or his symbolic daughter) and he’ll do something illegal and against his own ethics to save Maggie from continuing misery.
At the end of the film there is a small chance that Frankie and his daughter will reconcile their differences, with Scrap’s quiet intervention. Nobody knows where Frankie has gone, so we know at least that he hasn’t ended up in jail. That may be him through the window of the diner — perhaps he’s bought a diner, or maybe it’s not him at all. His face through the glass is wraithlike — having lost not one but two daughters, he has become his ‘ghost’.
I hope I’ve argued that Million Dollar Baby is not ‘the female Rocky’.
Here’s an article wondering if Rocky is ‘the most successful bad film ever made’.
The article makes some interesting points:
- The story indulges in some Cinderella-style wish fulfilment
- It was sold to adult movie goers as a gritty urban drama but is more like a feel-good Walt Disney children’s film
- The storyline of Adrian is horribly misogynistic — the shy girl bullied into ‘dating’ a man who ends up falling in love with him is replicated all over films of this era, including Star Wars. (Remember when Princess Leia gets her head smashed against the wall in a ‘passionate’ kiss?)
- Creed’s laziness saps the film of tension. Rocky really actually wins because he does some exercise.
- The terrible dialogue and problematic construction give it the feel of an indie film, which works on its favour.
Call it a way-out theory, but I feel there is a correlation between sexist narrative in film and sexual assault in film-making. Multiple women accuse Oscar winner and prominent ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis of sexual assault.
The Wrestler is one of my favourite films. If you’ve watched Million Dollar Baby, and are craving something good with a similar vibe, check it out. Warning: It wrecked me for a week.