What if we told you that Million Dollar Baby is a boxing movie that isn't really about boxing?
Before you suggest we get our head examined, chew on this: The boxing in the movie is a metaphor for endurance, for the determination needed just to get out of bed in the morning, chow down on some Frosted Flakes, and face another day.
The fighting inside the ring symbolizes all of the fighting outside of the ring—especially for Frankie and Maggie. He has to struggle against the Ivan Drago -sized mountain of guilt he lugs around everywhere. She has to fight against…well, just about everything: her unsupportive family, poverty, sexism, ageism, and even Frankie himself, at least in the first act of the movie. Of course, after The Blue Bear's nasty sucker punch, Maggie has her toughest fight of all: to die with dignity.
Of course, Million Dollar Baby is also about non-metaphorical boxing. We know because we spent a bit too much money on boxing equipment on Amazon after we stopped crying…and before we learned to box.
It's the elephant in the theater.
In a sea of hot topics in the U.S., assisted suicide is an uncomfortable fish to fry. (And apparently to make a metaphor out of…) People are speaking out about about it from all sides—pro, con, and religious.
Because we're analyzing a movie and not preaching from a pulpit or a news desk, we're gonna keep things neutral here. But head on over to our section about the "Production Company" for details on how the topic affected the making and reception of the film.
Just remember: even though it got a ton of press, that last scene wasn’t so much about taking a stand on assisted suicide as it was about the relationship between Frankie and Maggie: the difficulty of letting go for him, the pain of losing a “daughter" after losing his own daughter, her pride and her dread about returning to her old helpless self, rather than going out a strong fighter…
Excuse us while we replenish the tissues.
Fresh off of a disastrous meeting with her mother, Maggie spots an adorable little girl and her equally adorable dog at a gas station. They look at her, she looks at them. Maggie finally smiles. Everything's hunky-dory, right?
Not exactly. According to film critic Jim Emerson, the little girl and her pup are a sign of bad things to come:
"There's a reason Eastwood holds on the image of the little girl and her dog at the gas station…and there's a reason they're seen through the frame of one vehicle window while Maggie is seen looking at them through the frame of another. This privileged moment is a glimpse of happiness that Maggie is not going to share. It is an omen, and the inspiration for her to tell Frankie about her memories of her father and his dog." (Source)
As an allegory, the story Maggie tells Frankie about her dad having to put down his dog, Axel, is similarly foreboding. At this point in the movie, there's nothing to indicate that Maggie will have the accident she has—that's what makes it an accident—but you can rest assured that anytime any character in a movie starts telling the tale of a dog going off into the woods to die, it's not a predictor of superhappyfuntimes to come.
Frankie loves him some W.B. Yeats. Can you blame him? Yeats is a rock star of 20th-century poetry. (Given their common Irish heritage, we'd compare him to Bono, but we can't imagine Yeats forcing his poems onto your bookshelf whether you want them or not.
One Yeats poem in particular gets spotlighted in the film: "Lake Isle of Innisfree." It's the one Frankie reads to Maggie at the rehab center, and it's all about wanting to escape. Yeats wants to find a cabin in a glade; Frankie and Maggie fantasize about finding a bucolic little place in the middle of nowhere. She'll learn how to bake. He'll scarf down lemon pie. You don't need SpyTech to spot the parallels between Yeats' hideaway and Frankie and Maggie's little piecrust palace.
According to The New York Times' Wes Davis, there's more to it than that, though. Davis believes the poem is also symbolic of how hard we fight to keep hope alive, and how real life has a nasty tendency to stomp on our dreams. In "Innisfree," the speaker's dream can be kept alive only "in the deep heart's core." According to Davis, when Frankie reads the poem to Maggie, he's digging their dream up and polishing it. In translating "Innisfree" from Gaelic into English for her, "it feels as if he's extracting a gift of hope for her out of the bedrock of Ireland's nearly forgotten language," writes Davis.
In other words, daydreaming about a secluded cabin is one thing; really, truly believing that it's doable is another. Frankie seems to have faith that escape is possible. When he reads "Lake Isle of Innisfree" to Maggie, he's trying to encourage her, trying to keep spirits high and their getaway plan alive.
In that respect, he's trying to keep her alive, too.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
We first meet Frankie in the boxing ring. Dunn's his name, and patching up bloodied boxers is his game. That's a semi-obnoxious way of saying he's a cut man. Scrap tells us that Frankie may be getting on in years, but he's still the best in the business.
Maggie asks Frankie to train her twice. The first time is right after Big Willie's fight. Then she infiltrates his gym and once again asks Frankie to be her guy. She's a tough lady to ignore.
Twice Frankie refuses Maggie's request that he train her. The first time, at the arena, he tells her thanks but no thanks: he's not interested in training a girl. Gross! Cooties! Shortly thereafter, Frankie drives the point home at the Hit Pit by once again saying "No way, Jose."
So this step in Frankie's journey is a little complicated. Check it out: It's clear from the jump that Scrap is Frankie's best friend and sounding board. He's the one that Frankie gets advice from, whether he wants it or not. They've met long before the movie's narrative starts. Like twenty-something years before.
When it comes to Scrap's role in getting Maggie and Frankie together, though, it all kicks off when Maggie stays at the Hit Pit after hours, and Scrap gives her a few pointers and lends her a speed bag. When Frankie learns that Scrap is helping Maggie behind his back, that's when Frankie discovers Scrap's role in his journey.
In other words, Frankie's met Scrap the Best Friend before. Obviously. But he meets Scrap the Well-Meaning Meddler when he finds out that Scrap's totally #TeamMaggie. Scrap offers Frankie advice about Maggie, whether Frankie wants it or not, and he witnesses keys moments in their narrative.
On Maggie's 32nd birthday Frankie finally gives in and says he'll be her trainer. The fact that she gives a passionate speech about how boxing is the only thing she's ever felt good doing, and that, if she's too old to be a boxer, she's got squat, helps turn the tide. So does mentioning deep-fried Oreos. Mmm.
Once Frankie agrees to train Maggie, they have a lot of work to do if they want to make her a champion. So that's exactly what they do: they bust their butts. Frankie whips Maggie into outstanding physical shape and teaches her the boxing skills she needs to knock out the competition. Literally.
Then, when Maggie asks Frankie about his family, he passes her off to another manager. Not cool. But he quickly wins her back, becomes her manager for realsies this time, and promises to never leave her again.
Next, Frankie has Maggie fight lots and lots of people. And she knocks out lots and lots of people. Quickly. He also has to resist the temptation not to intervene in Maggie's troubled family life and cold-cock her terrible mother, Earline.
Throughout all of this, Frankie's tendency toward extreme caution is tested, too. When Maggie wants to move from four-rounders to six-rounders, for example, he pulls back. Ditto for when she wants to move up a weight class. But in each instance Frankie overcomes his anxiety and advances his #1 fighter's career.
And let's not forget Frankie's ongoing, thoroughly one-sided correspondence with his daughter, Katy. Talk about a test! Every week, he writes her a letter, presumably trying to atone for his sins and fix whatever drove her away. Every week, he gets a letter marked "Return to Sender" to add to his massive collection. (And we thought collecting rocks was depressing.) Still, he keeps on writing.
When it comes time for the actual WBA welterweight title fight, Frankie falls back on his old ways and turns it down without even telling Maggie. See, the reigning champ, Billie "The Blue Bear" Osterman, is a dirty, dirty fighter. Ultimately, though, Frankie comes around and arranges the fight.
The word "ordeal" hardly seems adequate to describe what Frankie goes through when Maggie gets hurt in the ring. "Total nightmare" might be a step in the right direction. But here's the thing: good does come from it. In the wake of Maggie's accident, Frankie's challenged to hold it together—both for himself and for Maggie. In doing so, Frankie's reborn as an awesome, loving father.
Frankie's reward for staying strong in the face of an out-and-out nightmare is that he grows closer and closer to Maggie, his surrogate daughter. He makes her laugh. He reads her Yeats. He watches her finally muster up the strength to tell off her rotten family. They daydream about moving to a little cabin in the middle of nowhere together. In short, he loves her deeply, and she loves him right back.
For Frankie, the road back is the road to letting Maggie go. He doesn't want to lose her, and he knows it's a sin to help her die, but he also feels like it's a sin to keep her alive against her will. So he consults Father Horvak, who tells him: (1) He can't do it; and (2) If he decides to do it anyway, he'll be lost forever. Thanks for the pep talk, Father!
This step is all about Frankie facing death head on and conquering his fears—of losing Maggie, of committing a sin, of not following his one rule: always protect yourself. Frankie's spent decades protecting himself right out of relationships. When he helps Maggie end her life, his shields are totally down, and he's evolved into a vulnerable, loving, unselfish parent.
Ordinarily, in this last step, the hero returns home a changed man. Frankie doesn't. He changes, big time, but he doesn't return to the Hit Pit. Ever. Scrap doesn't know why, but we've got two hypotheses, Shmooper. Based on his conversation with Father Horvak, it's conceivable that Frankie feels he can't go home. The sin he committed by killing Maggie is simply too great. On the other hand, as we spot what looks like Frankie at the counter of Ira's Roadside Diner in the movie's final shot, it's also entirely possible that Frankie's gone off to find a new home, like the little cabin that he and Maggie once dreamed about, and to find peace and homemade lemon pie.
No one's ever going to mistake The Hit Pit for a 24-Hour Fitness. Frankie Dunn's gym is thoroughly unfashionable. "The place is dark and dingy," observes critic Paul Byrnes, "frequented by the lost, the mean and the slow […]" (source). The Hit Pit may be located in Los Angeles, but it's not the 72-degrees-and-sunny version that you get in so many other SoCal-set films.
The Hit Pit exists in a seamier L.A. zip code. Tougher, too. "You had your chance, you blew it, but at least you were lucky enough to get a chance—that's the kind of respect you get at the Hit Pit," writes The New Yorker's David Denby, "where the morose sarcasm is softened only by the harshest pity." It's grimy. It's gritty. It's the perfect location for a modern film noir like Million Dollar Baby.
If it is a modern film noir. Can you guess in what year the movie is set? Neither can we. Here's the thing: we're not supposed to know. From the Hit Pit to the boxing rings to the diners, the film's settings have a timeless quality. (Aside from a stray ad for The Apprentice on the side of the bus that we probably weren't supposed to notice.) "This story…could have taken place in the 1940s as much as the present day," writes Desson Thomson of The Washington Post. "Sign on for this movie and you are in a different world, where the rules are simple: Hit first and hit hard, or kiss the canvas" (source). By having an enduring, ageless quality, the movie's sets make it impossible to say with certainty when the movie takes place.
They also make it hard to alienate potential audience members. As long as she's cool with blood and bruises, Million Dollar Baby can appeal to your grandma just as much as it does to you.
Scrap is the WBA cruiserweight champion of eavesdropping.
Whether he's taking his sweet time buffing the turnbuckle or hiding in a shadowy corner of Maggie's rehab center, he always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Is that rude? Maybe? Is that an awesome skill for a narrator to have? Definitely.
Scrap's an omniscient narrator. That means he's all-knowing and all-seeing. (Well, almost all-seeing. Sorry about your eye, Scrap.) He has a wizard-like ability to jump around in time, from event to event, and even give us insight into the other character's thoughts.
Unlike your textbook omniscient narrator, though, he's not inside the other characters' heads. Scrap doesn't divulge their private thoughts, at least not directly, and that's important. The conceit of the story is that Scrap's not really narrating the movie for us; he's telling the tale to Frankie's estranged daughter, Katy, in what must be one seriously long letter.
As a narrator, Scrap can still give us astute glimpses of the other characters' inner workings, though. Like when he tells us that Maggie "grew up knowing one thing: she was trash." It's totally plausible that Maggie told Scrap that directly, or that he read between the lines of one of her stories.
Similarly, while Scrap himself is part of the story, he also provides voiceover for events he didn't attend—like Maggie's knockout tour of Europe, for example. The thing is, all of these are events where it's reasonable to believe that Frankie or Maggie told Scrap what went down after it was over, and he's just relaying that info to Katy, and us.
Training montage? Check. Crusty old mentor and plucky young protégé? Check. Blood, sweat, and tears? Check. Adversity? Double—no, triple check.
Million Dollar Baby ticks all of the conventional sports movie boxes, but it's that last part, the misfortune that Maggie comes up against after The Blue Bear's sucker punch paralyzes her from the neck down, that separates Million Dollar Baby from the pack. All sports movies culminate in "the big game" or "the big fight." Maggie's big fight is unlike anything else in the genre, raising tough questions about faith, love, and loss. In other words, Space Jam it is not.
Frankie Dunn is one of the most tragic characters in film history. He's riddled with guilt over his relationship (or lack thereof) with his daughter, not to mention Scrap's AWOL eyeball, and he's more guarded than Buckingham Palace. Then he meets Maggie and he finally opens up. Yes!
Then she gets paralyzed from the neck down in a freak accident and asks Frankie to kill her. Nooo!
Frankie's relationship with Maggie revitalizes the old trainer, but ultimately, he is a tragic character who finds himself in a nightmarish situation, forced to make an unbearable decision.
If Million Dollar Baby were a nightclub, it would have a five hanky minimum. It's more than just a drama; it's a woman-has-a-tragic-accident-that-results-in-irreversible-physical-damage drama. Plot twists and tragic deaths are hallmarks of the tearjerker genre; Million Dollar Baby has both. Big time. By the time Frankie slinks out of the rehab center, exhausted, for destinations unknown, the audience is equally exhausted, and their tear ducts have had a workout more draining than anything Frankie ever put Maggie through in the ring.
Paul Haggis's screenplay for Million Dollar Baby is based on not one but two short stories by F.X. Toole: "Million $$$ Baby" and "Frozen Water." We're glad Haggis stuck with just one title. A Million Frozen Water Babies just doesn't have the same ring to it.
So what does it mean? Let's break it down: First, the million dollars. That's a lot of dough. The kind of bank you'd make if you were a super-successful fighter like one Miss Maggie Fitzgerald. That's one way to look at it—she's literally worth a million dollars—but we like to think of it less in terms of actual monetary value and more in terms of intrinsic value. If somebody's worth a million bucks to you, then they're pretty precious.
Then there's the baby. That's a pretty common term of endearment. Just ask the poet laureate of Canada, Justin Bieber. It might also refer to Frankie and Maggie's relationship. Over the course of the movie, he basically adopts her. Even though she's a grown woman, she'll always be his baby. His…Million Dollar Baby.
There's an old popular song written by Henry Warren in 1931 called "Million Dollar Baby" with the lyric: I found a million dollar baby / In a five and ten-cent store. (For you folks born after 1950, a five-and-ten-cent store was a variety store that carried all kinds of cheap merchandise, kind of like a precursor of Family Dollar.) That title works, too, to capture the idea that Frankie found his treasure in a poor kid in his grimy boxing studio.
As if Maggie's death doesn't pack enough of a dramatic punch, the final minutes of Million Dollar Baby have two more revelations in store.
(1) If Million Dollar Baby is to be believed, then Scrap is one heck of a letter writer. In the penultimate scene, after Frankie ends Maggie's life and disappears into the night, it's revealed that all of Scrap's narration throughout the entire movie has been the text of a letter he's writing to Katy, Frankie's estranged daughter. "No matter where he is," Scrap writes of his vanished pal, "I thought you should know what kind of man your father was." Oh, snap. Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris: a solid BFF right until the end.
(2) In the final scene, we glimpse what appears to be Frankie at the counter of Ira's Roadside Diner. After Father Horvak told Frankie that if he helped Maggie he'd be lost forever, seeing Frankie at the restaurant where he and Maggie had dinner in happier times—and that Frankie had even expressed an interest in buying—is a relief. It suggests that his soul isn't permanently broken or adrift in the Negative Zone after all; in fact, if he's eating a slice of that scrumptious homemade lemon pie, it may even be stronger than ever.
Million Dollar Baby is rated PG-13 for blood, bruises, broken noses, strained relationships between parents and their adult kids, the occasional nasty word, and a tragic accident that leads to some emotionally intense and thought-provoking scenes in the film's final act.