It’s not Oscar season if someone isn’t upset. It’s absurd that such-and-such movie didn’t get nominated. That piece of crap got in? Man, insert pandering / boring / uninventive movie here is going to win, isn’t it? For something many cinephiles purport to brush off, we sure care a lot about the Oscars. That’s because they’re a barometer by which more casual moviegoers in our lives measure what’s best. Instead of carping about controversial selections for Best Picture — which could fill a year’s worth of columns no one would read — we figured it would be more interesting to arguments from advocates for these choices. Welcome to Midwest Film Journal’s Oscar Gold.
I wasn’t actually watching the Oscars back in 2003, so I can’t really speak to the general public outcry at the Best Picture win for 2002’s Chicago. But I’ll tell you what I do know: Chicago was one of the first musical-to-movie adaptations I’d ever seen. I guess if we’re being technical, The Sound of Music came first, but as a kid I had no concept of that story existing outside the scope of the film. I grew up with that and other staples like Grease and West Side Story, both of which I enjoyed, but neither stuck with me. It came out two years before The Phantom of the Opera, and three years before Rent, both of which I loved shamelessly in my late teens and early 20s. My best friend’s mom showed us Barbra Streisand’s Funny Girl in high school, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the formative classic Moulin Rouge! that came out the year before,. But it wasn’t until Rob Marshall’s Chicago that I really woke up to the beautiful world of Broadway musicals as a genre. As one of many kids who grew up on a steady diet of The Wizard of Oz and Disney films, turning that into a wider love for musicals down the road only seems like a natural progression.
From the film’s thrilling, fast-paced opening scene full of sequined flapper dresses and Catherine Zeta-Jones singing “All That Jazz” to a sultry dance number before her arrest, you’re already electrified. I could watch an entire movie of just that first scene, though luckily, the rest of it is pretty captivating in its own right.
Chicago follows the story of two women, Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) and Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), both of whom end up in prison for murder in 1920s Chicago. Velma is a jazz singer and performer who seemingly had everything before she shot her husband and sister for having an affair. Her success is something Roxie always coveted but never came close to grasping before she landed in prison herself. Roxie shot the man she was sleeping with for lying to her about his connections in the jazz world that she could use to build her career.
Most of the story unfolds in the prison, where we meet an assortment of equally salacious and compelling characters through Roxie’s eyes. The other inmates of Murderess Row, a women’s floor in the Cook County Jail, present their cases in a number called “Cell Block Tango” that is so catchy it had a 14-year-old me screaming along to lyrics like “He had it coming” with friends at sleepovers, most likely to the horror of parents who happened to be within earshot. Queen Latifah plays Matron Mama Morton, the mistress of Murderess Row, and introduces herself in a steamy solo entitled “When You’re Good to Mama” about jailhouse reciprocity that leaves you just as spellbound as Zeta-Jones singing about all that jazz. You know the system is bad, but Mama makes you want to follow her rules.
The way the movie is structured between non-musical scenes and the performances is unique to most adaptations that I’ve seen, not blended together but existing harmoniously side by side to make every number feel more like they’re actually performing for an audience instead of two people suddenly breaking into song to sing about their day in a totally normal fashion. It’s maybe the closest to how it actually feels to watch a live Broadway show, and what makes this particular adaptation feel so strong save for most of Richard Gere’s numbers as Billy Flynn, the sleazy lawyer working to get Velma and Roxie off of murder charges. Where his scenes mostly fall very flat, everyone else — and primarily the women — do nothing but shine.
What I find most interesting about Chicago, aside from the flashy costumes and wicked musical numbers, is that much of it is based on real life. Cook County Jail and Murderess Row? Both very real places. Velma and Roxie? Real women imprisoned for murder at the Cook County Jail in the 1920s, off whose lives Maurine Watkins based her 1926 play that later became the musical. Whether they were guilty or innocent, the story that really affects me is that of Sabella Nitti, the Italian immigrant accused of murdering her husband despite extremely questionable evidence. Like Katalin, her counterpart in the film counterpart, Nitti barely spoke any English. The media treated Nitti like an animal because she wasn’t as pretty or white or as wealthy as her fellow murderesses. Unlike Katalin, the charges against Nitti were eventually dropped (and only after a “makeover”). But she was still the first woman to be sentenced to death in Chicago, and it likely wasn’t because people actually believed she was guilty. It was because she was othered.
Some things never change.
The film may be set in a decade that seems like an entire world away now, but some of it still feels incredibly relevant. True to Flynn’s claim and like Roxie’s murder trial, the entire movie is pretty much a circus. It’s a constant ping-ponging between Roxie and Velma, women chasing fame while also trying to save their own skins. Everyone is out for themselves, and there’s nothing they won’t do to get ahead while the media goes crazy over the two beautiful femme fatales and men clamor all over themselves to shower the women with gifts and attention.
Even now, we witness people’s fetishization with attractive killers to the point that people like Ted Bundy and Charles Manson have thriving fan clubs. The way the media sensationalizes killers (the more attractive, the better) persists heavily today, with a blatant bias towards the rich and famous that enables them to get off more easily than the less fortunate and less connected in the system. Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, the real-life Roxie and Velma, became something like minor celebrities thanks to media favoritism, and people (rightly) assumed they’d get off because of their money and beauty. That same favoritism from the media and all-male jurors actually sparked a debate that would eventually see women allowed to serve on juries, but I digress. Much like the real-world Roxie and Velma, it’s no surprise that the two fictitious characters eventually get off scot-free with nary a consequence in sight because that’s just the way the privileged cookie crumbles.
When all is said and done, it also doesn’t hurt that Chicago boasts one loaded, female-dominated cast that draws you in from start to finish. These characters are not people you root for, but there is a part of me that deeply loves monstrous women in fiction who don’t shy away from violence in a male-dominated world. In the 1920s, women’s rights were still a relatively new concept, and when it came to rights in the home, a woman had virtually none. If her husband was abusive, there was no recourse for her, no laws that really protected her in a world that still saw her as a second-class citizen. Men looked at the time and blamed the jazz and booze on why women, particularly Chicago women, were suddenly seen to be “going mad” as the female population of Cook County Jail began to climb.
It’s also true that women en masse, who were already protesting for the right to vote, were experiencing — for maybe the first time — what it felt like to take back some of the agency that had always been denied them. This is not meant to condone murder as a course of action — and the underlying motivations for the women in Chicago to kill their husbands are ridiculous and played for laughs (from infidelity to chewing gum too loudly). But the gender-infused social struggles behind these women’s stories are hard to ignore given what we know of our own history.
Chicago was the first musical to win Best Picture since 1968’s Oliver! in 1968, receiving 13 nominations and six awards including Best Sound, Costume Design, Film Editing, Art Direction and Best Supporting Actress for Zeta-Jones. The previous year, Moulin Rouge! had been a Best Picture nominee, and many point to these as evidence of a resurgence in the musical genre. With all that comes after, I think that makes Chicago pretty significant although apparently many people thought the award ultimately should have gone to Roman Polanski’s The Pianist.
While it’s included in a lot of “Worst Best Picture Winners” lists these days, and movies about the Holocaust gaining recognition is always worthwhile, especially now, it’s probably OK that Polanski didn’t get that win considering what we know about him (although he did take the Best Director prize, as did the film for Best Adapted Screenplay and Adrien Brody for Best Actor). Chicago is a fun and stimulating production that really makes you think, playing a part in reopening people’s eyes to the possibility of Broadway musicals being worth the public’s time on a broader scale. Since then we’ve had a plethora of new musical-to-movie content, for better or worse. We’re just not going to talk about 2012’s Les Misérables ever, and you can bet that the day they announce a Hamilton movie, I’ll be the first one in that theater.
Chicago was really important to me growing up, encouraging me to eventually see live productions of the musicals I’ve come to love, and while my love for this one in particular has waned over the years, it turns out there’s still a lot to take away from it. Not every Oscar winner has to be the big-budgeted, Steven Spielberg-sized movie. It’s nice to see a little more diversity in the Best Picture winners, a word we all know isn’t too familiar to the Oscars. No matter how you feel about Roxie and Velma by the end of the film, it’s impossible not to feel swept up by the ending in the middle of all the glamour and their hard-sought freedom coming to fruition during their triumphant reprise of “All That Jazz” to a stadium-sized audience, now together as a highly controversial double act to capitalize on each other’s fame.
Roxie and Velma didn’t come here to make friends. They came here to win, and thus Chicago ends the way it starts the night Velma shoots her cheating husband; with a bang.