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.