"Million Dollar' mystery

Hilary Swank, above, plays female boxer Maggie Fitzgerald, who wins over unwilling trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood, left) in "Million Dollar Baby."

Photos from Warner Bros.
Published: Friday, January 28, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 27, 2005 at 10:26 p.m.
Here's a hot tip for movie lovers who want to get their money's worth out of "Million Dollar Baby," Clint Eastwood's much-praised drama about a determined female boxer and her crusty trainer: Get thee to a theater immediately.
Otherwise, prepare to be forced to cover your eyes and ears until you do go. Spoilsports have already begun to leak details about this drama, which earned seven Oscar nominations Tuesday. The urge to divulge the story's secrets will only grow worse when the film finally goes nationwide at more than 1,800 theaters today.
As you might have guessed, like "The Crying Game" and "The Sixth Sense" before it, "Baby" packs a surprise plot twist. The out-of-nowhere wallop arrives about two-thirds of the way in. What might have simply dissolved into an enjoyable yet cliched Rocky-style celebration of girl power suddenly grows into a dark, disturbing and yet enriching exploration of right and wrong.
But this time, more is at stake for viewers than just learning "she is a he" or "he's dead." The twist has its own twist, a hot-button social issue itching to be debated, and the temptation to tattle goes beyond merely ruining the ending.
Don't blame the blabbing on critics. The film carried little buzz when it screened for the press close to its limited opening on Dec. 15.
But the minute "Baby" entered the Oscar-season arena, the rumblings began: Add this one to the short list. "The word is spreading - what's this about 'Million Dollar Baby' that I'm hearing," David Thomson wrote in The Independent's online edition this month. Thomson felt lucky to experience "Baby," with its Depression-dreary palette and underclass milieu, with an audience who had little clue of what was in store. Like many, he was caught off-guard by the emotional impact of the relationship shared by Eastwood's obstinate trainer, Hilary Swank's eager novice and Morgan Freeman's shrewd ex-boxer. It was clear: This was no run-of-the-mill rah-rah ring fable.
Thomson offered readers only a hint of the story basics before writing: "That's all I'm going to tell you beyond the fact that 'Million Dollar Baby' is going to win best picture."
Most reviewers have coddled the sports saga with similar care as they dried their eyes and immediately found a space for it on their top-10 lists, more than 200 strong.
"My great wish always, which is difficult to achieve, is to go in knowing nothing about a film," Thomson says. "If you do, the story always works in a different kind of way." With "Baby," "you only gradually realize you are in a tragedy and not an achievement film."
After declaring "Baby" "a masterpiece, pure and simple," critic Roger Ebert wrote: "It is a movie about a boxer. What else it is, all it is, what emotional power it contains, I cannot suggest in this review, because I will not spoil the experience of following this story into the deepest secrets of life and death."
In an interview, Ebert notes that "saying there even is a surprise is a form of revealing it. In this case, I thought the critics were almost unanimously respectful."
Don't point to the trailers or TV ads for giving away too much, either. Warner Bros., the studio behind "Baby," has exercised admirable restraint in its publicity push. Nor was a request issued to the press to remain mum on the subject of the twist. Instead, they placed faith in the power of their movie.
"The critics have gone out of their way to write around it," says Warner's marketing chief Dawn Taubin of "Baby" 's third-act bombshell. "They wanted audiences to discover it for themselves."
A few, however, couldn't help but cross the line. Nell Minow, a.k.a. the Movie Mom, whose Internet reviews are available on Yahoo, reveals nearly all in her summary, the better to inform concerned parents about the PG-13-rated content.
However, there exists even a more seductive incentive to spoil "Baby." Unlike "The Usual Suspects" or "Fight Club," where the narrative jolts were merely an extension of the plot, "Baby" is being used by political pundits and special-interest groups with causes to advance. One organization, whose name would be a form of a spoiler itself, issued a statement last week decrying what they see as a "vendetta" executed by Eastwood and his film.
In an attack on her Web site (www.debbieschlussel.com), conservative commentator Debbie Schlussel at least offers readers the courtesy of a spoiler alert after proclaiming Baby as "Hollywood's best political propaganda of the year, more effective than 'Fahrenheit 9/11' " and "a left-wing diatribe." She then pummels its premise as well as the understated ad campaign, spilling every pertinent detail in the bargain.
Fellow conservative and culture critic Michael Medved has verbally spanked "Baby" and its makers via multiple media forums, from his nationally syndicated Seattle-based radio show to such TV outlets as the Fox News Channel, MSNBC and "The 700 Club" on CBN.
"The movie is wildly overrated in part because of an enduring affection for Eastwood, which I share," says Medved, a former host of PBS' "Sneak Previews." But, "I hated this movie, and hate is not too strong a word. It's hackneyed and clumsy, like a flatfooted fighter who would be knocked out in the first four seconds of the first round."
More objectionable to Medved than any artistic failures: "It is dishonest in its marketing. They didn't want to tell people what it is because no one would come." As for disclosing the surprise to make his case, he says, "there are competing moral demands that come into the job of a movie critic. We have a moral and fairness obligation to not spoil movies. On the other hand, our primary moral obligation is to tell the truth."
Medved says he went out of his way to not specify which character was involved in the twist. That may not be good enough for some. Ebert fan Peter Crooks of Walnut Creek, Calif., wrote to the critic after hearing Medved blurt out the twist essentials and scare off potential moviegoers on CBN.
Unfortunately, it was right before he went to see "Million Dollar Baby" that day.
"I would imagine that most '700 Club' viewers would be moved, entertained and inspired by this movie and engage in provocative, think-for-themselves discussions," says Crooks, who liked it anyway.
Some actually welcome such a warning, however. Dan Kaiser of The Movie Spoiler, a popular Web site that provides a public service by giving away the plots of hundreds of films old and new, says "Baby" "is my top movie right now. Anytime there is a twist, they become the top movie."
What's different with "Baby" is that Kaiser is getting e-mails thanking him for wrecking the story. An example: "To keep something that totally changes what the film is about hidden like that, to me, is deceiving. If they had that in the preview, I would not want to see it. I would have been so angry had I spent my money."
As for the Republican ex-mayor of Carmel, Calif., Eastwood was asked at the recent Golden Globes about "Baby" 's pivotal question.
Eastwood's reply: "The picture doesn't really sum up any policies one way or another. It just happens to be the ultimate drama for one particular person. How people feel about that is up to them."
Taubin and other Warner execs have dealt with such unforeseen minefields before. The studio erased a peace sign flashed by actress Amanda Bynes in a poster for 2003's "What a Girl Wants" when it was seen as anti-patriotic.
"People take out of movies what they want," Taubin says. "They bring their own history and political feelings. I don't honestly think that a lot can be done about that."
But what about those multiplex regulars who believe that a toasty place in Hades should be reserved for those who would ruin another person's moviegoing experience?
The good news is that a well-made movie, as most believe "Million Dollar Baby" is, can withstand such a blow. In fact, the best "twists" invite repeat visits, the better to appreciate the cleverly planted clues and boost box office.
"The film does the work," says critic Eleanor Ringel Gillespie of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "If it does its job, then you don't care about already knowing."

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