"Best Pictures From the Outside In" ~ Episode 4
Million Dollar Baby (04) and Cimarron (30/31)
Million Dollar Baby (04) and Cimarron (30/31)
NATHANIEL: In 2004, Oscar gave actor/ director/ producer/ composer Clint Eastwood his second Best Picture trophy for a boxing fable/tragedy about a retiring trainer, his faithful employee and his new girl fighter. Filmmakers have always liked to sit ringside but it's one of only two boxing picture to ever take home the Academy's highest honor. The other is Rocky. What is it that made this one the heavyweight champion with Oscar when The Champ and Raging Bull got knocked out in the last round and others never made the cut at all? Meanwhile back in '30/31, Oscar found its first Best Western (not the hotel) in Cimarron, a sprawling epic of the settlement of two million acres of Oklahoma territory. It tells this history through the marriage of the Sabra and Yancey Cravat (Irene Dunne and Richard Dix) who are among the first settlers and power players in the eventual state.
Since this series is all about these then & now fusions, please allow me to mangle co-opt some early philosophizing from "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman) who narrates Million Dollar Baby. You've all heard Freeman narrate enough movies by now. I'm taking over:
If there's magic in Oscar obsessing, it's the magic of watching movies beyond your endurance, beyond creaky narratives, awkward moralizing and dated racism. It's the magic of watching everything for a dream that few people have but you.I didn't end up paralyzed on a hospital bed by going ten rounds with Cimarron but I felt pumelled all the same. And you my fellow obsessives?
NICK: Well, having seen Cimarron three times - and let me pause here, for your pity, awe, bafflement, or contempt - let me say this for it: I think that early seque nce of the wagons stampeding for the Oklahoma land grab is pretty spectacular. Wesley Ruggles shows little gift in this film for camera placement, much less camera *movement*, so I'm guessing he has a great A.D. to thank for all the vitality, the grandness, and the desperation of this moment. All of it completely plagiarized 60 years later by Oscar's next Best Western, Dances With Wolves - remember that buffalo hunt? But we'll get to that one in a few months. Anyway, I always think of myself as liking Cimarron more than I do because it makes such a strong early impression, every time.
And I do like that Yancey Cravat turns out to be such a heartless, unreliable, wanderlusty poop -not because I think the movie makes any coherent point about this, but it does defy our basic expectations, and it leaves room for the occasional moment of touching grief and shared disappointment between his wife (Irene Dunne) and his best friend Solomon (George E. Stone), the only explicitly coded Jew I can remember in any Western.
Otherwise, though, it stinks. Speechy. Stolid. Instantly antique. Episodic and barely integrated "plot" threads. Unbelievably erratic pacing. The tedious villain stuff with Lon Yountis. The crazy distraction of that hussy Dixie Lee. That courtroom sequence! That stuttering, watermelon-eating pickaninny! Frigging Edna May Oliver, who is kryptonite to me! I'm guessing I will wind up Cimarron's biggest champ here, just because I don't totally hate it. But I'm sort of baffled that I don't. What do you think, Goatdog? And why do you guys think it won, especially over audience treats like The Front Page and Skippy?
GOATDOG: As much as I'd like to credit Cimarron for something -- anything -- I can't join you, Nick, in praising the Oklahoma land grab, for two reasons. First is that it blatantly ripped it off from the finale of William S. Hart's phenomenal final Western, Tumbleweeds (1925, clip here skip ahead to 4:23), which, having arrived on this territory first and having claimed the vitality, grandness, and desperation, gets to build a little house on this prime land. Perhaps only to lose that house in a card game or to be run off by marauding spinsters, but still: it's the little house on the prairie that gets my vote. (I wonder if Costner & Co. knew they were ripping off a ripoff sixty-odd years later.) The land grab is valuable for me for one reason, that being the fact that Yancy Cravat (surely either the worst or the best character name in film history) can bemoan the fact that the whites are basically stealing land from the Native Americans, but still gallop with the same amount of enthusiasm to do his share of stealing.
How much do you think the filmmakers understood the point they were making here? They even make it twice -- it pops up again before the next grab that takes Yancy away from his family the first time. The creation of the United States requires the destruction of individual families? That's a strong statement, if they actually meant it. Did they mean anything except "look at this huge budget"? As for why it won over the far superior, if far simpler Skippy (and even The Front Page, which I disliked when I watched it, but that was long before I could turn off my racism radar), it must be that this one is big Big BIG! It sprawls messily over the West, which it clearly reads as being sprawled over the entire history of This Great Nation. That's enough for Oscar, at least sometimes.
This made me appreciate the extremely limited palette of Million Dollar Baby, the boxing movie that refused to be about anything but boxing. And life, and relationships, and God, and fate, and damnation. But still, its deliberately un-filled-in scenes -- from the sparse lighting, which made it look like we were seeing small pools of life in the middle of emptiness -- to the sparse characterization, to the sparse background (so few people onscreen in the entire film) (I've lost track of my dashes and parentheticals): this all felt like it was saying something valuable about being alone and who you can trust and dealing with the ramifications of your actions. I didn't love the film as much this time around, but I value it for having a coherent worldview. After Cimarron, any coherence at all was a blessing.
Nick, you haven't watched Cimarron three times. It's impossible: isn't it at least 20 years long? You'd still be watching it the second time.
NATHANIEL: Clearly Nick is enjoying some merciful Cliff Notes version of Cimarron. There is no way the actual feature could be watched thrice --no way on gods green earth. Or gods dusty black & white earth in this case.
Speaking of black and white, I hear you on the limited palette of M$B. I love that the characters are almost spotlit whenever the reappear, emerging from pools of black.
Cimarron uses theatrical title cards for each character. Eastwood doesn't take Million
Dollar Baby quite that far but the lighting suggests stage entrances all the same.
Dollar Baby quite that far but the lighting suggests stage entrances all the same.
The palette is such that I kept getting the feeling that Eastwood and his cinematographer Tom Stern wanted it to be a black and white movie but didn't quite have the nerve. That was probably a smart move, Oscar-wise. A black and white Million Dollar Baby might've only exposed it's mediocrity in comparison to Raging Bull. Oscar passed that over for the big prize, but the point remains.
But maybe I'm wrong. I don't generally even think of it as a boxing movie so perhaps others wouldn't be quick to pair it subconsciously with Raging Bull. I think M$B is artfully made and stirring as drama but I don't think it's willing to fess up to the inherent violence within its milieu which limits its punch, pun intended. My chief problem with the movie (which I like more than I think I'm conveying) is its desperation to be loved. It's the only way I can explain the saint-like presentation of the title character. As presented and performed this is a girl who wouldn't hurt a fly. And yet... she lives to fight. She's also described as "trash" but she has little of the coarseness, impotent rage or bad manners that might be conveyed as products of that self-assessment. Her family has been "gifted" all of that instead. I like contradictions and troubling disparities in movie characters... but only if they're presented as such. M$B is so in love with both Maggie and Scrap-Iron that it doesn't allow them appropriate dimensions.
The only character who emerges with realistic edges is Eastwood's own. It's the least heralded performance from the movie but it's also the best. His turn as Frankie Dunn improves with a second look. The other two performances, though successfully jerry-rigged by both the direction and performances to move you, are complete with just one view. There's nothing new to discover a second time around. Are they effective? Definitely! But not much more.
NICK: Re: Cimarron, I didn't know about the Tumbleweeds precedent, and clearly the movie does take several steps back every time it attempts to move forward on racial, cultural, and historical questions. But I still think the movie's stance toward Yancey's bloviating fundamentally changes when he winds up as such an absentee and a sad-sack. If ever a character explicitly lacked the courage of his convictions... I do see the movie, in its hugely limited way, as taking some key stock of its protagonist's shortcomings, and I find it interesting how much of the final half-hour plays like a funeral. Am I completely alone?
GOATDOG: I couldn't buy the ending of Cimarron as a funeral for anything (except maybe modern viewers). Yancy's off living the American dream; he's a relic, I suppose, but he's the kind of relic we need to build statues to honor. Why bother him with things like taking care of his family or watching his kids grow up? There's Adventure to be had! If the film is sad about anything, it's that poor Yancy ends up forgotten in life, if not in legend; and it ends up back at excusing his failures for the sake of lionizing him as an embodiment of a particular type of American icon.
NICK: Speaking of final acts that play like funerals, I love M$B more every time I watch it. I think it's a pretty great movie about poverty and desperation, without being overt or didactic about these things -- except in the grating, discordant treatment of Maggie's intolerable family. Certainly a case where it might have behooved Clint to try a little rehearsal, or at least do more than his celebrated one or two takes. But otherwise, the tact and expressive precision of the movie are wondrous to me. That inky cinematography is all the movie often needs to telegraph sadness, limitation, aloneness. (And to signal, too, how much we're not seeing: for example, what DID Frankie do to his daughter? Yikes…)
I love the simplicity and charge of the boxing sequences, especially the grace and vivacity of Maggie's opponents compared to her hunkered-down strength and diligence.It's part of why I disagree that the movie is unqualifiedly in love with her: her diligence, in boxing as in life, is an admirable but limited coping strategy. True, the movie rarely (if ever?) engages in explicit criticism of Maggie or Scrap, but it's well alert to their handicaps and masochisms and vulnerabilities. The movie comes right to the edge of pitying Maggie, and of pitying Scrap, this homeless man who refuses to see himself as such, even as he walks around the gym with his tail between his legs exchanging half-hearted, fatigued repartee with his one, very angry friend. M$B, for me, is like Old Joy if Old Joy were older, more bitter, more muscular, and more worried about death.
Among its Best Picture vintage (The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray, Sideways), I'd say M$B is by far the LEAST invested in sentimentalizing itself or requiring our love. If the movie wanted to be loved, wouldn't it look a lot less dark and leave a lot out? - the crisis of faith, the biting of the tongue, the smudgy final shot. However appealing these characters are, my reactions of sadness so outweigh my reactions of fondness or admiration. For me, the emblematic shot of Maggie is that pitiful, self-effacing way she waves at the little girl in the gas station. Movies so seldom catch anyone doing anything so invisible yet so naked.
GOATDOG: I thought M$B's enigmatic un-filled-in feel was helped tremendously by the fights. Until the final one, they're all as distilled to their essence as the lighting is and the character backgrounds are -- it's always the knockout, without the preliminaries, because, as Nick convincingly argued, Maggie doesn't have anything else in her bag of tricks, and the film is about people who do the few things they're capable of because they don't have any other options. Freeman's another story, though. Maybe because he's burdened with the narration, which I tend to see as an unnecessary crutch -- if you're going to paint in deliberately insubstantial daubs, don't provide a built-in commentary track -- and maybe because he carries so much baggage as an actor that he can't be anything but saintly by this point in his career, I did think the film strayed too far into semi-worship.
As usual (if four entries in can establish what's "usual"), this series provided us with an interesting pairing of films about major American themes, namely, absentee fathers and violence (among other things). Cimarron wowed 1931 audiences with its ... well, we're not exactly sure what happened there; maybe you can help us figure that out in the comments. Whereas Million Dollar Baby seemed to cement Clint Eastwood as America's favorite director and Hilary Swank as Nathaniel's favorite actress. (hee!) We'll see next January if Eastwood has been distilled so much that all he can do is direct Best Picture nominees.
NATHANIEL: Indeed we shall. Your turn, readers How do you think M$B is aging? Have you ever been able to make it through all
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Statistics Cimarron was nominated for 7 Oscars including an inexplicable Best Actor citation for Richard Dix. It won 3 (Picture, Art Direction and Adapted Screenplay). Million Dollar Baby was nominated for 7 Oscars. It won 4 (Picture, Director, Actress and Supporting Actor)
Previously episode 1 No Country For Old Men (07) and Wings (27/28) episode 2 The Departed (06) and Broadway Melody (28/29) episode 3 Crash (05) and All Quiet on the Western Front (29/30)