One Tough Baby

It may be the most troubled of sports, but boxing still packs a punch in Hollywood. The latest fight film, Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, just may be the greatest ever
January 31, 2005

You come away from this movie called Million Dollar Baby feeling as though you just watched a hell of a fighter who never makes you think about all the rounds he sparred, all the roadwork, all the lonely hours before he wrapped himself in the crowd's roar. There's Hilary Swank as a hard-punching trailer-park refugee and Clint Eastwood as her never-seen-the-mountaintop trainer, two dreamers trying to fill the empty places in their lives with hardscrabble nobility. You've got Morgan Freeman, too, playing a washed-up main eventer who needs only his one good eye to see the size of their hearts, and how primed those hearts are for breaking. And it all seems so easy, with those glossy names and their Academy Award talent, and that's where Million Dollar Baby fools you, because easy is the last thing it ever was.

Getting the movie made was a four-year ordeal that didn't become a mortal lock even when Eastwood signed on in 2004 to star and direct. There was still all kinds of wheeling and dealing to be done after that--nothing as bad as Don King and Bob Arum eyeing each other's jugulars and reaching for their sharpest cutlery but enough to have everybody who loved the project back on their heels.

And yet they were in the fast lane compared with the writer upon whose short stories the movie is based. It wasn't just that F.X. Toole died before he could learn that Million Dollar Baby was finally in front of the camera. It was that his one shot at Hollywood represented a lifetime of waiting.

Toole spent his last 22 years working with fighters, tending their cuts and mainlining the brutal, beautiful truth about boxing that he put into words he wasn't sure anyone else would ever read. He didn't sell his first story until he was 69. The San Francisco literary journal Zyzzva paid him $35 for The Monkey Look, a story about a cutman's revenge on a fighter who's trying to cheat him. Toole took the editor a gooseberry pie, the kind his mother taught him to make. And that might have been that if he hadn't knocked out a New York literary agent with the pure American vernacular of his story, starting with the first sentence: "I stop blood." The agent, Nat Sobel, called and asked if he'd written anything else.

There was a long answer to the question, one that stretched over four decades, but the short one, the right one, can be found in Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner, the book that transformed Toole, at 70, from literary tomato can to champion. It was 2000, and suddenly he was being praised in all the right places, doing readings and interviews, talking shop with big hitters like Joyce Carol Oates and James Ellroy. And love it though he did--nobody ever paid more dues--he always went back to the world in which he found Maggie Fitzgerald and Frankie Dunn and Eddie (Scrap-Iron) DuPris, the characters that were his alone before Swank, Eastwood and Freeman climbed into their skins.

But nobody in any gym in Los Angeles knew an F.X. Toole. Then they'd hear about the guy's close-cropped white hair, and the beard and glasses and nice clothes, and the only old dude who fit that description was Jerry Boyd. Yeah, they'd been knowing Jerry Boyd since that day in '78 when he became the whitest white boy who ever set foot in the Olympic Gym before it got turned into a parking lot.

Boyd was 48 years old, and the writing game had him beat, and he was seeking sanctuary in a black and Latino province. He looked around, and then he approached Dub Huntley, who had turned to training in the late '60s when a detached retina rendered him a former middleweight contender. Boyd wanted an education in the ring, and he was willing to pay. Huntley said it wasn't necessary, although he didn't think his charity would last long. "When I went home that night," he says, "I told my wife, 'I'm gonna run this white boy out of the gym.'"

Never happened. Huntley put Boyd through the hell he put every fighter through: punching mitts, big bag, speed bag, jump rope. But he couldn't make Boyd quit, and Boyd was nine years his junior, a middle-aged man with a head for boxing and the patience to teach others what Huntley taught him. Somewhere along the line, he learned how to care for cuts, too. And pretty soon Huntley had himself a partner in the corner, handling worthy L.A. fighters like Antoine Byrd and Hector Lopez. "I can't see things too good," Huntley says, "so Jerry saw them for me. 'Dub, he's dropping his hands.' Or, 'Dub, he ain't turning his feet.'" When you rely on a man that much, and he never lets you down, the only thing you can become is friends.

Huntley learned a lot about Boyd in their time together. Some of it had to do with Boyd's bad ticker and how open-heart surgery had sent him back to the Catholic church. And some of it had to do with his three children and his three busted marriages, the second of which was annulled a week after the honeymoon. But mostly Boyd talked about living the kind of life that led to rum running and risking everything for a torch singer's kiss. He came out of L.A.'s South Bay as a gambling-den bootblack, and studied acting in New York. He drove cabs and tended bar, fought bulls in Mexico--got gored twice--and had half his right ear bitten off in a street fight that ended when he almost ripped out one of the other guy's eyes. He worked as a private investigator and packed a gun because, as he told his oldest son, Gannon, "If somebody's going to take me out, I'm going to take them with me."

The only secret he seems to have kept was his writing. When he was finally a published author--after 40 years of rejection slips for novels, short stories, children's stories, screenplays, stage plays, poems and songs--he feared spooking his fighters and his P.I. clients. So he borrowed from Francis Xavier, the 16th century Jesuit philosopher-saint, and actor Peter O'Toole, a rogue of long-standing. But his pen name didn't spare him a moment of truth in the gym.

He had dedicated Rope Burns to Huntley, calling him "my daddy in boxing," but Dub wasn't sure what to think until he made his way through the stories and realized how much a part of them he was, not just "Million $$$ Baby," but the others, too.

"Jerry had wrote down everything," he says.

It's awards season in the movie business, and Million Dollar Baby has already picked up a batch of them, the biggest so far being best picture from the National Society of Film Critics and Golden Globes for Swank's acting and Eastwood's directing. The one that really counts, though, is the Oscar, but while everybody waits for that big night in February, there's talk about an unofficial title: greatest boxing movie ever.

There aren't many contenders--and no, Rocky doesn't make the cut. A great boxing movie comes from a darker place than Rocky did, from a place as real as a thumb in the eye and as unforgiving as a referee counting 10 over a fighter whose dreams have just been savaged. You can see the essence of the species in 1947's Body and Soul, with John Garfield as an up-from-the-slums champion who defies the gangsters who own him and refuses to take a dive, saying, "What ya gonna do, kill me? Everybody dies." Thirty-three years later Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull stepped up beside it, more for the director's artistry than for any warmth generated by its subject, Jake LaMotta, a real-life fight-fixing, wife-beating middleweight champ. As Barney Nagler, the late blood-sport chronicler, said of LaMotta, "He was a p---- the day he was born, and he'll be a p---- the day he dies."

Fighters of that description and champions of any kind cannot be found in Fat City, John Huston's 1972 adaptation of the haunting Leonard Gardner novel that captured boxing at its tank-town bottom. The kid and the has-been at the movie's unvanquished heart look like losers consigned to the same sports-section agate as the denizens of Million Dollar Baby. But anyone who has spent time around the fight game knows you don't sneer at men and women who risk their lives every time they step in the ring.

Five years ago it became clear that Anjelica Huston had grasped the message of her father's movie when she called Al Ruddy, one of those unlikely Hollywood producers with a reputation for caring as much about a great yarn as he does about the bottom line. Huston had a short story she wanted him to read, "Million $$$ Baby," by someone named F.X. Toole. "If you don't cry," she said, "don't call me back."

Ruddy cried. And he called back. Then he tracked down Sobel and listened to stories about a wild Irishman who had boiled over when a deal to sell Rope Burns to HBO for a series of boxing movies blew up. No stranger to unhappy writers--Hollywood is overrun with them--Ruddy phoned Toole and invited him for a drink. "I don't drink," Toole said. "I'm in AA." But he made it to the Havana in Beverly Hills, and, Ruddy says, "We got plastered."

By the time they wobbled back outside, they had forged the beginning of a friendship that only got stronger until death intervened. Toole liked the fact that Ruddy had won an Academy Award for producing The Godfather--Toole had worked as a bouncer in a joint in New York alongside one of the movie's actors--but Ruddy's credits ran far beyond Don Corleone, to such hits as The Longest Yard and all the Cannonball Run movies. But ultimately Toole cared only for what Ruddy could do for his boxing stories. "You couldn't b------- the guy," Ruddy says. "He was a Jesuit, a really hard-edged intellectual Catholic."

Armed with the 42 pages of "Million $$$ Baby," Ruddy spent four years beating his head against the wall that Hollywood has made of a two-letter word: no. "I couldn't get anybody interested," he says, "and I'm talking about people who are friends of mine, people I've done business with for years. They'd tell me, 'Who wants to see a movie about two old grizzled guys and a girl fighter?'"

They were still balking when Eastwood agreed to direct and star, a load he swore he'd never take on again at 74 until he read the script that Paul Haggis wove out of "Million $$$ Baby" and "Frozen Water," another story from Rope Burns. "It's a downer," Eastwood told Ruddy, "but, God, it's gorgeous." His sentiment echoed that of Swank and Freeman when they had signed on earlier. But sentiment counts in Hollywood only when it sells tickets. When Toole died in 2002, studios, including Warner Bros., Eastwood's home base, were still refusing to back the movie alone. Not until the Lakeshore Entertainment Group stepped up to go 50-50 with Warner on the $30 million budget did Ruddy get his deal.

Then everything happened in a rush. Filming started last June and wrapped in August, two days ahead of the 40-day schedule. There was a drive to get the movie out by Christmas so it would qualify for the Oscars. And Ruddy entered the hospital for the prostate cancer surgery he had put off. He doesn't talk about it for public consumption now that he's back on the prowl for his next project, but word gets around, and when you hear it, you realize just how right he was for the movie. And for Toole.

No one can say for sure who the inspiration for Maggie Fitzgerald was. Jerry Boyd did see her, though--after he had written her story. It happened three years ago, when he was helping Huntley train a woman named Juli Crockett. Ever since she had climbed off the deck and won a bout in San Diego, he'd been telling Dub, "That white girl can fight." And then one day he was hanging around the L.A. Boxing Club, hard by a street called Hope, and he found Crockett reading Kierkegaard, the Danish existentialist champion. "Who are you?" he said.

She had a master's in experimental theater and designs on a Ph.D. in philosophy, hardly things that Maggie would have wrapped her head around. But there were other connections. Crockett, from Alabama by way of Florida, had hillbilly roots like Maggie's, and they shared missing fathers too. And the longer Boyd looked, the more he saw that she also had Maggie's build, hair and smile. There was even a sad end awaiting her in the ring, though nothing as tragic as Maggie's, just a shoulder and legs bum enough to make her quit. But before that happened, Boyd made up his mind about who she was. "I was the incarnation of this character he'd created," says Crockett, who is now in her second year of grad school. Sometimes life worked backward like that.

September 2002. Boyd and Huntley had a fighter on a card coming up in Vegas. When they walked to the parking lot behind the gym, Huntley thought they'd be talking about their guy's chances.

"I'm not going with you," Boyd said.

"You're not?"

"I want you to take care of business."

"You know I'm gonna."

"But, Dub, I want to tell you one thing: I love you."

Huntley comes from the South, and these were words he'd never imagined hearing from a white man. But Boyd was as good a friend as you get, no matter what kind of paint job he had. Watched out for Huntley when he was the only black man in a bar, brought doughnuts when they watched the fights at Huntley's place, took Huntley and his wife to dinner at the Hotel Bel-Air--and they'd never been anyplace nicer than that.

"I love you, too," Huntley said.

Boyd was pacing in a tight circle now, saying, "I love you, I love you." Tears were streaming down the face of this man who never backed up even when his age said he should, and the sight unnerved Huntley. He could deal with a woman crying, almost expected it. A man was something else.

"You've always been my friend," Boyd said. "I swear to God I love you."

"I know you do."

"I love you," Boyd said. "I love you."

It was only when Huntley saw him next, comatose in a hospital bed, dying of pneumonia, that he realized Boyd had been telling him goodbye.

the photo was taken when Jack Boyd was six or seven months old. Someday he will learn all about the man in the photo with him, the one who's wearing a floppy hat just like his. Jack is three now, he has had dinner and his bath, and he's asleep, unperturbed by the biblical rain pounding Southern California. His father is on the phone talking about how maybe he'll read some of Jack's grandfather's stories to him when he's six or seven. "The easier ones," Gannon Boyd says. Jack can tackle the tougher stuff when he's in high school, and his father can explain F.X. Toole. And then there will be Million Dollar Baby, with the crotchety old trainer who has a taste for lemon pie and hectors his priest and gives his heart to the fighter he loves like a daughter. Jack's father will help him sort it out, let him know it's not a chapter from his grandfather's life. But it is--and Jack should always remember this--the essence of his grandfather's soul.

Toole spent his last 22 years mainlining the BRUTAL, BEAUTIFUL TRUTH about boxing that he put into words.

When you RELY ON A MAN that much, and he never lets you down, the only thing you can become is friends.

Anyone who has spent time around the fight game knows you don't sneer at men and women who RISK THEIR LIVES.

"It's a downer," Eastwood told Ruddy after reading the script for Million Dollar Baby, "but, GOD, IT'S GORGEOUS."

COLOR PHOTOANDREW GOMBERT (BOXING STOOL) COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Merie W. Wallace/Warner Brothers [See caption above] COLOR PHOTOANDREW GOMBERT (BOXING STOOL) COLOR PHOTOKEN HIVELY/LOS ANGELES TIMES (TOOLE) RING SAVVY Boyd was 48 when he turned to boxing. Twenty-two years later, as F.X. Toole, he would publish Rope Burns. COLOR PHOTOECCO/HARPER COLLINS (BOOK) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Merie W. Wallace/Warner Brothers PARTNERS Eastwood and Freeman (above) played Frankie and Scrap, characters Toole based on his own time with Huntley (near right). COLOR PHOTOBOB CAREY/LOS ANGELES TIMES (RIGHT)   [See caption above] COLOR PHOTOJOEY TERRILL (RIGHT) DREAM MATCH-UP In Crockett (right), Toole knew he was looking at a real-life version of Maggie--before Swank ever laced on a glove. Photographs by Merie W. Wallace/Warner Brothers   [See caption above] COLOR PHOTOREED SAXON/AP THE CHAMPS Having knocked out voters for the Golden Globes, Eastwood and Swank are both looking for an Oscar rematch.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)