Friday, April 10, 2015

Chicago (Best Picture 2002)

For the first time since Oliver! won in 1969, a musical won Best Picture. And for the second  time in two years, the Academy Award went to a film that made the audience think about how stories are told and how facts are presented, and what "Art" does or means to people. Last year it was A Beautiful Mind, which hood-winked us into believing that what we were seeing was true. This year it is Chicago, a film that is much more transparent in its artifice.

Chicago tells the simple story of Roxie Hart, who is on trial for the murder of her lover, Fred. Her lawyer is Billy Flynn, a fast-talking shyster who has never lost a case. In prison with Roxie is the prion matron "Big Mama," and famous cabaret star turned accused murderess Velma Kelly. She will soon be on trial for murdering her husband and her sister and she caught them in bed together. Velma is also Flynn's client. In order to get Roxie found Not Guilty, Flynn manipulates her naive husband, Amos. Flynn also makes up a story about Roxie being an innocent waif, and then he presents doctor's evidence that Roxie is pregnant. In the end both Roxie and Velma are exonerated, and they eventually team-up in a new cabaret act together.
Amos talking to the police, as a musical number
That is the simple story of Chicago. What makes it much more interesting is that Roxie is overtly focused on teh world of cabaret, to the point that everythig she sees in real life she processes as "an act." So for example, when Big Mama introduces herself to the new women prisoners, Roxie sees it as the big jazzy "number" called "When You're Good To Mama." When she and Flynn hold their press conference, she ses it as a "Press Conference Rag," with Flynn as a ventriloquist and Roxie as his dummy, and the press as puppets. You get the idea. Besides this skewered world view, we get actual song and dance numbers (mostly from Velma at the beginning, middle, and end) and you have a musical about murder in Chicago.

Renee Zellweger plays Roxie. She has the most difficult role, as she is supposed to go back and forth between being a naive (retarded?) woman who isn't smart enough to know that her lover is lying to her and a hard-as-nails cabaret singer who is taking everything in stride. In general she does a good job, but sometimes she seems to be over her head....or is that the way it's *supposed* to seem? Zellweger was nominated for Best Actress but did not win (Nicole Kidman won for The Hours).

Catherine Zeta-Jones has the show-stopping role as Velma. She really is the hard-as-nails cabaret singer who really did kill her sister and her husband, then appeared in her show as if nothing had happened. She does a great job. Queen Latifah is great as Big Mama; she owns the song "When You're Good To Mama"  so much that when she later appears as the frumpy prison matron she really must be, it's a genuine shock. Both Latifah and Jones were nominated for Best Supporting Actress for their roles; Jones won. Richard Gere plays Billy Flynn, the most controversial casting of the film. I didn't know he could sing and dance, but he seemed to be doing his own work here, and he did it well. His tap dancing was his own, and that was impressive. John C. Reilly has the most thankless role here as Roxie's husband, Amos. He seems to always be one step behind everyone else, so maybe he is supposed to represent the audience? He has one song, "Cellophane Man," so-called because everyone looks right through him. It is easy to feel sorry for him, but also to be annoyed by him. I have no idea how he and Roxie ever could have hooked up. Reilly was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but did not win (it went to Chris Cooper in Adaptation.)

This is one of the rare times where the film and the director did not both win. Although Chicago was named Best Picture, Roman Polanski won Best Director for his film, The Pianist. Director Rob Marshall did not win. Besides Catherine Zeta-Jones and Best Picture the film won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction, Best Costumes, Best Editing, and Best Sound Mixing.

What more can I say? Musicals are a certain type of film, and I find that people either love them or hate them. I think more people loved this film because they knew right away that the majority of the songs were not actually being sung; it was all in Roxie's imagination. I think that might have made it more acceptable than, say, Gene Kelly suddenly belting out a love song to Debbie Reynolds. Anyway, the film is technologically and artistically great. If it is your type of film, by all means see it. You will enjoy it. If you don't want to see Richard Gere "Razzle Dazzle" the judicial system of Chicago, stay away.

*Academy Award Best Picture of 2002*
Produced by Martin Richards
Directed by Rob Marshall
Screenplay by Bill Condon
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Based on the play "Chicago"
Book by Bob Fosse & Fred Ebb
Directed & Choreographed
for the Stage by Bob Fosse
Based on the book by Maurine Watkins

This is an odd trailer, selling its Oscar pedigree but also selling the film 
as a confrontation between the two leads.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Gangs of New York
The Hours
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Pianist
I have seen four of the five nominees this year. Gangs of New York is the violent film directed by Martin Scorcese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis. It did not appeal to me. The Hours is a complex structure about Virginia Woolf writing the novel Mrs. Dalloway, and the effect that book has on two other women two generations away. It is extremely well acted (besides Kidman as Woolf it features Meryl Streep, Julienne Moore, and Ed Harris), but I just don't "get" it. The Lord of the Rings II was a continuation of the first film....literally. And The Pianist won its director an Academy Award, but he famously could not be in the country to receive it due to a still-open charge of illicit sex with a minor. Forget that Polanski directed it, and it is a gripping, emotional film. Adrien Brody won Best Actor for the titular role.

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