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New Eastwood Film <i>Million Dollar Baby</i> Transforms Oscar-Winner Swank into Female Boxer

  • Alan Silverman

Oscar-winner Hilary Swank plays a woman who dreams of becoming a boxing champion. Clint Eastwood is her curmudgeon of a trainer in a sentimental drama that Eastwood also directs. Alan Silverman has a look at Million Dollar Baby.

Like that prayer, 'simple and direct' describes Frankie Dunn, a veteran of many - perhaps too many - years in the boxing game. Then into Frankie's gritty gym near downtown Los Angeles walks Maggie Fitzgerald, who moved from a Midwest trailer park to the big city with dreams of taking home a championship belt.

Her persistence breaks through Frankie's crusty defenses; and Clint Eastwood says it's the surrogate father-daughter relationship which develops that drew him to the story.

"I think what interested me is the fact that it wasn't really a boxing story. It becomes a love story: not a romantic love story, but more a father-daughter love story," Eastwood says. " It's the daughter that he missed in his life and, to her, he's the father that she lost at a very early age and doesn't have that connection anymore."

Hilary Swank is no stranger to transforming herself for a role. Her Oscar-winning performance in Boys Don't Cry was as a young woman who convincingly poses as a young man; but to play Maggie, she not only had to toughen her body, she had to get into the mind of a boxer.

"The first time I hit somebody I said 'oh, sorry' and my trainer just about threw me out of the gym; so I said to him 'sorry...' and he yelled 'you're still doing it!' The physical part was obvious," she says. " When I was asked to gain 10 pounds [5 kg] of muscle, I went ahead and gained 19 [9 kg]. That's a part of my job and if I'm going to play a boxer I'd better look like a boxer; but I think the biggest lesson that I learned is that the obstacles I would set for myself were the biggest thing I had to overcome."

Between Maggie and Frankie - often holding them, as well as the story, together - is Scrap, an ex-boxer who runs Frankie's gym; but it's clear they have a long history.

Morgan Freeman, who co-starred in Eastwood's Oscar-winning western Unforgiven, anchors this film as Scrap and admits the boxing ring is strange territory to him.

"If you hit me, I'm going to cry. I'm going to lie down and cry 'what did you do that for?'" he admits. "But guys who like that come back. 'Bam! Oh yeah, come on.' I don't think you have to know a thing about it to do a script like this, but you learn a lot about it in the doing."

Hilary Swank says director and co-star Eastwood did not choreograph the fights, so when she was in the ring as Maggie, the adrenaline rush was real; but she says it also taught her the lessons her character learns.

"The second that you'd think 'oh, I've got this one' and get cocky, you'd lose," Swank says. " It's just a reminder to always stay humble and be respectful to the other person that you're fighting, working with, meeting ... it was a really interesting parallel to life, really. Boxing is a great parallel and analogy to life, in my opinion."

Million Dollar Baby is written by Paul Haggis, adapted from a short story by F.X. Toole, who spent a lifetime working with boxers. Along with directing and co-starring, Clint Eastwood also composed the film's musical score.

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