New movies from Eastwood, Scorsese best of both worlds
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) — There’s Hollywood, and then there’s Hollywood.
The former is an enclave within Los Angeles long associated with the entertainment business. The latter is an adjective, a description, a state of mind: He’s gone Hollywood. Or: It’s a Hollywood movie.
The second phrase has come to mean that not only is it not an independent movie, it’s often big-budget, star-filled, pre-chewed entertainment with predictable characters, glitzy special effects and happy-ever-after plot. Think summer blockbuster or December tearjerker.
(It’s revealing that in a recent Entertainment Weekly column, movie critic Owen Gleiberman noted that “The Godfather” — one of the great films of all time and the biggest blockbuster of its day — would probably be considered an art film today.)
So it’s interesting that two major Hollywood films opening this week — “Million Dollar Baby,” directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Hilary Swank, and “The Aviator,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese — aren’t completely Hollywood.
“Million Dollar Baby” is the sort of well-drawn, character-driven drama the big studios don’t make much anymore. And “The Aviator,” which actually has classic bold Hollywood trappings — indeed, the story of Howard Hughes is set in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s — also has Scorsese touches, such as a willingness to dig into the wormier side of its protagonist, who eventually became a Las Vegas hermit with long fingernails.
The films aren’t cookie-cutter for a number of reasons, but the most important might be that Eastwood and Scorsese are movie veterans who lived through the late 1960s and early ’70s — the second classic era in Hollywood history, when Young Turks such as Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin and George Lucas (yes, George Lucas, who was a Coppola protege) took over.
Scorsese has usually worked within the studio system, but his films are always idiosyncratic reflections of his New York, movie-mad personality. And Eastwood spent the era working with Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, the former a talent who truly had his own rhythm, the latter a no-nonsense director who never wasted a frame.
Both films have earned raves from critics. “The Aviator” was picked as No. 2 on the National Board of Review year-end list and “Million Dollar Baby” was the No. 4 choice. Each received several Golden Globe nominations — “The Aviator” with six, “Million Dollar Baby” with five.
Eye on Entertainment salutes the classics.
“Million Dollar Baby,” despite its name out of an old musical, is actually about boxing.
Based on F.X. Toole’s book of stories, “Rope Burns” (now retitled “Million Dollar Baby”), the film concerns Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank), a poor girl from the Ozarks who comes to the run-down Los Angeles gym of Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) for a shot at boxing stardom.
Dunn doesn’t want to deal with her, but she’s taken under the wing of his good friend Scrap (Morgan Freeman), who narrates the movie. Eventually, Dunn takes her on and Maggie starts a rise toward the top of women’s boxing.
“Million Dollar Baby” could easily be a boxing film with all the cliches, but Eastwood doesn’t go for the easy stuff. CNN.com’s Paul Clinton called the film’s script “multilayered and sharply observant.” The Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert said it was Eastwood’s best film — which is saying something, considering Eastwood has directed “Unforgiven” and “Mystic River.” (See Clinton’s review.)
Eastwood already has a directing Oscar — for “Unforgiven” — but Scorsese has gone 0-for-4, twice losing to actors making their directing debuts (Robert Redford in 1980 for “Ordinary People,” Kevin Costner in 1990 for “Dances With Wolves.” The Scorsese films that lost: “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas”). The early buzz says this may just be his year, though Scorsese is pooh-poohing such talk. (After all, he’s been there before.)
“The Aviator” is a rich look at the life of billionaire Howard Hughes, from the late ’20s — when, armed with money from his father’s tool company, he decided he wanted to make movies — to the late ’40s, when he started retreating from the public eye.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hughes as a larger-than-life figure, a man who flew his own planes and built TWA into a worldwide airline colossus, all the while dazzling Hollywood with his glamorous life and loves.
The rest of the cast is equally brilliant: Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner, Alec Baldwin as Pan Am founder Juan Trippe, Alan Alda as antagonistic Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster and Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow, along with John C. Reilly, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law (as Errol Flynn), and even Rufus Wainwright.
But Scorsese is the man in charge, reveling in every Golden Age Hollywood touch and using the frame for epic shots. It’s the kind of big film Hollywood — the film community — loves, and it may yet net Scorsese a couple of the naked golden boys called Oscar.
“Million Dollar Baby” opens in limited release Wednesday; “The Aviator” in limited release Friday.