Our Sponsor, SDKsupplies
Journal of Theatrical Combatives Sept 2005

Maggie in me - Million Dollar Baby and the meaning of martial arts practice

Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

On the plane going to Tokyo this summer, trapped by a 13-hour flight, I was intrigued to see that JAL featured Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby as part of its in-flight entertainment.  I had wanted to see it, but, as usual, had not managed to make the time.  I knew about the end-of-life controversy in the story, knew about Hillary Swank's training regimen.  Moreover the coincidence of the Terry Shaivo case coming about and reaching crisis level in the US after the movie's release provided it with (forgive me) a priceless, if unexpected, publicity boost.  Pundits and advocates for the disabled made arguments; Eastwood and his cast wisely kept mum.  So much had been written and said about the film, it was almost (I thought) as though I had already seen it, when I had not.

I should point out that I am something of an Eastwood fan.  Not so much of the guy himself in a way, but the movies.  Once considered schlock, films like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly are now considered classics of a film genre, the Western, that is all but dead.  While I never felt much interest in Eastwood's acting ability, I have enjoyed watching his face age from the homoerotic attractiveness of the TV series Rawhide to the weather beaten elegance of Pale Rider.

Clint Eastwood as Frankie Dunn

So, I wanted to see the Million Dollar Baby, but in some ways felt it was almost beside the point.  However, there I was with 13 hours and not much to do, so what the hell.  Might was well go to the movies.

I don't know many women who like boxing or wrestling, but I actually do.  When I was in junior high, I went to wrestling matches (Greco-Roman style, not professional style) by myself because I could not get anyone to go with me.  I enjoyed watching each wrestler as he left his teammates on the bench and went forth alone to meet his adversary.  Once he was out on the mat, no one could tell him what to do.  He would win or lose by himself. 

I probably would have gone to boxing matches if there were any, but there weren't (and I somehow think my parents would have drawn the line there, anyway).  I had to content myself with televised matches.  I remember sitting with my uncle watching Muhammad Ali in the'70's, while everyone else either left the room or complained. 

My interest in boxing held true at least until something like maturity took over.  The inherent violence in people trying to destroy each other’s faces, albeit under certain rules, has started to bother me.  I now think people should wear head protection.  Muhammad Ali has Parkinson's.  Another uncle of mine (not the boxing fan) died of Parkinson's.  There you are.

Some comment has been made of the brutality of the boxing scenes in the Million Dollar Baby.  Most video I've seen of women's boxing has the opponents wearing head protection.  Eastwood has his fighters duking it out without it, which is a little startling.  In a way, though, it's like taking off the training wheels.  The opponents are consenting adults who seem to have their brains more or less intact (at least to begin with).

The film opens with Eastwood's character, Frankie Dunn, a trainer and sometime manager, holding back a fighter from a championship bout.  Frustrated, the boxer changes to a different manager and gets, and wins, the title bout.  That's how stuff goes for Frankie.  He's his own worst enemy when it comes to success.  His friend, employee and conscience, Eddie "Scrap Iron" DuPris (Morgan Freeman) seems to have more business savvy (why his job consists of cleaning toilets is never really explained). 

Morgan Freeman as Eddie DuPris

In these scenes, Eastwood's Frankie is a hard-bitten type.  The sometimes stark lighting shows every well-earned crag on his on his aging face.

Enter Maggie Fitzgerald, a product of a white trash background who moves to the big city.  She works as a waitress but is so bad at it she has to swipe food off customers' plates to make up for her lack of tips.  She finds Frankie's gym and trains late into the night, even though Frankie ignores her, stressing to everyone who will listen that "I don't train girls," and that her age, at 30, makes her too old to be a contender.

Hilary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald

The other boxers make fun of her, along with a stringy kid with a big heart, a big mouth and no talent whatsoever.  Throughout the film, Eastwood contrasts these characters with each other.  More than just comic relief, this character, alternately nicknamed "Danger" or "Flipper" depending on who is speaking, offers a contrast to how men view a "lovable loser" type with a woman in a male-dominated sport.  At first, their treatment is nearly identical.  After Maggie gets through a few rounds of verbal sparring, however, they simply ignore her. 

Maggie has no reason to keep going.  The other boxers threaten her, Frankie ignores her.  Only Scrap, who lives at the gym and sees her training into the night, begins to see her potential and gives her a few pointers, more than enough to keep her going.

We pretty much know the rest of the story.  Maggie becomes successful by knocking out one opponent after another.  Despite Frankie's entreaties that she develop some strategies that would prolong fights and make her more marketable, she continues to do it her way, earning fans by developing an Irish persona based on Frankie's study of Gaelic and her own stubborn character.

Maggie's success does not sit well with her po' white family, however.  She buys a house for her mother with cash, only to be told by the ingrate that her welfare benefits would be cut if she accepted it.  Cranking up the mortification, Maggie's mother further tells her that people think what she is doing, making a living as a boxer, is odd and freakish.  Sophisticates may laugh at the rube portrayal, but I grew up in Appalachia (enough said).  It is a brutal characterization in what is, sometimes, a brutal film.

Maggie finally makes it to her title shot.  Her opponent is "Blue Bear," a former East German prostitute who bends and breaks the rules, but, as Freeman's narration notes, "the crowds loved her."  Though I can see the need for this character to provide the impetus for the tragic ending of Eastwood's vision, it is hard to justify what happens next.  Perhaps after holding back another potential champion, Frankie is determined not to make the same mistake again.  Fine, but why is Maggie so woefully unprepared for this particular opponent, especially after seeing a video tape and no doubt knowing her reputation?  Though the climactic battle is exciting, it is, in retrospect, a weak point in the film.

When Maggie suffers a traumatic spinal injury as a result of Blue Bear's treachery in the ring, the ending of the film is somewhat inevitable, even though Eastwood devotes about 1/2 hour to it.  Maggie's family crawls out from under their rock to visit her at the rehab center.  After spending a few days as tourists, they finally show up in order to get her to sign over her assets to them.  Finally, Maggie finds her spine (though it is injured) and refuses their request.  Bedridden as she is, she has enough force of personality to back them off and make them leave her alone. 

Maggie's ordeal wears down Frankie.  (It seems to wear down Swank, too.  Her physical transition from buff fighter to rail-thin invalid is shockingly, and cleverly, revealed).  This is the best part of Eastwood's performance.  The craggy, determined face literally sinks during the last half hour of the film.  It is almost like the end of the film becomes a duel between Swank's brutally honest performance and That Face. 

Most of us know the film's ending (especially since the video came out recently), so I won't elaborate, since it is not part of my larger argument, which is coming soon, I promise.

So, here we have a film that in many ways could be said to be rank with cliché.  The scrappy "girl" and the cratered veteran, the wise old black dude and the hapless kid.  They ignore her.  She wins them over.  She becomes too successful for her own good. 

The day after I arrived in Japan, I managed to drag myself to the dojo where I train in Tokyo.  I suffer pretty badly from jetlag, especially on the first day, and, until I actually showed up there, I wasn't sure I was going at all (I even got lost on the way to the station, a trip I've made many times).  I didn't even bring my keikogi, figuring I'd just show my face and then wander off somewhere, still trying to adapt to the day and time shift.  No way.  My teacher looked me over, and when he found out my gi was still packed in my luggage, said, "Here, wear one of mine."  So, comically outfitted in a gi and hakama that were too large for me, I proceeded to have my butt kicked for two hours. 

It was the rainy season, but the dojo air conditioning was not on.  Pretty soon I was soaking my borrowed duds, my scent mixing with my teacher's.  He kept correcting, correcting and I kept working, working.  Do it again.  No, again.  No again, again. 

Then it hit me, how much my story in martial arts is like Maggie Fitzgerald's story in Million Dollar Baby, though, hopefully, with a better outcome.
When I started at the dojo, almost 20 years ago, the reaction of my sempai (all guys)  was a mixture of curiosity and a sense of something not being quite right.  I think there is a sense of skepticism in iaido dojo about new students anyway.  People are reluctant to accept newcomers because they often don't stick around.  More true for women who face, I think, more opposition generally when they take up a martial art, and have seemingly many more demands on their free time, whether by choice or otherwise.

So, my new-found colleagues, when they took me out for a beer my first week, were nonplussed when my answer to their question as to why I was there was that it was my 30th birthday present to myself.

As time wore on, I was ignored and shunned from time to time.  Parties and events took place without me hearing about them until afterward.  One guy told me flatly that "women don't traditionally study long sword."  After four months I was ready to quit, to find something more welcoming, or easier to get into, or to simply go back to the fencing salle I came from.  But I didn't.

I didn't quit for a number of reasons, but the most important one was that I had a mentor, like Maggie.  The instructor at the time refused to give up on me; in fact, he pushed me to be better, told me I had to be better than the guys.  He pushed and corrected and advised.  As a black guy, I think he sympathized with the fact that I was not readily accepted, realized my determination, and kept hooking my desire to do better.  It was not that he recognized my potential as a martial artist; to this day stubbornness is my best asset when it comes to this stuff.  I consider myself – like Maggie – to have minimal talent.  I just practice a lot – as much as my schedule will allow.

The other reason I did not quit was Otani Sensei.  At that point, he only came in to the dojo once or twice a month, but he always had a kind word.  I found out later that Sensei had three daughters, but no sons.  He also saw no reason I could not do well, and he told me so every time I saw him.

Since they didn't give up, I didn't give up.  Eventually, I endured everything, including a period of a year or so after my instructor-mentor left and no one would teach me anything new.  I learned to correct myself, and teach myself.  To annoy people by asking questions, and to push into the areas of the style that I didn’t fully understand in order to learn them better.

At the end of the Million Dollar Baby, Frankie berates himself for Maggie's fate.  Scrap tells him that people go through their whole lives without ever getting a shot at a title.  In spite of the sad outcome, Frankie had allowed Maggie to "take her shot." 

We have had a small trickle of women who have come through our dojo in the 19-plus years I have been there.  One has now stayed for a short time, while the rest have come and gone.  While I am comfortable being in the instructor’s role, I am not comfortable being a mentor; I know from watching some of the senior students and Otani Sensei that mentoring has its downside of disappointment.  Sometimes the chosen student does not want to live up to the expectations of the mentor; sometimes the mentor's demands are too steep, and sometimes the student is honestly not worthy of the attention.  The best I can do as an instructor is guarantee that people who come to our dojo get their shot if they work for it.  At least they can all get that.

Hilary Swank as Maggie

Million Dollar Baby, 2004 Warner Bros. Pictures, Directed by Clint Eastwood.  Available from Warner Home video, Burbank, CA, USA.
Photos courtesy Warner Brothers.

Our Sponsor, SDKsupplies

JTC Sept 2005