By Ronald Grover It's as close as boxing gets to philosophy, and the pearls of wisdom come from a one-eyed, broken-down fighter named Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris, played by Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby. "If there's a magic in fighting battles beyond endurance," Scrap reflects at one point, "it's the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you."
That might apply to any actor, director, or movie producer. But this year, as Tinseltown gears up for the Academy Awards on Feb. 27, it applies to Clint Eastwood, who directed and starred in Million Dollar Baby and had to fight his own battles to get the $30 million film made. Production company Lakeshore Entertainment eventually fronted him the money for the movie, which was distributed by Warner Bros. (TWX).
FORGET ABOUT THE ODDS. Eastwood is the sentimental favorite -- at least for this writer -- to walk off with this year's Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the haunted, bitter-turned-loving boxing manager Frankie Dunn. Moreover, I think he deserves it, despite a brilliant performance by Jamie Foxx as the late Ray Charles in Ray. I mean, when was the last time you saw Clint emote, show more than the usual grimace that has characterized most of his career? The big guy can act.
O.K., so some may think Clint has as much a chance of winning on Sunday as a stumble-bum boxer has of winning the big title. If you believe the pundits, the Oscar is all but gift-wrapped and waiting for Foxx, who has already won a Golden Globe. But I still think Eastwood could win. The 74-year-old actor, best known for playing a Magnum-toting San Francisco cop nicknamed Dirty Harry, turns in a multitextured, haunting performance in Million Dollar Baby that in any other year would likely have made him a shoo-in.
True, veteran oddsmaker John Avello of Bally's Las Vegas gives Eastwood no better than 40-1 odds, making him fifth among the five nominees. Avello has made Foxx the prohibitive favorite at 1-2 odds, with The Aviator star Leonardo DiCaprio at 3-1 for his portrayal of an off-the-wall Howard Hughes. Johnny Depp gets 8-1 odds for his starring turn as Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland. Don Cheadle is given 15-1 odds for his role in Hotel Rwanda.
But even Avello agrees an upset is possible. "Although Jamie, Leo, and Johnny are all strong nominees for Best Actor," says Avello, "Clint could get the vote because he's a Hollywood favorite and a multidimensional talent."
HEART AND PATHOS. In fact, Hollywood insiders say there has been a huge rally of late around Million Dollar Baby, which has been nominated for seven Oscars. It's a good bet to win Best Picture, as the competition (The Aviator, Ray, Finding Neverland, and Sideways) is rather thin. And the tide, which almost certainly will carry Morgan Freeman to a Best Supporting Actor victory, could do the same for both director Eastwood and Hillary Swank, who plays the overage boxer who Eastwood's Dunn reluctantly takes on and trains for a world championship.
"The film has heart, it has pathos, it has everything the Academy usually wants," says one Hollywood insider, who's involved in a campaign for a rival film. "It's my choice to win, and it could have quite an undertow behind it."
Can that carry along ole Clint with it? The Academy makeup could very well favor Eastwood -- its 5,800 members are getting up there in age. And Eastwood is seen as an elder statesman who has done some of his best work in the last 13 years, in such films as The Bridges of Madison County and Unforgiven. And his portrayal of the crusty Dunn, a man haunted by his feelings for a daughter he hasn't seen in more than 20 years, may well be his finest role yet.
A SPLIT DECISION. For all the people who say that being nominated is itself an honor, that's especially true in Eastwood's case. It certainly was a surprise. The other nominees were all obvious -- and supposedly so was Paul Giamatti for his role as the wine-loving loser in Sideways. Giamatti and the four Best Actor Oscar nominees were all vying for a Golden Globe -- generally considered a predictor of how the Oscars will go -- though Eastwood wasn't.
But then the tide of emotion began to build for Million Dollar Baby, thanks to a none-too-subtle ad campaign from Warner Bros. and Eastwood doing publicity in everything from Time magazine to Architectural Digest. Now the film is in a neck-and-neck race with The Aviator for Best Picture, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers, with Eastwood and The Aviator director Martin Scorsese likely to battle it out for Best Director honors. Million Dollar Baby star Swank is also considered a likely winner. (Eastwood, who won an Oscar for directing Unforgiven, has been nominated only one other time as an actor -- for Unforgiven.)
I think it's safe to bet that Million Dollar Baby will be a multiple winner on Sunday. But will Eastwood? Stranger things have happened. Back in 1999, a less-than-worthy Shakespeare in Love won the Best Picture Oscar when Saving Private Ryan and Life Is Beautiful split the vote for top honors. (The dual-nominated Life Is Beautiful won Best Foreign Language Picture, however.)
The same sort of thing could happen this year if Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio duke it out for top honors. In boxing that's called a split decision. And maybe, just maybe, the oldest guy in the ring will be the one raising his arm in victory when the dust settles. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online