On March 23rd, the popular musical Chicago was given the Oscar for Best Picture of 2002.
Amid all the other controversies troubling this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, the normal ones seem quite minor. For instance, was Chicago really the Best Picture of last year?
During the gala broadcast, anxiety about the events in Iraq lurked behind every acceptance speech; the red carpet was suppressed (in lip-service tribute to the world crisis); and Michael Moore took his turn at the podium, where his film Bowling For Columbine had won Best Documentary, to hurl invective at President Bush.
In the meantime, Roman Polanski won the Oscar for Best Director, an award he probably deserved for his brilliant Holocaust drama The Pianist. Polanski’s prize was only complicated by the fact that the Justice Department (at least) considers the film-maker a fugitive who will be arrested if he sets foot in the United States. Needless to say, the legendary director was not there Sunday night to collect his statuette.
Given the exorbitant ethical and legal drama of the Academy Awards festivities, it is easy to speculate that Chicago was chosen for Best Picture because it is fun and relatively uncontroversial.
A jazz-age pastiche based on a long-running Broadway musical, with songs by the writers of Cabaret, Chicago is only really anxiety-provoking when Richard Gere sings and we worry that he won’t make his high notes. In fact, he mostly does. But I’m not sure it would have mattered if he hadn’t. He is clearly enjoying himself, and his good mood is infectious, brushing aside most quibbles we might have about the film or his performance.
Chicago is celebratory: if 2001’s Moulin Rouge announced the rebirth of the movie musical form, Chicago relishes being an old-fashioned, theatrical-style musical, filled with brassy numbers pitched to the third row balcony seats. While it is not as visionary as Moulin Rouge, and frankly not as good as Cabaret, Chicago is undoubtedly energetic and occasionally exhilirating to watch.
For me, the main enjoyment of the movie comes from watching celebrities like Gere and Renée Zelleweger expand their portfolios to include singing and dancing. This used to be a regular pleasure for movie audiences, when people like Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe could and would cross easily between straight dramatic roles and musical comedy.
Catherine Zeta-Jones profits the most from the renewed interest in the movie musical. Her appearances in other films have often felt stilted to me, but here, liberated by song and dance, she is riveting. By giving her the prize for Best Supporting Actress, the Academy voters recognize that she has found her genre.
Now, the last time a musical won the Best Picture prize was in 1968, when Oliver! triumphed over The Lion in Winter and Funny Girl. Oliver! is not the first movie that springs to mind when we think of 1968, another tumultous time, filled with war and protest. More adventurous films like 2001 and Rosemary’s Baby probably better capture the spirit of the age, although neither of those movies was even nominated for Best Picture.
The Academy Awards are always disappointing; but the frustration we feel when extraordinary performances or films are neglected is, perversely, part of the fun of the event. So, was Chicago the best picture of 2002?–As entertaining as it is, my answer is absolutely not. Far From Heaven was the best English language film of 2002, but it wasn’t even nominated.