‘The Only Thing I Ever Felt Good Doing’: Looking Back on 2004’s Million Dollar Baby (Spoilers Ahead)

I see writing. I see writing in so many things. In everyday things. In (and) from music. Even in sports movies.

There’s something about boxing films, picking up from 2016’s Hands of Stone, that reflects on why some of us choose to write, whether just for the built-in need to write or because it offers some form of escape from our current state, à la director Clint Eastwood’s 2004 feature film, Million Dollar Baby.


(from left to right) Cate Blanchett, Morgan Freeman, Hilary Swank and Jamie Foxx at the 2005 Academy Awards with their Oscars for Best Supporting Actress for The Aviator, Best Supporting Actor for Million Dollar Baby, Best Actress for Million Dollar Baby and Best Actor for Ray, respectively (GettyImages.com Photo and Caption)

But 2004’s Million Dollar Baby is so much more than just a struggle to fulfil a psychological imperative or to escape circumstances.

Let’s get into what that is, though.


Director Clint Eastwood on the set of 2004’s Million Dollar Baby (Filmix.net Photo and Caption)

Director Eastwood brings a lot of his silhouette-enshrouded trademarks to the fore in 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, often to shocking effect and, the more I think about this, the more Million Dollar Baby has the aesthetic of a film noir with its emphasis on more cramped interior locations and a shadow-laden aesthetic, helped by:

  1. An underdog-esque protagonist chasing greater prosperity: Echoing SensesOfCinema’s Deborah Allison for not the only time today, Hilary Swank’s Maggie is, explicitly, chasing a better way of life with the help of Clint Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn; not unessentially  different from Clint Eastwood’s Bill Munny in 1992’s Unforgiven.
  2. Efficient editing and lean storytelling: There are few, if any, scenes in 2004’s Million Dollar Baby that don’t directly show either Hilary Swank’s Maggie, Clint Eastwood’s Frankie or Morgan Freeman’s Eddie; this is a film that clips by.
  3. Significance of the few locations used and repeated: The church, visited at the film’s start, is seen several times and is the site of a sad Frankie’s request for guidance; the Hit Pit boxing gym is where Frankie never returns to and Ira’s Roadside Diner is where Frankie eventually winds up.
  4. A recurring number of high-level production crew: Director of Photography, Tom Stern; Costume Designer, Deborah Hopper; Editor, Joel Cox; and composers Clint Eastwood and Lennie Niehaus all return for 2004’s Million Dollar Baby.
  5. Protagonists who demonstrate some moral complexity: In Frankie’s subjectively seen case alone, he often pokes fun at his local pastor but later asks him for guidance after seeing Maggie in the hospital.

As always, please let us know of any other Eastwood-isms that you spot in Million Dollar Baby; we’d love to hear about what you found therein.


Screenwriter Paul Haggis with his Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Oscars for the 2004 film. Crash (Telegraph.co.uk Photo and Caption)

 The script, courtesy of screenwriter Paul Haggis, is very much a story of Maggie’s escape from poverty, aided by ‘the only thing I ever felt good doing‘. Whilst there is a predisposition to believe that it’s Maggie’s quest to get and retain Frankie as her trainer and manager, it’s much more than that.

To illustrate this, there is a televised championship bout which Maggie’s friends and colleagues are watching, but it’s the aftermath of that bout that is what contains the culmination of the film, not so much the victory or defeat in the ring itself.


(from left to right) Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank in a scene from 2004’s Million Dollar Baby (CinemaDreamer.Wordpress.com Photo)

The core acting trio is between Hilary Swank’s Maggie, Clint Eastwood’s Frankie and Morgan Freeman’s Eddie (also the film’s narrator), with emphasis on the first two; the impliedly-adoptive father-daughter relationship between them – and the tribulations they jointly undergo – is the source of the film’s emotional heft.

To illustrate this a bit further, Frankie’s stoic nature is overcome at the sight of Maggie asking for euthanasia and culminates in a teary-eyed search for the pastor’s counsel in church. Maggie, conversely, becomes stronger as the film progresses, often facing the self-accelerate prospect of her death with a calm, but not resignation.


Composer and director Clint Eastwood at a jazz event (LaMusicaMashermosaDelMundo.Blogspot.com Photo)

The score begins with a soft guitar tune and eschews any louder action or fighting-esque musical cues for its duration. With collaborators Lennie Niehaus handling the orchestra and Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens also contributing original, albiet innominate here, compositions, the score is atypical, but very Eastwood-esque, for a boxing movie.


Director of Photography, Tom Stern, on set for 2012’s The Hunger Games (HungerGamesDWTC.net Photo and Caption)

Picking up from my earlier film noir comments, the heavy utilisation of shadows in 2004’s Million Dollar Baby is, what whilst enhancing the film’s Eastwood-ness, makes you wonder about the scale of Maggie’s trials and tribulations – both seen and denied by virtue of her injuries – and Frankie’s journey of fame to the uncertainty of training Maggie (when, by his own admission, every instinct made him want to not train her) and then back into the light before disappearing back into the darkness, of obscurity this time.

Million Dollar Baby is not the typical boxing movie. Certainly not for its last third, post-championship bout, but also distinct for its aesthetic, soft score and its protagonists depicted poverty of financial circumstance and its other protagonist’s poverty of direction later in the film. Existing Eastwood fans will get something quite in their wheelhouse whilst casual fans will find something of enshrouded shock.

(Whilst the opinions and observations cited above are the author’s own, the following sources were used to draw facts from: IMDb.com, SensesOfCinema.com)

Plot and Act-by-Act Breakdown:

Plot: an aspiring boxer tries to escape her poverty by means of becoming a professional boxer.

Act 1: Maggie decides to ask Frankie to train her right after Big Willie’s bout; Frankie decides to refuse her.

Act 2:  Maggie decides to attend Frankie’s boxing gym anyways; after finding out, Frankie decides to tell Eddie not to encourage her.

Act 3: Maggie chooses to antagonise Shawrelle after he talks down Danger; Frankie decides to let Maggie keep his speedbag after seeing her dedication.

Act 4: Maggie manages to save enough money to buy her own boxing gloves; Frankie decides to train her until she can find a manager.

Act 5: Frankie decides to let Sally manage Maggie’s career; Maggie reluctantly accepts and goes with him.

Act 6: Maggie nearly loses her first fight under Sally’s management; Frankie decides to intervene and helps Maggie win the bout.

Act 7: Maggie manages to defeat the Highland Boxing Club; Frankie decides to solicit and pay other fighters to fight her.

Act 8: Maggie manages to keep up her winning streak; Frankie decides to turn down championship offers for her.

Act 9: Maggie and Eddie decide to go out and celebrate her birthday;  Maggie turns down Mack’s offer of management and decides to stick with Frankie.

Act 10: Frankie visits Maggie’s apartment; Frankie tells her of his decision to accept the British challenge on her behalf.

Act 11: Maggie manages to defeat her British rival; Maggie’s career receives a boost.

Act 12: Frankie decides to defer the welterweight championship offer until later; Maggie and Frankie decide to go meet her parents.

Act 13: Frankie and Maggie decide to stop for pie on the way back; Frankie accepts the welterweight championship offer.

Act 14: Maggie provokes the Blue Bear into hitting her whilst unguarded; Frankie fails to remove the stool in time before she hits it falling down.

Act 15: Frankie and Eddie decide to visit her in the hospital; Frankie decides to shift Maggie to a rehabilitation centre.

Act 16: Maggie’s family visit her in the rehabilitation centre; she refuses to sign their transfer paperwork.

Act 17: Maggie asks Frankie to euthanise her in the rehabilitation centre; Frankie decides to refuse her.

Act 18: Maggie decides to attempt suicide but fails; Frankie decides to visit the pastor for guidance.

Act 19: Frankie decides to disconnect her respirator and tranquilize her in her rehabilitation centre bed; Frankie then decides to leave.

Epilogue: Frankie never returns to the gym but Danger does; Frankie returns to Ira’s Roadside Diner where he and Maggie had the pie.

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