Saturday, October 19, 2013

Battle Of The Oscar Stars: Best Picture 2004

Over thirty years ago, donning tattered sweats and a bandana, a boxer from Philly ran up a bunch of stairs  and after reaching the top, triumphantly pumped his fist and danced around.

That moment defined the Best Picture winner from 1976, Rocky. Every gym in this country was never the same either, as it spawned treadmill joggers worldwide to blast, “Gonna Fly Now”, through their ear buds, and cemented in the psyche of all Americans that Rocky Balboa was the epitome of pushing yourself in order to succeed at your dreams.

Is anyone not inspired by that? If you are not, simply imagine those Sisters from The Sound Of Music rocking out to, “Climb Every Mountain” – same idea, but very different.

During my childhood, Rocky could often be found playing on a TV at my Grandma’s during summer vacation (along with Cliffhanger and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze) . My older brother and various boy cousins would pop in the movie, wrestle, and drive my Grandma/babysitter mad. Cut to little old me, sitting by myself on the couch and watching what I felt was a total dude story - how could I relate?

In 2004, myself and other movie fans were confronted with a revelation; even though Rocky was a fella, his specific story about striving for success in the boxing world could apply to both genders. No offense to the Italian Stallion, but as a kid I would have preferred watching Maggie Fitzgerald working a speed bag (even if the entire movie might have been a little too intense for 10-year-old me).

It's probably too obvious of a connection, but it is also hard to deny the similarities between the Stallone classic and the Best Picture winner from 2004, Million Dollar Baby. Both characters love to box, came from difficult home lives, work against stereotypes (both are deemed to be past their prime), and in the end accomplish their goals.

By day, she’s a scrappy waitress, but Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) spends her nights dedicated to improving her boxing skills. Cue Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), who owns the gym she frequents and is also a boxing manager extraordinaire.

Dunn, a former boxer himself, has always wanted to represent a client that could earn a national title. When his latest protégé leaves him at the brink of winning a championship, the last thing on his mind is managing a girl.

It's been a tough life for Frankie Dunn. Eastwood's accomplishment at creating Dunn's tough exterior all works perfectly with his characters curmudgeonly persona. The harshness had to stay in front of the camera though, as he was at the same time also perfectly balancing elegant looking scenes (Eastwood walked away with Best Director this year) against the hard life of professional boxing.

The entire film is consumed by creating a stylistic look, with dark lighting and characters often framed in shadow, which almost modernizes classic film noir. Those movies from the 1940s and '50s were simple, had no gimmicks, and heavily relied on a solid story. Using a throwback visual feel makes the movie look beautiful, but at the same time the visuals are not overly showy to the point of where the story is lost.

There is plenty of time left to perfectly play up Dunn's history of being beaten down by life outside and inside the ring. This is a guy whose daily routine simply revolves around boxing, and heading to Mass where he badgers the local priest, all while seemingly trying to atone for past transgressions.

His aversion to coaching Maggie stems from that personal pain, but Dunn can’t fight their growing bond. They can do more together than they have ever been able to accomplish alone.

Boxing is merely the motivation for these characters to exist and interact with one another, so in the end all the swift left hooks and knock outs are secondary to everything else.

Much of the credit for this eloquent story should be given to Paul Haggis, who wrote the screenplay (adapted from F.X. Toole's book, "Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner"). The characters are given relateable struggles which leads to the development of an inspirational sports story with no cheese in sight.

Really though, a lot of that comes down to the acting. Bad acting could ruin any quality story. The emotional frailty and physical command Swank and Eastwood exude when expressing Haggis’ words is what makes the audience give in to cheering and probably, weeping. We’ve all seen that quasi father/daughter connection done many times before in the movies, but it seems far from overdone when watching these two actors together.

All timeless performances are those that seem effortless – the one’s that make you forget you’re watching a movie. Before I popped this into the DVD player, I expected to be affronted with some overly praised Best Actress winning role. To be honest, Swank perfectly embodies that innocent girl, who moved out to the big city to seek her dreams. With her big eyes full of determination and a bright smile, the audience can't help but get completely wrapped up in the world of Maggie Fitzgerald, as if she were a real person and not just a character.

Twelve years later it is still blatantly obvious why this flick dominated the Oscar party and won four awards (including a Best Supporting Actor win for Morgan Freeman). Million Dollar Baby may not have caused millions of Americans to seek out those steps in Philadelphia, but it does have "Mo Cuichle", the Gaelic phrase that, through success and sorrow, tied together Frankie and Maggie indefinitely. There's plenty of blood and injuries inflicted in the ring, but in between the beginning and end, that simple memorable phrase defines its legacy in film history as a heartrending tale. 

If you've seen it, you know what I mean, and if you haven't, check it out as soon as you are able.

Next Up: We're watching a movie that continues to cause much debate, with a huge range of mixed appreciation - I'm talking about Crash.

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