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Dueling legacies

With a DGA win for Eastwood and a leading 11 noms for Scorsese's 'The Aviator,' two critics take sides in what likely will be the pivotal matchup in this year's race

CLINT EASTWOOD
“Million Dollar Baby”

Released: Dec. 15

Domestic B.O. through Feb. 7: $34.7 million

Nominated for seven Oscars: Picture, director, actor (Eastwood), actress (Hilary Swank), supporting actor (Morgan Freeman), adapted screenplay, editing

Eastwood’s Oscar history:
“Unforgiven” — won picture and director; nom for actor.
Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award (1995)
“Mystic River” — nominated for picture, director

By Richard T. Jameson
For weeks after seeing Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” I found myself remembering — no, haunted by — something I hadn’t recalled in years: the title melody from the director-star’s 1982 “Honkytonk Man.”

A small, bleak Depression-era fable of the back roads leading to Nashville and a tubercular singer-songwriter who lives just long enough to get there, that movie was all heartache and honorable, unrealized intention. Few people saw it, and repertory houses have ignored it in the decades since. But it spoke to something Eastwood cared about, and he must have mentally tucked it away in a drawer, like the script of “Unforgiven” that waited 16 years until, in his own words, he was “ready to direct it.”

In “Million Dollar Baby,” he has given eloquent voice to the music of — as Scrap (Morgan Freeman) says of Maggie Fitzgerald’s (Hilary Swank) origins — the people from “somewhere between Nowhere and Goodbye.”

This is what has been so extraordinary, and exemplary, about Eastwood’s moviemaking career. Although he achieved heady stardom and, through his production company Malpaso, nurtured it more cannily than any other headliner in Hollywood history, he’s never coasted, never ceased to try something new or bring fresh perspective to something familiar, never ceased evolving as actor and icon. Most important to the immediate point, he’s never ceased evolving as a director.

There is a moment early in “Million Dollar Baby” when Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), the veteran cut man-turned-trainer and manager, kneels at his bedside to pray. His words to his Lord are as gruff and free of pleading as his remarks to one of his fighters or his only helpmate, Scrap. The setup of the shot — through the bedroom door, over the bed, lit predominantly by a functional bedside lamp — is at once plain and somehow sacramental. It’s unmistakably framed, with frames within frames, yet resolutely avoids becoming picturesque. The room could be a monk’s cell, but it’s really just a bedroom. This man talks to God every night, as he bedevils his poor, harried parish priest every morning with a twinkling irreverence that nevertheless frames a question, seeks an answer. He talks to God and then he hoists himself onto his bed and tries to find a comfortable way to lean. It’s a beautiful scene, direct, fully considered, a masterly lesson in the avoidance of ostentation.

That’s “Million Dollar Baby” in a nutshell. It’s the essence of classical American filmmaking: no moment is too small, no detail too incidental, not to be done well. Every such moment should be accorded the precise look and duration it warrants to contribute its payload of information, meaning and impact — no more, no less. It’s a standard few films of the past quarter-century have measured up to. Audiences know it, even if they don’t necessarily know that they know it. Seeing “Million Dollar Baby,” they are reminded of what a movie is supposed to feel like, and realize how long it’s been since they really saw one.

Some observers have noted that “Million Dollar Baby” tells a story reminiscent of any number of program pictures out of, say, Warner Bros. in the ’30s. You could synopsize that story in a couple of sentences (though, to their credit and the gratitude of filmgoers, reviewers have avoided writing the last of those sentences, just as critics and audiences alike once scrupulously protected the secret of “The Crying Game”).

But movies aren’t story synopses, they’re storytelling. The story that screenwriter Paul Haggis has developed from a couple of boxing tales by F.X. Toole is a beauty, but the telling of it is largely achieved through Eastwood’s direction. Consider how one of those incidental, procedural details of boxing life is woven into the narrative: the replacement of Maggie Fitzgerald’s stool in the ring at the end of every round and its removal when the bell signals next round. Characteristic of the deadpan, verging-on-inscrutable sense of humor that informs so many Eastwood pictures, regardless of genre, this ritual becomes a comic routine marking Frankie Dunn’s exasperation with and growing regard for his overaged girl fighter, who just can’t forbear taking out her opponents in the first round. Yet that stool — and Frankie’s responsibility for it — will acquire a whole new, terrible meaning before Maggie’s career has run its course. It’s in the movie’s DNA.

Then again, it’s part of the nature of “Million Dollar Baby” that the story is over before we have even begun to watch it. We don’t know that, or know that “we” aren’t its intended audience. That meaning becomes clear, and devastatingly beautiful, only in the last seconds of the film. Every moment does count. Eastwood takes us out in the first round, and every round that follows, too.

This is one of the several best pictures Eastwood has made. It’s not just the best picture of the year — it’s the best picture of the past five or six years. This is an appropriate time for Academy voters to remember that “Best Picture” ought to be awarded for achievement, not as atonement for past oversights.

MARTIN SCORSESE
“The Aviator”

Released: Dec. 17, limited; Dec. 25, wide

Domestic B.O. through Feb. 7: $75.9 million

Nominated for 11 Oscars: picture, director, actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), supporting actor (Alan Alda), supporting actress (Cate Blanchett), original screenplay, art direction, cinematography, costume design, editing, sound mixing

Scorsese’s Oscar history:
“Taxi Driver” — nom for pic
“Raging Bull” — nom for director and pic
“The Last Temptation of Christ” — nom for director
“Goodfellas” — nom for director, adapted screenplay, pic
“The Age of Innocence” — nom for adapted screenplay
“Gangs of New York” — nom for director, pic

By David Edelstein
The biopic genre is a minefield of cliches — wait, that’s a cliche. Even writing about this genre is a minefield.

It’s tough for a filmmaker to avoid all the traps: the chronological sprawl; the neat Freudian packages; the dramatic marks hit with metronomic predictability; and the tin-eared dialogue, with its barely speakable exposition and ham-handed stabs at connecting the personal and the political. (My favorite recent biopic howler is the narrator’s declaration in “Beyond the Sea”: “While it looked like Bobby Kennedy might heal the country, Sandy and I drifted farther and farther apart.”)

Consider, now, “The Aviator,” directed by Martin Scorsese from a script by John Logan, which doesn’t so much steer clear of those landmines as step on them so lightly and nimbly that they don’t go off — leaving you to marvel at the fluidity, wit and elegance of a movie that by rights should be a mangled, smoking wreck.

It’s an amazing performance by Scorsese and Co. The life of Howard Hughes was bounded by two extremes: the reckless joy of flight and its attendant speed and glamour, and an increasing fear of germs that would finally result in the mogul’s total paralysis.

Logan never underlines this bizarre schism; he never resorts to cutting from, say, Hughes in midair to Hughes in a men’s room unable to grasp a doorknob. But “Aviator” moves so seamlessly from compulsive motion to the terror of stepping out of a darkened room that the themes take hold of you. It never quite makes psychological sense — Hughes’ life never quite made psychological sense. But “Aviator” makes splendid cinematic sense.

That’s largely because Scorsese and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, have become the Astaire and Rodgers of director-editor teams. They’re such wizards of transition that the breeziness of their storytelling can make you laugh out loud: How did they get from A to G without going through B, C, D and E? The early sequences in which Hughes pores over his aviation footage — pacing, fretting, finally throwing money at the problem — is almost an in-joke. What Hughes needed was Thelma Schoonmaker.

The film is a savvy combination of old-fashioned and newfangled Hollywood: old in its sweep and high style, new in its refusal to overexplain a life. It’s weak in its visually striking but too-reductive prologue — a naked boy standing in a bath, being warned by his mother that the world is full of contagion. And its low point is Hughes’ vision of himself, with the 20/20 foresight possible only in movies, as a bearded, skeletal old man.

The rest of the time, “Aviator” is about momentum or its lack: action that keeps the dread at bay, dread that forestalls action, the ebb and flow somehow emblematically American in its capitalist fervor and its bottomless craziness.

Now, it is strange to make the case for a Scorsese film that is not, like his ’70s and ’80s masterpieces, the work of a feverish auteur, of an explorer using his crack cinematic instincts to plunge deep into the thicket of his psyche.

But Scorsese took that plunge in “Gangs of New York” and never managed to hack his way out. (I used that verb in both senses — a hack director might have been more inclined to streamline the picture into a conventional melodrama.) There is something gratifying about the way in “The Aviator” that Scorsese merges his own concerns with his love of sheer craftsmanship. He seems cleansed of all those bad “Gangs” vibes.

He certainly figured out how to use Leonardo DiCaprio, who looked stranded in “Gangs” — while triumphing, next-door in the multiplex, in Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me if You Can.”

DiCaprio doesn’t (yet) suggest that he has great depths to plumb, but he’s marvelous in the movie’s jaunty first half. The lickety-split tempo suits him; it recalls the screwball newspaper comedies of the ’30s and ’40s, the ones in which everyone talked very fast while looking impossibly sleek.

His purring come-on to a tremulous cigarette girl (Josie Maran) — “See, I wonder what gives a beautiful woman like you pleasure” — is one of those star moments that moviegoers live for, and he and Cate Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn are a magical mismatch.Blanchett’s Hepburn is an outrageous caricature, but a brilliant one. She puts her finger on what made Hepburn such a daft American icon: that blend of Yankee blueblood insouciance and high-strung, postflapper neurosis. It’s too bad that the scenes with Ava Gardner go clunk. Kate Beckinsale, miscast as that improbably down-to-earth goddess, seems less straight-shooting than mentally stunted.

The problem for Scorsese and Logan — and Schoonmaker — is making the movie’s second half, with its built-in downer decrescendo, as entertaining as the first. Their solution is a neat one: Hughes rouses himself to win the battle for his company, but ultimately loses the battle for his sanity. It’s a dizzying mixture of feel good and feel bad.

Scorsese has another trick up his sleeve: the late entry of two lefty-humanist ex-leading men, Alec Baldwin and Alan Alda, who prove to be peerless at playing sleazeballs.

The lunchtime encounter between DiCaprio’s Hughes and Alda’s Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster is Logan’s mesmerizing depiction of the ways of Washington power: the elaborate pleasantries that are more and more fraught, that slowly give way to brass tacks and brass knuckles.

Why a picture Oscar for “The Aviator”? It’s not as quirky or original as “Sideways.” Its central performance doesn’t cut as deep as Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles in “Ray.” It doesn’t have the graceful simplicity — or the sucker-punch tragedy — of “Million Dollar Baby.” (That unimaginative paean to the imagination, “Finding Neverland,” is too demeaning to discuss.)

But “The Aviator” is a dazzling weave of the epic and the personal, of the mad passion of the Hollywood filmmaker, the gumption of the hard-charging capitalist, and the freaky elation and even freakier despair of the high-wire life that so many Americans aspire to lead. It is an only-in-America parable that could only have been made by a master American storyteller.

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