Clint Eastwood, Hollywood’s premier misogynist beginning with his first feature, Play Misty for Me (1971), has an unwholesome field day with Million Dollar Baby, a film so nasty about or towards its female characters that, here, Eastwood doesn’t need to have a Sondra Locke-lookalike’s getting her face slashed in order to make his point, as he did in Unforgiven (1992). Some of us were stunned speechless when, at the 2005 Golden Globes, a victorious Eastwood acknowledged his own daughter, who was onstage in a ceremonial role, only as an afterthought. The most embarrassingly delayed kiss in the public eye ever says a good deal about Eastwood, and Million Dollar Baby says a good deal more. None of it is good.
Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, gruff owner of The Hit Pit, a gym in a raw, deteriorated part of Los Angeles that perfectly reflects the solitudinous nature of Dunn’s soul. One-eyed Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman, who won an Oscar), his employee, may also be Dunn’s only friend. Dunn is estranged from his grown daughter, who returns unopened each weekly letter he sends her. After initial resistance (“I don’t train girls!”), he attempts to fill the void by taking on the challenge of training an eager, overaged female boxer, waitress Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, best actress Oscar), with whom he falls in love, the platonic nature of which, based on mutual respect, indirectly suggests the opposite, sexual behavior that cost Dunn his daughter’s affection and trust. (Dunn won’t make the same mistake with his second “daughter” as he did with the first.) We are back, then, at Mystic River (2003), Eastwood’s violent, sentimental soap opera about the sexual abuse of a child and its lingering consequences.
Critic David Walsh has zeroed in on the meanness of director Eastwood’s ambitions in Million Dollar Baby: “Aside from its three central figures, who are given some sort of special dispensation, Eastwood’s work expresses nothing but contempt for humanity, especially for working[-]class humanity. The black and Latin kids in the gym are malevolent louts; the one decent ‘gym rat’ is mentally handicapped and a rather pathetic figure. Maggie’s final opponent, a savage former ‘East German prostitute,’ is the product of someone’s fevered and unpleasant imagination.” It is the latter’s vicious blow that turns Maggie, who has proven herself a successful champion, into a vegetable on life-support. One must ask: Why is it that Eastwood feels that Maggie’s opponent in the ring is not entitled to the dignity and sympathy he extends to Maggie, for whom boxing is a passion? Why does he make one woman a monster and the other a victim? It is true, as Walsh writes, that Eastwood is misanthropic; but, more specifically, Eastwood is misogynistic. His treatment of the women’s match and its outcome cold-bloodedly reduces both women to an inhuman status—and Maggie, doubly so.
Maggie’s mother is no less a product of Eastwood’s hatred of women, which, in this instance, intersects with his contempt for poor Americans. Maggie’s mother is dismissed by Eastwood as white trash. Her daughter’s success in the ring means nothing to her. Indeed, she ridicules boxing. Even the gift of a house, from Maggie’s earnings, elicits not the slightest bit of gratitude from Mom, who worries that she will lose her welfare as a result. Walsh pointedly challenges this: “I would be grateful to Eastwood and his screenwriter[, Paul Haggis, adapting stories from F. X. Toole’s Rope Burns,] if they could provide me the name of a single successful athlete or entertainer whose working[-]class family has responded in such a manner. Truly, this is a case of unconvincingly and absurdly distorting reality, damaging one’s drama in the process, to sustain a reactionary social conception.”
On yet another level, this portrait of Maggie’s mother eludes sense. How could Maggie, who is so glowingly positive, be the result of an upbringing by the woman as Eastwood presents her? Instead, Eastwood seems to be punishing us (and his film) for Maggie’s wealth of appeal by turning her mother into a crude caricature and a villain. This is the compensation that his misogynism demands. In several ways, the unreality of this film boggles the brain.
Eastwood’s Dunn pulls the plug on Maggie, ending her (already less than human) life. This is a correct and humane decision for him to make, but, as Walsh notes, Dunn makes it mighty easily, without conflict or soul-searching, even though he is supposed to be a (lapsed) Catholic. I am bothered by something else as well. Dunn’s merciful act of euthanasia, with which I have no quarrel, is also, in context, the symbolical elimination of the biological daughter for whom Maggie became a surrogate or a substitute—this, a summary denial by Dunn of his years-ago likely sexual molestation of his own daughter. It is this aspect, perhaps, that completes the film’s misogynistic nature.
Eastwood’s longstanding trademark misogynism helps explain Jimmy Markum’s failure to register much grief or anguish over the brutal death of his teenaged daughter in Mystic River. (I now feel I erred in initially blaming Sean Penn’s performance.) Eastwood’s position could be stated as follows: because she is a girl, the murder victim is not entitled to the full draught of a father’s love, hence, grief. As callous as this position makes Eastwood sound, it is nonetheless the case that Mystic River generates an insight into human nature on its score, to wit, that Markum so violently and misguidedly avenges his daughter’s death—he kills an old friend for the crime, who is entirely innocent—in order to deny and suppress his lack of feeling for his own flesh and blood. All this is well and good and (however tangentially) to the credit of Mystic River. However, it is the gross sentimentality of that film that finds an echo in Million Dollar Baby, underscoring the manipulative nature of either. Mystic River generates hatred and contempt for a female character, Celeste Boyle, who, on no evidence whatsoever, presumes her innocent husband guilty of the murder and conveys her hysterical conviction to Markum, her cousin, thus inciting him to take revenge. Million Dollar Baby asks us to hate its female characters except Maggie, the victim of which, in one way or another, Maggie becomes—and this includes Dunn’s daughter, whose likely sexual use by her father is so convolutedly hidden from view that no one I have read writing about the film even mentions it. It would have been more honest of Eastwood to make the point of Dunn’s family sexual history plain rather than requiring us to unearth it from a tangle of hints and innuendo.
Formally, the film is (like Mystic River) a mess. Stressing Dunn’s lonely existence, it proceeds for a while as a series of encounters between a different two of the three main characters, reminding us of one of the most atrocious films ever made, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, 1967)—a film as garishly overlit as Million Dollar Baby is artily underlit. Dunn especially is swathed in a blanket of darkness or is himself, as a figure, blacked out. The one thing his closeups and two-shots express is solitude, but it isn’t clear that Eastwood grasps the egoistical implications of these shots. Throughout, the film strains for visual effects. Like all Eastwood films, it will probably look better compressed to the dimensions of a television screen, even though the picture will be cropped.
Despite his conservative Republican politics, Eastwood is generally given a pass by liberal movie reviewers because of his accessibility to the press and his love of jazz. How can a guy who loves jazz be bad? Answer: He can be not just bad but evil. We’ve seen this before, with Governor (and, later, Vice President) Nelson D. Rockefeller, whose love of modern art did not keep him from becoming a mass murderer, the Butcher of Attica. I am heartsick that so many will court whom they ought to condemn just to bask in the glow of a major, persistently glamorous celebrity.
Eastwood may be looking good, but artistically and humanely he’s down for the count.
Meanwhile, Million Dollar Baby won the best picture Oscar, and Eastwood’s direction won as well.