Meanwhile, let's get cracking on the nominees from 2002. Yesterday, I had the occasion to watch the first of the contenders for Best Picture that year...
(based on the stage musical by Kander & Ebb)
Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly
6 wins, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Zeta-Jones)
Chicago, 1927. Roxie Hart (Zellweger) is bored with her meek husband Amos (Reilly) and dreams of fame as a vaudeville star. She begins an affair with a man who promises her important introductions, but when he admits that he has no connections, she impulsively murders him. This crime of passion lands her in jail, where she awaits her trial. In prison, she meets her idol Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), who happens to also be a murderess, just with a lot more press. Velma's unscrupulous lawyer Billy Flynn (Gere) takes on Roxie's case as well, promising to make her a star in the process. As the film's poster proclaims, "If you can't be famous, be infamous."
There is an inevitable oddity in characters randomly bursting into song, a fate applicable to most musicals. However, Chicago manages to get around this by staging all of the musical numbers as inner thoughts or fantasies, thereby allowing the drama to unfold a tad more naturalistically. It is a very effective convention, cleverly employed so as to combine theatrical extravaganza with cinematic intimacy. And Chicago is a big, brassy, theatrical show, clearly suited for a big stage, so Rob Marshall is to be commended for his extremely creative direction, taking every advantage of his medium.
From the outset, Chicago promises to be a toe-tapping and sexy picture, maintaining its raunchy energy right to the final frame. The imaginative choreography (also by Rob Marshall) is spectacular to witness. In one number, Renée Zellweger literally walks in mid-air, her legs held up by male dancers, while in another number, female dancers inventively shape themselves into a car that is "driven" by Richard Gere. These stunning visual elements are complemented by the equally stunning design (costume, production and lighting).
The story uses the circus as a recurring theme to great effect. One song sees Flynn act as ventriloquist to Roxie's dummy (pictured), representing his puppetry of her image. Another sees Andy singing as a sad clown. Most poignantly, the hanging of one of the female inmates is inter-cut with a high-diving routine. The whole metaphor is summed up nicely by Flynn's rendition of Razzle Dazzle, explaining how the world loves a spectacle. It is this theme of fame and attention that is most prevalent in the script. Roxie just wants her fifteen minutes of fame, but at what cost?
Catherine Zeta-Jones won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her sultry portrayal of Velma Kelly. Three other cast members were also nominated for awards, namely Zellweger, Latifah and Reilly, all entertaining performances. Also impressive in smaller roles are Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs and Christine Baranski. For Grey's Anatomy fans with very keen eyesight, Sara Ramirez appears in the dancing ensemble.
The film itself was the first musical to take out Best Picture since Oliver! in 1968, a feat that could partly explain the return in popularity of the musical film (even if most of the recent film musicals have been adaptations of Broadway shows). And despite all the songs from the stage version being ineligible for Best Original Song, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb were nominated for their collaboration on I Move On, a new song written specifically for the film, albeit only heard during the closing credits.