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Will Chicago bag an Oscar?

March 01, 2003 12:52 IST

With 13 Oscar nominations and an expanded release in theatres all over the US, Chicago looks set to become the first musical in 34 years to win an Oscar for Best Picture. It could even sweep the Oscars and become an enormous hit if the buzz is anythinA still from Chicagog to go by.

The movie had a weekend gross of $8.2 million with a box office total of $94 million. It did good business in its opening weeks even though it had a narrow release that expanded two weeks ago.

Never mind the numbers. Chicago's success has been greeted with amazement in many quarters because the film signals a return to a time of innocence for America -- a time when musicals were the most popular form of cinema.

Fittingly, Chicago takes the old-fashioned genre and updates it. The film is darker than the musicals that defined America's post-war years, which makes it just right for today's unsunny times. It glorifies murder and glamorises sex and death. Some of its hottest numbers feature lovely killers making gory boasts about how they went about their business.

Unlike Bollywood's tried-and-tested formula, where the songs are sung by one batch of cooks and performed by another, Chicago's actors perform their own material. The songs are a revelation for those of us who have been weaned on Hindi movies. The music and lyrics are organic to the film, woven in so seamlessly they propel the story forward as well as comment on the action that has just occurred.

They are virtuoso sequences that even manage social commentary in the midst of excellent entertainment. In one, Richard Gere's slick lawyer pulls the strings for a chorus of puppets who say exactly what he tells them to. Who are they? Journalists of course, an indispensable part of a showman-lawyer's PR team.

Who knew Richard Gere could sing and dance, much less tap dance? He manages all three fairly well, though it is sometimes difficult to ignore the question as to why he was cast in the first place. And who knew that John C Reilly could come up with an absolutely topnotch piece of Brechtian baggy pants pathos? Or that Catherine Zeta-Jones was such a hoofer? Or that Renee Zellweger was not?

The songs are the most creative part of the show, and for that director Rob Marshal owes a large vote of thanks to the visionary genius of Bob Fosse, the creator of Chicago's original Broadway avatar. Fosse tried to get his stage version to the screen for many years without success. He finally gave up the attempt, but only after using some of his best material in All That Jazz, as dark a take on the perils of fame as has yet been made.

Chicago's femme fatales -- Zeta-Jones and Zellweger -- keep the spotlight riveted on their own aA still from Chicagonatomies for the most part. The story, after all, is a jaded comment about two competing murderesses who try to keep a nation's prurient attention. Still, for my money, Queen Latifah is the show-stealer. She has more oomph and honey than the two headliners combined. Besides which, she is a real singer.

As far as Oscar traditions go, the film with the most nominations usually walks away with the most honours. Chicago has nods in the key areas of lead actress (Zellweger), supporting actress (Zeta-Jones), supporting actor (Reilly) and director (Marshal).

If it wins Best Picture, it will be the first time a musical has won the top honour since Oliver in 1968.

Jeet Thayil