Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite made history at the 2020 Academy Awards, becoming the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture.
In this series, in reverse chronological order, I compare previous years’ Best Picture and Best International Feature to see how many other foreign-language films ought to have been given the top gong.
**** This article contains spoilers! ****
Martin Scorsese’s travails at the Oscars continued in 2005, despite his film The Aviator being nominated for 11 awards — he must have thought his run of Best Picture snubs might finally come to an end…
First, there was Taxi Driver, which in 1976 went 10 rounds with feel-good boxing movie Rocky and lost by a decision. Unperturbed, Scorsese got back in the ring with a boxing picture of his own, 1980’s remarkable Raging Bull, but that got beaten by Robert Redford’s upper-middle-class drama Ordinary People.
What exactly is it the Academy wants? — Scorsese mused (in my mind). When Goodfellas and Gangs of New York both got beaten to Best Picture by rather tawdry opposition from Dances With Wolves and Chicago, he must have been punch drunk in 2005 when another boxing film swept the heavyweight title from under The Aviator.
Instead, it was Clint Eastwood celebrating Best Director and Best Picture for Million Dollar Baby, while its stars Hillary Swank and Morgan Freeman took home Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor.
Feel like a million box
Evocatively written by Paul Haggis (who went on to write and direct the worst Best Picture winner of all time, Crash), Million Dollar Baby is the story of Maggie (Swank), a working-class woman from Missouri whose only passion is boxing. Moreover, it’s about her relationship with underrated trainer Frankie (Eastwood), a grizzled, sexist dinosaur too protective of his fighters to push them into championship bouts.
The main thrust of the film sees Maggie go from clueless try-hard to disciplined brawler, while Frankie gradually learns to grant his fighters a chance at the big time. But it’s that risk that informs the final act, when Maggie suffers a terrible neck injury in the ring, and the film wraps up its denouement with deliberations over euthanasia.
Morgan Freeman plays the gym’s live-in caretaker, a croaky ex-boxer, blind in one eye from a fight Eastwood failed to halt. Freeman narrates the film in his best Shawshank voice, delivering blue-collar sports philosophy in his pleasingly dulcet voice. “Boxing is all about respect,” Freeman gruffly intones. “Earning it for yourself, and taking it away from the other guy.” It has the same Hollywood unrealism as “Get busy livin’, or get busy dying,” but, for the most part, it works.
Meanwhile, as he is wont to do, Eastwood tones down his performance to within an inch of a read-through, barely moving his face but for the occasional grimace. This absence of bombast is ultimately compelling, for when he does show some emotion — even on a nanoscale — there is power in it.
Even as we stumble breathlessly into the 2020s, it still packs a punch to see a grown man — otherwise stoic in his masculinity — show the slightest signs of despair. The film isn’t specifically about toxic masculinity, but it is about a man from a generation that lauded male fortitude — a man who buries his feelings, never expresses remorse, and admonishes women for crying. Maggie might be the lead character, but it is Frankie who experiences the greatest character shift.
Million Dollar Baby packs an emotional punch, but it is not without its faults. The boxing clichés are multitudinous, the film’s metaphors are pasted over everything like gaudy graffiti, and many of the characters are clumsily engineered to manipulate the audience. The clearest example of this emotional coercion is Maggie’s trailer trash family — each of them devoid of shame, remorse, pride, love or empathy. They are petty, ungrateful, self-obsessed losers, and comically two-dimensional.
When the family turn up to Maggie’s bedside draped in Disney World paraphernalia, having visited the theme park before bothering to see their newly paraplegic relative, the message is loud and clear — lower-class people are devoid of honour, and Maggie was right to do whatever she could to fight her way out of that social bracket. Note, too, the obesity of Maggie’s mother. She embodies everything that Maggie strives to escape — a future of deep-frying Oreos and collecting welfare cheques based on spurious health conditions.
Fraught with Danger
Transcending the limitations of the body is a heavy-handed through-line in the film, and informs the other weak character: Danger — or, “Dangerous Dillard Fighting Flippo Bam-Bam Barch” to give him his full (ridiculous) name. Danger is a simpleton who hangs around the gym boasting of his pugilistic might, but never steps into the ring to spar. He is the gender opposite of Maggie: a man too feminine and weedy to be taken seriously.
Danger’s presence serves only to elevate the status of Maggie in the gym, and earn her Frankie’s attention in spite of his sexism. Yes, she’s just a girl, but at least she’s not as pathetic as dimwit Danger, who doesn’t know how you get ice inside a bottle of water “through the tiny hole”. His inclusion is an unnecessary distraction, in my opinion; in a movie so littered with sign-posted metaphors, this reflection-of-the-protagonist trope is surplus to requirements.
Much has been made of the film’s supposedly pro-euthanasia message — even garnering accusations of ablism — but the script weaves in a spiritual thread that effectively says Eastwood sells his soul to grant Maggie’s wish to die. That’s a heavy price for a true believer, and one that Frankie is clearly reluctant to pay.
Oh I do like to be inside the sea
In the starkest example yet of synchronicity between Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film, the international movie up against Million Dollar Baby is Spanish film The Sea Inside, a film about paraplegic Ramón Sampedro’s real-life thirty-year campaign to legalise euthanasia and end his life.
Javier Bardem plays Ramón and is the film’s shining light — he is transformed in this role, as beguiling a performance as I have seen in an Oscar-winning picture for decades. With the help of some makeup and a bald cap, Bardem becomes the bedridden but ebullient campaigner with compelling authenticity.
Cleverly written with much more subtlety and nuance than Million Dollar Baby, The Sea Inside introduces middle-aged Ramón almost three decades after his life-changing accident. Flashbacks reveal the disastrous moment he absent-mindedly dove into a shallow rock pool and broke his neck. Even knowing the consequences of that incident, witnessing it is a hand-over-mouth moment of shock.
Ramón explains his wish to die to a lawyer, Julia (Belén Rueda), who he has picked because she suffers from a degenerative brain disorder, Cadasil syndrome. He believes her condition will engender an affinity to his own, and their developing relationship appears to confirm that assumption. Meanwhile, Rosa (Lola Dueñas) — a woman who works in a fish-packing factory — sees Ramón making his case to die on television and befriends him in the hope of showing him that life is still worth living.
The film neatly mirrors the arcs of the women in Ramón’s life — skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers — with Julia initially supportive of Ramón’s cause but abandoning it when the time comes, and Rosa progressing from opposition to eventual support of his assisted suicide because she falls in love with him, and wants to do whatever will make Ramón happy.
The Sea Inside takes great pains to remain balanced, avoiding melodrama as much as possible, and not asserting its judgement upon the euthanasia issue. These points of view are demonstrated by the women of the film: Julia’s support, but subsequent mental deterioration, is countered by Rosa’s opposition but eventual assistance. However, there’s also Gené (Clara Segura), Ramón’s campaign assistant, who spearheads the legal challenge to let Ramón end his life; in their last conversation together, she desperately reminds him that he doesn’t have to go through with it. The beauty of the film is that even the staunchest defenders of euthanasia struggle with their convictions, because it’s complicated.
Even the least relatable character in the film has a point; the reverend Padre Francisco (Josep Maria Pou), also a quadriplegic, appears to take offence at Ramón’s wishes to die. He reasons that if Ramón considers life as a quadriplegic not worth living, he must then believe Francisco’s life meaningless. Francisco clumsily claims Ramón must have no love in his life from his family, and visits Ramón to convince him — through his own example — that there is still much to live for from a wheelchair.
One of my favourite scenes from the supporting cast comes when Padre Francisco is leaving his meeting with Ramón, and Ramón’s sister-in-law admonishes him for claiming Ramón was unloved. It reflects the other theme of the film: the notion of burden, which Ramón’s brother Celso feels intensely. The family have looked after Ramón for three decades, and, in an emotional outburst, Celso likens Ramón’s bodily imprisonment with his own, trapped in a life as perpetual carer.
I had expected something more akin to French film The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, about a man who suffers from locked-in syndrome after a stroke. Unlike The Sea Inside, The Diving Bell focuses much more closely on the protagonist’s condition, and how he strives to overcome it. Both men wrote books, Ramón operating a pen on a stick with his mouth, and Jean-Dominique Bauby — who could only move one eye — by blinking at letters to a transcriber for 10 months. But one story is about the struggle to go on, and the other is about the struggle to cease.
The Sea Inside does not dwell on the practicalities of Ramón’s condition, and concentrates more on his wit, charm and relationships. This is to the film’s credit, as that is precisely how Ramón himself would no doubt have preferred it; to be regarded as a person, not to be pitied, but understood.
Only once in this series have I not known which film should win until I had written the reviews; but this is the first time I have changed my mind in the writing of it. I was all for giving Million Dollar Baby the win, because it is emotionally raw, and you come away from it entertained by the moral malaise. But the more I wrote, the more cheap that evocation seemed. I couldn’t escape the clichés, the terrible sub-plot characters, the laughably obvious pairing of fatherless Maggie with daughterless Frankie.
I don’t hate Million Dollar Baby; it’s well-crafted filmmaking with a trashy script. But to claim its better than The Sea Inside — featuring refinement and reservation in the script, and a phenomenal lead performance from Bardem — feels as unnatural an act as boxing itself.
The 2000s go from bad to worse for Hollywood, broadening their miserable deficit to 6–9. Will the international filmmakers further humiliate the English-language movie moguls next time, when Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King does epic battle with French Canadian drama The Barbarian Invasions?
Million Dollar Baby
The Sea Inside
Also in this series
- 2019: Green Book vs Roma
- 2018: The Shape of Water vs A Fantastic Woman
- 2017: Moonlight vs The Salesman
- 2016: Spotlight vs Son of Saul
- 2015: Birdman vs Ida
- 2014: 12 Years A Slave vs The Great Beauty
- 2013: Argo vs Amour
- 2012: The Artist vs A Separation
- 2011: The King’s Speech vs In A Better World
- 2010: The Hurt Locker vs The Secret In Their Eyes
- 2009: Slumdog Millionaire vs Departures
- 2008: No Country For Old Men vs The Counterfeiters
- 2007: The Departed vs The Lives Of Others
- 2006: Crash vs Tsotsi
- 2004: The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King vs The Barbarian Invasions
- 2003: Chicago vs Nowhere In Africa
- 2002: A Beautiful Mind vs No Man’s Land