Monday, February 28, 2005

Mama's Boy

Over the short 35 years I got to know my Mom I learned to respect her opinions on most matters. Thus when Mom made an occasional movie recommendation to me I quickly learned to pay attention. She never steered me wrong whether it was Friendly Persuasion or The Spirit of St. Louis, or Pride of the Yankees. Not only did Mom have great taste in movies but she also knew what kind of movies I would appreciate.

Back when Mom was growing up and going to the movies, the quality of a film often was closely linked to its star. Not to say Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn never made a bad movie but generally if you watch most of the great films from the 1940's and 1950's there is a great actor or actress involved. Thus it was no surprise that many of the movies Mom recommended starred some of her favorite actors including Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart.

There was a running joke in my family about one of Mom's other favorite actors. For some reason she really liked Clint Eastwood. Mom was a quiet, reserved and extremely peaceful woman so we had to kid her about watching Dirty Harry or The Outlaw Josie Wales where Clint blows away anyone who crosses him. Those movies were even too violent for me and Clint's squint hard and say little method of acting didn't really do much for me.

When I was in college I'd often go home during the weekends and I remember coming home Saturday morning to Mom writing her weekly letter to my sister while Rawhide was on the TV in the background. The 1950's TV series features a very young Clint playing the volatile Rowdy Yates. The best thing for me about the show was its catchy theme song but I think Mom watched because she liked the guy who played Rowdy.

Last Monday I went to see Clint's latest movie, Million Dollar Baby and I came home desperately wishing Mom could have seen it. The movie features my favorite Clint performance to date- even though he is pretty much playing the same character he has played for the past fifty years. His character the boxer trainer, Frankie Dunn, is a grizzled cynic who is more than a little worn down by life. Something unspoken has happened in Frankie's past. He sends letters to his daughter on a weekly basis only to have each and every one come back marked "return to sender."

Frankie reads Yeats and knows how to speak Gaelic and goes to church every week even though he hardly seems to believe in much. His quiet dispassion seems to be a marker for a man who doesn't quite understand the world around him but has entrenched himself in something comforting enough that he is able to get by.

His life and world change when a young female boxer comes along and pesters him to train her. Hilary Swank is great in the role of the spunky yet never been swankier, Maggie Fitzgerald, not at any time hitting the wrong note in the entire movie (she's down right Swanky!). Morgan Freeman whose character, Eddie Dupris, runs the gym is also pitch perfect.

More and more as I watch Clint's movies, and particularly the ones he directs, I understand why he is such a lover of jazz music. His world view isn't about flashiness or being a technical virtuoso. Rather he's more interested in hitting as few notes as possible knowing that the less that is said, the more effective something is in playing the human heart's everlasting desire to want to fill in the missing pieces. His movies tend to be leisurely paced yet their internal rhythm add to the intensity of the story being told.

There's a scene near the end of the movie where Frankie is facing a heartbreaking moral decision and is seeking the counsel of his priest. Frankie knows what he is going to do even if he doesn't know how in the world he can manage to find the strength to do it. He's looking for someone to absolve him of the consequences of his decision but that isn't going to happen. When Clint's voice wavers, and he lets the tears finally flow, the years of strength and stoicism take on such a great significance. His weathered face isn't glamorous but it certainly is authentic.

Million Dollar Baby is a very sad movie. It skillfully uses the sport of boxing as a metaphor for life- that to be effective you have to learn to throw a punch when taking a step back, and sometimes dodging punches means moving in a direction that isn't where it makes logical sense to move. The best thing I can say about the movie is it made me come to appreciate Clint Eastwood in a way I'm sure my Mom had to know that one day I would.

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