THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Million Dollar Baby’ (2004)

In 2005, the 77th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 2004, and December 31, 2004, the awards were held on February 27. The ceremony was hosted by actor and stand-up comedian Chris Rock.

With his fifth unsuccessful nomination for Best Director, Martin Scorsese joined Robert Altman, Clarence Brown, Alfred Hitchcock, and King Vidor as the most nominated individuals in this category without a single win. With his win for Best Director for Million Dollar Baby, at age 74, Clint Eastwood became the oldest person to win this category in Oscar history – a record he still holds to this day.

With his nominations for Best Actor for Ray and Best Supporting Actor for Collateral, Jamie Fox became the tenth performer and only the second male performer to receive two acting nominations in the same year. With her win for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, Cate Blanchett became the first performer to win an Academy Award for a performance portraying a previous Oscar winner.

Leading the way this year with 11 nominations was Martin Scorsese’s sprawling biopic The Aviator. While the film took home the most awards for the evening with five, the night ultimately belonged to Clint Eastwood’s inspiring drama Million Dollar Baby. The film took home four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood, Best Actress for Hilary Swank, and Best Supporting Actor for Morgan Freeman.

The nominees:
The Aviator
Finding Neverland
Million Dollar Baby

The winner:
Million Dollar Baby

Based on short story collection Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner by F.X. Toole, Million Dollar Baby is the inspiring story of a down-and-out boxing trainer and the scrappy amateur boxer who gave him a chance at redemption. Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is a veteran Los Angeles boxing trainer who keeps almost everyone at arm’s length, except his old friend and associate Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman). When Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) arrives in Frankie’s gym seeking his expertise, he is reluctant to train the young woman, a transplant from working-class Missouri. Eventually, he relents, and the two form a close bond that will irrevocably change them both.

Why did it win?
Once again, Martin Scorsese’s time looked to be upon us. With his latest contender The Aviator, a lavish and glamorous retelling of the life and times of business magnate, filmmaker and famed-recluse Howard Hughes, Scorsese appeared to have all the necessary ingredients for a Best Picture win. An almost-three hour-long biopic, headlined by one of Hollywood’s most beloved and popular actors in Leonardo DiCaprio. A film about the film industry itself and one of its most infamous figures. The long-overdue narrative of its much-beleaguered director, who should have won an Oscar decades ago. Every box was ticked to make The Aviator the ultimate Oscar-bait which the Academy surely couldn’t overlook. Enter Clint Eastwood, and a film which came from absolutely nowhere to steal the Best Picture race.

This race was not meant to belong to Million Dollar Baby. The film wasn’t even shot until July, just five months before its release. It didn’t enter the Oscar race until late-December, which, at the time, was unheard of. In what would become the ultimate case of flying-under-the-radar, Million Dollar Baby avoided the usual exhaustive gauntlet of Oscar season, meaning no backlash or mud slinging came its way. It sailed to frontrunner status without a single pre-season Best Picture win to its name. Its victory still stands as one of the most surprising in recent times.

So why was Million Dollar Baby this year’s chosen film? Sure, it’s a good film. Not great. Not a classic, but decent enough. But that doesn’t explain its shock win. Shock wins often have a behind-the-scenes narrative which pushes it to the front. In the case of Million Dollar Baby, there’s nothing glaringly obvious, like, say Shakespeare in Love or Crash (more on that tomorrow). It’s truly difficult to really nail down one defining explanation. Perhaps it was the deep love in Hollywood for Clint Eastwood as both actor and director. A veteran actor-turned-director, who had won the Oscar race once before, and is still knocking it out of the park at 74 years-old, is easy to admire. It featured a cast just as easy to love, with new darling of the screen Hilary Swank leading the way, and the incomparable Morgan Freeman providing support. Most likely, it was simply a case of a light year of competitors.

Besides The Aviator, which ultimately proved to be too divisive, the other three contenders are, well, rather bland pieces of cinema. Ray is great because Jamie Foxx is great. The film itself is not. Sideways was a hell of a lot of fun, with a cracking screenplay and a sublime ensemble cast. But a masterpiece it is not. And Finding Neverland found itself here because it was distributed by Miramax and therefore had Harvey Weinstein behind its Oscar campaign. Enough said. It’s not entirely surprising to see an inspiring, tear-jerker like Million Dollar Baby rise above such light competition. In a year devoid of an obvious frontrunner or revered masterpiece, the film that’s easy to love and hard to hate often takes home Best Picture. This is all that happened here. Its impressive box-office only boosted it that much further.

On a small budget of $25 million, Million Dollar Baby may not have achieved box-office numbers like last year’s winner, but given its narrative and low production cost, it became a highly successful property. The film grossed just over $100 million at the U.S. box-office to end the year inside the top 25 highest-grossing films of 2004. Internationally, the film added a further $116 million to bring its worldwide total to $216 million, making it one of the top 25 earners worldwide of the year.

Adding to the film’s impressive box-office success, Million Dollar Baby received widespread critical acclaim, with many calling it one of the year’s best films. The Los Angeles Times called the film Eastwood’s “most touching, most elegiac work yet” and it “has the nerve and the will to be as pitiless as it is sentimental,” the Chicago Sun-Times hailed the film as “a masterpiece, pure and simple, deep and true,” and the New York Times decreed the film the “best movie released by a major Hollywood studio this year.”

As previously mentioned, Million Dollar Baby, with its bold choice of a late-year release, failed to receive any Best Picture prizes during the precursor awards season. The LA and New York film critics went with Sideways, The National Board of Review went for Finding Neverland (seriously?), and the Golden Globes went with The Aviator for Best Motion Picture – Drama. But, for the first time, the Globes made a true contender out of Million Dollar Baby, with five nominations and two major wins for Best Director for Eastwood and Best Actress – Drama for Swank. Even so, much of the remainder of awards season still went the way of The Aviator. It took home the all-important PGA award, the BAFTA for Best Film, and it scored an incredible 11 Oscar nominations. The tide finally turned when Eastwood beat Scorsese for the DGA (Scorsese’s sixth loss), and, from seemingly nowhere, became the new frontrunner. As it box-office continued to grow, and love for the film soared, it sailed to victory on Oscar night, and became one of the most unlikely winners in Oscars history.

Did it deserve to win?
Before we get to analyse the film’s deservedness, you really just have to tip your hat to the remarkable and game-changing awards season run of Million Dollar Baby. Here we have a film which didn’t even exist until six months before its release, dropping into the race right at the last-minute, and still going on to win Best Picture. As an Oscar observer, you cannot help but be impressed by this. For a film to be released in late December, and still somehow take home the big prize is truly something unique and, before Million Dollar Baby, entirely unheard of.

We have since seen many films attempt to follow a similar low-key path, like The Post in this year’s race. It doesn’t always work. Yes, The Post is nominated for Best Picture, but we all know it ain’t gonna win. Most films need more time to gain buzz and really build a strong case, hence the usual September – November release period for eventual winners. But choosing to avoid the gambit of precursor season can be a masterstroke, as it was for Million Dollar Baby. However, that still has nothing to do with whether it actually deserved to win or not. While its victory may have been impressive, the film is far from it.

Don’t get me wrong. Million Dollar Baby is a terrific film. From where it starts to where it ends up is a huge narrative twist and massive punch to the guts (pun intended), with a third act that will leave you reaching for the tissues. While it’s been 14 years since its release, it’s probably still better to err on the side of caution and avoid spoilers, so I won’t say anymore than that. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. That ending still has the power to leave you stunned in your chair.

As a director, Clint Eastwood knows how to get the most out of his actors. After directing Gene Hackman to an Oscar win for Unforgiven, and Sean Penn and Tim Robbins to wins for Mystic River, he succeeds yet again, with wins for both Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman. The pair are sublime, with Swank perhaps even besting her previous Oscar-winning performance in Boys Don’t Cry. As the desperate and determined boxer, Swank is a triumph, and when that twist comes, her performance takes on a whole new dimension you won’t see coming. Freeman is his typical, wise and lovable self, with a charming performance which finally earned him an Academy Award. As the gruff and cantankerous trainer, Eastwood also gives a stellar performance. It’s perhaps his most layered work, and he takes expert care in slowly letting us in to see Frankie’s heart of gold, hidden beneath all that grumpiness.

But the film is deeply flawed. It’s filled with cliché after cliché after cliché, stemming from Paul Haggis’ disappointing screenplay. The dialogue is particularly frustrating, and it’s a small miracle the brilliant actors are able to rise above the words they’re given. But my biggest gripe with the film is Freeman’s narration, which is entirely unnecessary and terribly distracting. It has nothing to do with Freeman himself. Naturally, his delivery is pitch-perfect and beautifully toned. But its place in the film serves no purpose. At all. Every time single it jarringly cuts in, you’re taken right out of the film. And the less said about the ridiculous subplot involving Maggie’s cartoonish, trailer-trash family, the better. There’s a hell of a lot of emotional manipulation in this film, and when that cinematic technique is so garishly obvious, the film loses a lot of its impact.

As emotionally devastating as the film may be, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of being a truly great piece of cinema. But it’s a crowd-pleaser, and there’s nothing truly wrong with something like that winning Best Picture. People just loved this movie more-so than anything else this year. In such a light year of competition, the beloved film taking it home is easily acceptable. For all its reverence at the time, I’m not exactly wild about The Aviator, which is easily one of Scorsese’s lesser films. When all is said and done, it wasn’t exactly the worst crime for Million Dollar Baby to snatch the race and take home Best Picture. Next year is a different story…oh, yes. Strap yourselves in for tomorrow’s adventure.