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Fine wines. Your favorite jeans. The stinkiest of stinky cheeses. Some things just get better with age.
Clint Eastwood was 74 years old when he directed Million Dollar Baby, his 25th film. Newsweek's David Ansen put it well: "F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, there are no second acts in American lives. Somebody forgot to tell Clint Eastwood, who…well into his third act, is doing the best, most assured work of his career" (source). Bottom line: Million Dollar Baby proved that Eastwood still had a lot of filmmaking fight left. The boatload of awards it brought him, including Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture, probably didn't hurt either.
Eastwood is a famously "no muss, no fuss" film director, and Million Dollar Baby is an equally unpretentious, unadorned movie. "It is a quiet, intimately scaled three-person drama directed in a patient, easygoing style," writes A.O. Scott, "without any of the displays of allusive cleverness or formal gimmickry that so often masquerade as important filmmaking these days" (source). In other words, Eastwood is all about substance over style. Adds The Atlantic's Christopher Orr, "One can see in the movie many of Eastwood's own virtues: It is lean, stoic, and deliberate, frugal with its emotions but not uncaring" (source). In Eastwood's hands, this super-emotional story of love and loss and broken noses is highly emotional, but never sappy or sentimental. Just like Dirty Harry himself.
But Eastwood doesn't work alone. In fact, he has employed the same trusty team of filmmaking all-stars on many of his movies. At the time they filmed Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood had worked with cinematographer Tom Stern and editor Joel Cox for twenty and thirty years, respectively. Then there's Henry Bumstead. The production designer responsible for so many of the movie's moody shadows and dark corners was 89 years old when they filmed Million Dollar Baby. "I wouldn't work for anybody else at this age," he said (source). Eastwood's devoted crew proves that loyalty creates efficiency—especially when your crew has a combined hundreds of years of experience between them.
As an actor, Eastwood has long been viewed as a man's man. He's the guy your dad makes you watch on cable on a rainy October afternoon. Million Dollar Baby is chock full of that same masculine attitude, but it's also a first-class tearjerker. Complex magazine cites it as one of the "25 Movies Guys Are Allowed to Cry At." (Don't worry if you tear up at The Notebook or Up, guys. It's okay to cry at any ol' movie you want.)
In Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood pairs traditional Western masculinity with soul. According to The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday, the film "proves the famously taciturn Eastwood is not afraid of big emotions; what starts out as a lean but heartwarming tale of determination and loyalty becomes a full-blown three-hankie melodrama by its wrenching third act" (source). He takes a film full of bruises, blood, and brutal uppercuts and melds them with themes of family, friendship, and punishing heartbreak.
Don't get it twisted, though: as a director, Eastwood has been chipping away at his masculine trademark for a long time. Films like Honkytonk Man (1982), A Perfect World (1993), The Bridges of Madison County (1995), and, more recently, Gran Torino (2008) all bear Eastwood's unique blend of machismo and emotion. "In his own hard-bitten way," explains Hornaday, "he's as adept at modern-day tear-jerkers as the masters of the 1940s and 1950s" (source). Because of their lack of pretenses or flashy gimmicks, Eastwood's films have a timeless appeal that allows him free range to examine the complex, seemingly contrary themes of masculinity and melodrama.
Some filmmakers take it easy as they get older and ease into retirement, dinner at 4:00, and lifetime achievement awards. Million Dollar Baby proves that Clint Eastwood isn't one of them. "Eastwood's films have been getting slower, deeper and darker as American cinema has become faster, shallower and dumber," argues film critic Paul Byrnes (source). Eastwood directed a number of other deadly serious films with grim themes and less than happy endings: Mystic River (2003) and American Sniper (2014), for example. His willingness to take on controversial, deeply emotional topics seemed to pick up steam the older he got. With its provocative subject matter, deep character examination, and intense emotion, Million Dollar Baby is one of Eastwood's most important and representative works as a director. Or, as The Evening Standard's Derek Malcolm puts it, "Anyone who doesn't believe that Clint Eastwood is one of the best film-makers in America ought to see Million Dollar Baby" (source).
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