Alice Ward, the formidable, chain-smoking mother of boxers Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund whose story was told in the Oscar-winning film The Fighter, has died following a short illness. She was 79.
Doctors at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Ward's native Boston, where she'd been admitted after suffering a heart attack earlier this year, turned off her life support machine on Tuesday. She passed away in the early hours of Wednesday, surrounded by her nine children.
A matriarchal figure, whose portrayal won Melissa Leo an Academy Award in February, Ward spent years helping her sons navigate the shark-infested waters of professional boxing. Their heyday came during an era when the role of women in the sport was largely restricted to parading around the ring in a bathing suit in between rounds.
In her career as a manager she achieved mixed success. As The Fighter shows, Ward occasionally agreed to allow her sons to step into the ring with over-matched (and over-weight) opponents, in order to earn the fees on which her household finances relied.
According to the film, Ward was also foul-mouthed and fond of drink. But she was also a loving mother who fought hard against her elder son Dicky's addiction to crack cocaine. Thanks largely to the drug habit, his career flatlined, and he eventually ended up in prison.
Son Micky, played by Mark Wahlberg, meanwhile endured a string of painful defeats in fights she had arranged. After toying with retirement, he decided to instead effectively fire her and sign with a rival manager. The decision eventually helped him win a world title.
When The Fighter first hit cinemas, Ward was rumoured to be upset by her unflinching portrayal by Leo, who she had met several times during filming. In January, as the movie's Oscar campaign gathered pace, she was admitted to hospital after suffering a cardiac arrest.
The actress subsequently gave a series of interviews defending her performance and attempting to correct negative perceptions of Ward. "There's no way in hell that when I played Alice Ward that I was playing a bad mother. Quite the opposite," Leo told The Hollywood Reporter.
"If you wanna sit down... I'll explain every heartbeat of how she does what she does and why she does it, and that she's not selfish and she's entirely sympathetic. She made careers for them both. It's this unsung heroic act women have been doing since the beginning of time."
Dicky Eklund, who was portrayed by Christian Bale in a performance that won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, released a statement on behalf of the entire family yesterday. "We lost the leader of our family," it read. "She was a great woman, a strong woman. She taught us all what it means to be strong because she never gave up on any of us."