Chicago: Best Picture, 2002

chicagoposter.jpgThe 75th Annual Academy Awards was hosted by Steve Martin. With an impressive 13 Oscar nominations, Chicago is tied with several other films for 2nd largest number of nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress (Renée Zellweger), Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Best Supporting Actress (Queen Latifah), Best Supporting Actor (John C. Reilly), Best Cinematography, Best Original Song, Best Costumes, Best Art Direction and Best Sound. After Moulin Rouge the previous year, Chicago was only the second musical to be nominated for Best Picture since Cabaret in the early ’70s.

The film faced stiff competition on multiple fronts, including Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (10 nominations), The Hours (9 nominations) and Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (7 nominations). In the end, The Pianist took Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay (as well as a Best Actor award for Adrien Brody), Best Actress went to Nicole Kidman from The Hours (that film’s only win), Chris Cooper won Best Supporting Actor for his work in Adaptation, Road to Perdition won Best Cinematography, and an Eminem ballad from 8 Mile took Best Original Song. Chicago was left with the remaining six awards (with Catherine Zeta-Jones beating out Queen Latifah for Best Supporting Actress), a far cry from the possible record of 13. However, it still made out better than the competition. Gangs of New York didn’t win a single award. Chicago became the first musical to win Best Picture since Oliver! in 1968.

Chicago is a stylish, swinging story of jazz and murder in the Roaring Twenties. Famous showgirl Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones) murders her husband and sister (who are having an affair) one month before would-be stage star Roxie Hart (Zellweger) murders her lover in a fit of pique, gaining instant celebrity which she must then parlay into a ticket away from the gallows with the help of Kelly’s slick lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). Flynn, a master at manipulating the media and the justice system alike, puts on a show to remember as he engineers the acquittal of his two notorious clients. John C. Reilly plays Amos, Roxie’s naive stooge of a husband and Queen Latifah is Matron Mama Morton, the warden of the women’s prison. The film’s charming conceit is that Roxie, completely star-struck and obsessed with becoming a big-time performer, re-imagines all of the events transpiring around her as show-stopping musical numbers in an outrageously cynical tour de force.

Chicago, for reasons that I do not understand, is regarded by many as one of the poorest choices the Academy has ever made. Well, for my money, if that goes for Chicago then the same could be said for most of their Best Picture picks that year. Personally, though, I couldn’t disagree more. It may not have been the greatest film to come out in 2002, but it is still an incredibly catchy musical, full of inspired, eye-popping moments of pure entertainment. I’ve probably seen it seven or eight times now, and I’ve listened to the soundtrack countless times. I’m long past the point where I could sing along with every song in the movie. I just never get tired of it.

One of my favorite moments has got to be the song “We Both Reached For the Gun,” were Billy Flynn, controlling Roxie on his knee like a ventriloquist’s dummy, uses her to manipulate the press (who dance to his tune like marionettes as he pulls their strings from overhead) into turning public opinion in Roxie’s favor. The cast is fantastic, surprisingly so considering that many of the stars showcase enormous talents here that most of the public didn’t even know they had (Richard Gere can tap-dance? Really?).

At its heart, though, Chicago is more than just a wild, fun musical ride (although it certainly is that). As it happens, Chicago is only the latest version of one of the most adapted plays of the twentieth century, first written in the mid-1920s by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Watkins had been a reporter in Chicago (just like the film’s Mary Sunshine character) during the sensational murder trials of Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan in 1924, and she soon adapted their story into a hit play, changing surprisingly little of the substance of their respective stories. 80 years later, it remains surprisingly (and disturbingly) relevant to contemporary society. The questions it raises about how we treat our criminals like celebrities, the lengths the media will go to hold its audience’s attention, and the incredible ease with which this country’s justice system can be manipulated prove that there is nothing terribly new about life in America. The technology and the names have changed, but the situations remain familiar.

Despite my approval of Chicago, though, my pick for the best film of the year goes to another story of murder set in the decade of Prohibition: Road to Perdition. Nominated for 6 Oscars with only a single win, Road to Perdition was ignored in most of the major categories, despite (or perhaps because of) being director Sam Mendes follow-up project to 1999’s award-showered American Beauty. Gorgeously shot, the movie is a feast for the eyes (note it’s one award above) with a hauntingly beautiful score by Thomas Newman (one of the greatest film composers working today) which remains among my favorites of all time. The amazing cast includes the stellar talents of Paul Newman, Tom Hanks, Daniel Craig, Jude Law and Stanley Tucci as well as an incredibly moving performance by then 14-year old Tyler Hoechlin. All of these fine elements combine in the service of one of a truly incredible tale (adapted from a graphic novel, no less) of redemption that transpires (as the title implies) almost at the gates of hell itself.

Road to Perdition deserved far more attention here than it got, to be sure. Considering the other nominees (of which I’ve seen all save The Hours) it should have gotten a spot. At the very least it could have gone up in place of The Two Towers, the relatively mediocre middle chapter of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which everyone knew didn’t have a prayer of taking the statue anyway.

~ by Jared on January 28, 2008.

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