My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 2002: Renée Zellweger in "Chicago"

Chicago is soften hailed as the comeback of the movie musical even though Moulin Rouge, starring Renée Zellweger’s Oscar rival Nicole Kidman, happened one year before and was probably largely responsible for Chicago even being made. But Moulin Rouge was over-the-top, maybe a little strange, featured extremely fast editing and camera movements and the soundtrack was a combination of mostly well-known pop or rock songs. Academy members admired it enough to nominate it for Best Picture but played it safe when they gave the award in the end to the rather standard ‘feel-good-as-you-watch-a-man-overcome-personal-obstacles-and-be-amazed-because-it-is-based-on-a-true-story’ A Beautiful Mind. But even though – musicals were back. But they still needed to be different from the movie musicals of the 50s or 60s – people bursting into a song in the middle of the scene would not be taken seriously by modern movie audiences any more. Moulin Rouge was crazy, new and over-the-top enough to make those musical numbers work, especially because they fitted so perfectly into these stylized surroundings. And so it was not surprising that Chicago, too, tried to find a new way to include its musical numbers – on the stage, actresses can start to sing and dance the ‘Cell Block Tango’ much more easily because the stage always allows much more unconventional actions and scenes while movies do not forgive any variance from reality so easily. The movie version of Chicago found a way to solve this problem that not only allowed to include the musical numbers smoothly but also play with the clichés of musicals and the constant clash of reality and make-believe while also staying close to the tradition of other musical that made it to the big screen – most notably Cabaret since Chicago also presents its musical numbers in the form of stage performances. But in Chicago, these musical numbers are only a part of Roxie Hart’s fantasy, combining the reality of the situation she finds herself in with her own imagination – this concept allowed Chicago to be both a full-fledged traditional musical with big dance and song numbers but also to appeal to a more modern audience since it always admits that these musical numbers are nothing else but fantasy. But also important is the fact that Chicago always uses these musical numbers in reference to the plot – which is an intriguing, provoking, and almost alarming story of hunger for fame, guilt and innocence and most of all, the manipulation of the media and the public opinion. The wrap-up of this dark message into a colorful, glittery and, most of all, incredibly entertaining package is probably the biggest reason for Chicago’s success on Oscar night – and the success of its leading lady.

Renée Zellweger may seem like an unlikely choice for the leading role in a movie musical – not only because of her karaoke scene in Bridget Jones’s Diary the year before but also because she seems to lack the big presence, the full-fledged movie-star personality or the passion and fire to give a musical number such a high level of energy that it turns into a natural part of the story instead of an interruption. And all this is true – but thankfully this made her a perfect choice for the character of Roxie, a woman with big ambition and little talent and who could only achieve fame by becoming a murderess in Chicago during the 1920s and constantly puts on a fake personality for the sake of either being popular or being free. Since Chicago is a movie that uses its musical numbers as a part of Roxie’s fantasy, they also don’t have to be a true part of it – yes, they fit into the story smoothly but they actually do so by standing out, not only because of the way the story is written but also because of the way the numbers are presented and executed. It’s always obvious that Renée Zellweger is neither a great singer nor a truly great dancer – but this is also not what Chicago wants her to be. It’s very interesting how quietly Renée Zellweger enters Chicago – both as an actress and as a singer. As if by accident, the camera finds her in a crowded night club as she watches her idol Velma Kelly singing ‘All that Jazz’ on the stage. At first, this may seem like a strange way to treat the central character of a musical – especially since Renée Zellweger’s costar, Catharine Zeta-Jones, is allowed to demonstrate how much energy and power can be displayed by singing and dancing right away. She clearly wins the contest in this aspect – her ‘All that Jazz’ is the kind of powerful opening number that turns a performance into a show-stopper right away and also helps her to establish Velma Kelly immediately as a woman who is a diva both onstage and offstage – but her talent is worth it. And because of this, Renée Zellweger is so perfectly cast in Chicago since her Roxie is, in many ways, her complete opposite. Yes, she, too, is a manipulative gold-digger without a single thought in her head that isn’t about herself but she isn’t the grand dame of the stage but rather the born chorus-girl who stands behind and dreams of becoming the star one day. Neither her singing voice nor her looks nor her overall talent would really help her to thrill the audience. This, of course, does not mean that Renée Zellweger is bad in her musical numbers – on the contrary, she handles them very well, mostly because she did not try to appear grander than she really is but instead found a perfect voice and attitude for the character of Roxie that always mixes her singing scenes with a great deal of charismatic comedy acting. And so, to come back to the previous point, Renée Zellweger did not need to be the same kind of diva as Catherine Zeta-Jones – her Velma Kelly is the ‘typical’ musical star who gets a number like ‘All that Jazz’ in the beginning while Renée Zellweger’s first musical scene is the much more quiet ‘Funny Honey’ which is also less noteworthy for her singing than for the fact that this number presents the first time that Chicago mixes her fantasy with reality. And also during the rest of Chicago, Catharine Zeta-Jones’s musical numbers are the true show-stoppers which seem mostly to exist to show off Velma Kelly’s singing and dancing abilities. In this way, Catharine Zeta-Jones brings an iron professionalism to her part which shows that she is, by far, the most skilled musical performer in the cast – which also made her just as perfectly cast in the part of Velma Kelly as Renée Zellweger was as Roxie Hart.

Chicago may be a musical – but Renée Zellweger’s success in this role has surprising little to do with singing or dancing. Because her musical scenes are not intended to be true showcases – even ‘Roxie’, with all its mirrors and male admirers, is less noteworthy for Renée Zellweger’s singing and dancing but mostly for her sassy and captivating way of telling about Roxie’s dreams, plans, desires and hopes, no matter how contemptible they may seem. In this way, the musical numbers of Renée Zellweger exist differently than those of Catharine Zeta-Jones – hers tell the story of her character, they are a much more concrete answer to a specific situation and therefore do not demand the same kind of professionalism because a) Roxie Hart is not a professional on the stage and b) because to make these scenes work it needed an actress who could focus on the acting in those moments, who had the needed comedic spark to make scenes like Roxie sitting on a piano and singing a song of first loving and then condemning her husband or telling the monologue before the ‘Roxie’ number work. And Renée Zellweger has this needed spark and her ability to mix comedy with drama, find humor in completely unlikely situations and provide Roxie with a singing voice and dancing talent that is completely right for the character all resulted in a performance that fits perfectly to the tone and message of Chicago. In this way, her musical numbers actually are show-stoppers – but not in the traditional sense since they are almost always foremost a humorous presentation of the truth and just as important for their content as their execution.

But let’s not forget that Roxie Hart is not only a singing creation – most of all, Renée Zellweger brings her to life with her acting. Her performance as Roxie Hart is probably one of the most entertaining ones that this category has ever seen – alongside the one she has given one year before in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Interestingly, both characters do not offer any depth or combine their entertainment value with deeper questions – instead, both women manage to dominate the screen through Renée Zellweger’s unique screen presence and her aforementioned ability to combine comedy with drama and to find humor in the most awkward moments and use it as a way to make her character easily accessible for the audience. But even though these characters may not appear to be truly challenging, they are still much trickier than first expected. In the case of Bridget Jones, the old saying ‘Dying is easy, comedy is hard’ was more than true as Renée Zellweger managed to make it look incredibly easy. Her work in Chicago is different as Roxie Hart is certainly not as easy to love as Bridget Jones – at least not on paper. But what is truly remarkable about Renée Zellweger’s work in Chicago is the fact that she managed to make Roxie a heroine to root for – despite the fact that she is a murderess, lazy and spoiled and never thinks of anything but herself and her publicity. Her best argument against her husband? `He couldn’t buy my liquor’ – a remark that tells more about Roxie than she probably realizes and that also comes across as completely believable in the hands of Renée Zellweger who does her best to show what kind of woman Roxie truly is: ‘a dumb, common criminal’, as Billy Flynn puts it so perfectly. Roxie Harts killed a man – and becomes a star because of it, exploiting her crime for the sake of fame and manipulating the public opinion for the sake of her freedom. Looking at the character of Roxie Hart, she does not possess a single redeeming feature – especially since the movie audience knows so much more about Roxie than her fans in the movie: the viewers know her true character and her true actions and intentions. But for some strange reason she still becomes the one to cheer for – Chicago manages to manipulate the viewer just as easily as Roxie Hart and Billy Flynn the jury and the public. And even though we know that we still let it happen, not only because Chicago is structured and written in a way that makes it almost impossible not to but also because Renée Zellweger is a wonderful vessel for this role, being able to spit in the face of everybody around her while still doing it with a quirky sense of humor and goofiness that easily turns Roxie into the one who has the audience on her side. With her performance, she always walked closely between a realistic portrayal of an ambitious airhead and the slightly over-the-top nature of Chicago – even in its ‘reality-scenes’, Chicago is still a bitter satire and demands the characters to fit their appearance to this. Renée Zellweger thankfully does not overdo her comedy moments for the sake of the movie audience but instead always keeps her character’s actions believable in the context of the film while also constantly suggesting her true nature underneath (her scene in the witness stand is comedic gold in which she constantly puts on two different shows for the movie audience and the audience in the movie, excuse me, I mean the jury). Like Chicago itself, Renée Zellweger maintains a superficiality in her work only to find more layers underneath.

All in all, Roxie Hart is not truly the most challenging role or the most developed character and does not need a lot of interpretation – but she does need careful consideration to balance the task of making her likeable despite her unlikable nature. Without Renée Zellweger’s presence, Chicago would be much less successful because her dumb blond is always entertaining and always believable. Her short, quiet moment of desperation during her first night in prison is surprisingly touching while her delivery of the line ‘Don’t you wanna take my picture?’ is basically a summary of Roxie Hart in two seconds. Renée Zellweger does not try to deepen Roxie in any way and always shows that her emotions and feelings only happen in relation to her ambitious goals – when she is angry or desperate, it is only because her plans don’t go well, when she is happy it is because she could achieve a personal goal. And even most importantly, Renée Zellweger also makes it believable that Roxie Hart would become such a sensation in the first place and actually be a serious threat for Velma – Renée Zellweger shows that Roxie has everything it needs to manipulate the media even though she could not do it alone and finds out that, in the end, she was used and manipulated just as much herself. When Roxie hugs her husband only to turn around to enable the photographers to get a better view on her, Renée Zellweger is deliciously honest in showing the complete emptiness of Roxie and also incredibly entertaining by showing how much she enjoys her moment in the sun.

So, Renée Zellweger clearly did everything right in a role that maybe did not demand a truly complex characterization but sometimes the sheer task of bringing such a large spectacle like Chicago to live and providing the most entertaining and poignant moments of the story while also keeping both feet on the ground for the sake of bringing a deeper message across can be just as demanding and difficult. In the end, the combination of a role that is both rather empty but also tricky at the same time with Renée Zellweger’s unique energy and dedication receives


Best Actress 2002: Nicole Kidman in "The Hours"

There are always some years when an Oscar win is not only the result of a strong, critically acclaimed performance but also the outcome of what is considered ‘the year of an actor’ or ‘the right time’. 1944 was Ingrid Bergman’s year, not only because of her performance in Gaslight but also because of her work in the previous years which did not make her truly due but, combined with her overall reputation as one of Hollywood’s brightest and likeable stars, simply added up to a powerful momentum that made hers a win that was not only appreciated but also ‘popular’. 1945 was the year of Joan Crawford because her comeback in Mildred Pierce was as celebrated as it was unexpected. 1946 was the year of Olivia de Havilland who not only had been working very hard in Hollywood for a lot of years but also because of her history-making court fight against the studio system. 1954 was the year of Grace Kelly, 1956 again the year of Ingrid Bergman, 1960 was the year of Elizabeth Taylor, 1961 the year of Sophia Loren, 1964 of Julie Andrews – and so on and so on. All the acting categories offer enough examples of actors and actresses who won at exactly the right time in their career because it was their moment, their peak and their year. And 2002 was the year of Nicole Kidman. She peaked at just the right moment with just the right kind of performance. She had proven her versatility before but after her divorce from Tom Cruise most people probably expected her to disappear slowly but steadily from the public again – but instead she suddenly turned herself into one of Hollywood’s most respect actresses who constantly surprised audiences and critics with the choices she made. In 2001, she made an impressive two-punch with her part as a dying courtesan in the extravagant musical Moulin Rouge and as a strict but also terrified mother in the gothic thriller The Others. Combined with her personal backstory, an Oscar win that year would have been almost logical but Halle Berry’s turn as a grieving widow and mother turned out to be a stronger attraction for the Academy. So, this chance had passed for Nicole Kidman – but instead of losing any momentum she only enhanced it by again doing something completely different and unexpected when she played the depressive and suicidal author Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. Even though the role lacked important screen time and was considerably shorter than most other winners in this category, her dramatic and dominant storyline, the downplay of her own looks and her obvious willingness to constantly improve and stretch herself as an actress helped her to become an almost unstoppable force on Oscar night – okay, let’s not forget that this was actually a very competitive year with Julianne Moore and Diane Lane winning important critics awards while Renée Zellweger emerged as a late frontrunner thanks to her industry support but in the end, Nicole Kidman must have taken it with a rather comfortable lead because awarding her just felt too ‘right’ in this moment – it was her year. Of course, it’s all speculation anyway…

The fact that Nicole Kidman remained so willing during her career to always try something new and different certainly makes her an actress that is very easy to respect and admire. Personally, I would not call myself a fan in any way but there is no denying that few other actresses made such strong attempts to prevent themselves from being typecast in any kind of role or resting too cozily in their own comfort zone. During her career, she switched from musicals like Moulin Rouge to thrillers like The Peacemaker or The Invasion and then to dramas by Lars von Trier or Anthony Minghella and then to comedies with Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler. After her Oscar win, Nicole Kidman’s peak may have been gone almost as quickly as it had come and it would take quite some time for her to get back to the Academy Awards as a nominee but her work during this period was just as exciting as it had been before and she undoubtedly acquired one of the most varied and diversified resumes in Hollywood. And what’s even more remarkable is the sheer fact that Nicole Kidman was not only willing to constantly push her boundaries and risk something new with these different collaborations but also that she was able to almost always completely fit into the different styles of these movie and roles. She fit as smoothly into the over-the-top surroundings of Moulin Rouge as she did into the dark atmosphere of The Others or into Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, the tale of three women who suffer from their lack of dreams, from their dissatisfaction with their lives as they are and their inability to break free without hurting the ones they love and who are connected by their characters, by their actions or even just by their words. There has been a lot of talk about the category placement of Nicole Kidman but personally I cannot find any reason to consider hers anything else than a leading performance. The Hours presents three equal storylines among which Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman present the clear central characters. While Meryl Streep’s storyline consisted of present-day scenes, Julianne Moore again proved that she seems to belong into the 50s more than any other actress of her generation. And Nicole Kidman accepted the challenge to bring the character of Virginia Woolf to life, a woman who more than anything seems to want to be free of life completely. The equality of the three different storylines could easily have put Nicole Kidman in the danger of either being overshadowed by the work of Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore or appearing not unique enough to be singled out among the cast-members. And it’s true that all three actresses deliver powerful performances but Nicole Kidman was helped by the fact that her storyline is a combination of its own ideas and thoughts but also exists as a reference point for the actions of all other characters – Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep don’t exist in the world of Virginia Woolf but Nicole Kidman is constantly floating above Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughan, almost as if she is influencing and guiding their doings. Her presence can not only be felt at almost every moment of The Hours but whenever the story cuts back to her storyline, the movie suddenly feels different and almost disrupted – but never interrupted. The nature of Nicole Kidman’s storyline as the basis for the stories of Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughan gives her a dominant position in The Hours but this position constantly seems to connect her to the overall plot just as much as it brings her apart from it – the story of Virginia Woolf stands in close connection to the other storylines but more than them it also exists completely independent from the movie itself. And even though it is rather the structure of The Hours which made this possible, Nicole Kidman’s characterization not only creates and influences the tone and atmosphere of her storyline but rather is this tone and atmosphere.

In her role as Virginia Woolf, Nicole Kidman is an impressive example of an actress using her usually very distinctive and strong charisma to play a character that is almost only a shadow of a human being and still emerge as a domineering, haunting and powerful presence. Her Virginia Woolf exists as a woman who seems to need all strength she can muster only to get out of bed in the morning – not because of a physical weakness but because her depressions, her unhappiness and her fear of her own existence are using up all her energy and all her abilities to find quietness for herself. Because of this, Nicole Kidman’s powerful screen presence works beautifully to create a wonderful contrast in this performance – she is strong and dominant while playing a weak and almost invisible woman. In The Hours, Virginia Woolf is almost a ghostly presence, a woman so rid of every lively feature that she constantly appears like a haunting dream, disrupting the flow but still logical on its own. And even in her own storyline, her character always seems to be more of a psychological than a physical presence but just like Nicole Kidman’s performance is extremely strong in showing the character’s weaknesses, Virginia Woolf is also written and presented as a dominant presence, despite her apparent frailty and it is this contradiction from which this performance gains the most power: Virginia Woolf may almost be a ghost but she is also a domineering force and Nicole Kidman may reduce her acting to a sheer emotional display of internal grief but her screen presence constantly put her in the foreground.

To be clear, this is not a flawless performance – there are moments when the character seems to disappear and the actress becomes more obvious. Especially whenever a scene requires a louder intensity, Nicole Kidman feels rather forced in her acting – her angry discussion with her husband at the train station about the doctors who want to control her life is such a moment but actually there are also other scenes that feel flawed – these can be very simple instants like Virginia telling her husband that no dreams or headaches were troubling her in the night or asking him if it is alright for her to take a short walk outside. Granted, these are only small moments but this is a performance that basically consists of nothing but small moments so every scene that does not feature the same dark fascination that Nicole Kidman creates in so many other moments stands out disappointingly. The truth is that Nicole Kidman is always most effective in those moments in which she plays a quiet, internal desperation, moments at which Virginia Woolf makes her inability to cope with her life truly tangible. The sight of Virginia Woolf walking around outside, hiding her face under her head and talking to herself about the plot of her next book is incredibly effective because Nicole Kidman truly excels to reach an almost overwhelming level of intensity in quiet moments like this. And thankfully Nicole Kidman also did not forget that Virginia Woolf is not only a woman suffering from depression but also a writer experiencing the thrill of starting a new book, even if it seems to absorb her too much for her own good, only fastening her desire for self-destruction – when she sits in her chair and speaks the first line of her new book, slowly and with an overwhelming exhaustion in her voice, Nicole Kidman again crafts one of those calm moments that is much more memorable than any emotional outburst, in this case mostly because she is able to speak those lines with a hidden sense of self-realization, underlining how Virginia Woolf is slowly discovering this sentence and with it the whole concept of her new book herself in these few seconds.

The most fascinating aspect of Nicole Kidman’s performance is that she was able to find such a non-emotional way for portraying this character – Virginia Woolf is a woman suffering from depressions, she is suicidal, caught in her own desperation and unable to escape and yet the word ‘heartbreaking’ is probably the last one that would describe her performance. Her approach to her material is much more intellectual than emotional and therefore she challenges the viewer instead of trying to win any sympathy. Basically, Nicole Kidman managed to create a invariable forlornness by constantly ‘acting alone’ – even when she shares the screen, her Virginia constantly seems out-of-focus, alone in her thoughts, talking to the persons besides her but somehow not really noticing them. Especially in her scenes with Virginia’s sister, Nicole Kidman masters the combination of Virginia’s loneliness and her hope to connect to other people. And her following goodbye scene is maybe the only moment in her performance that can be called truly touching on an emotional level – her quiet ‘Nessa’ as her sister leaves the room, her hopeless goodbye to her niece and her forlornness as she realizes that she will probably never be able to escape turn this into one of those single moments that can define a whole performance and that leaves a lasting impression because of its haunting, implacable, intransigent and dark presentation and the overwhelming amount of sadness put into a few words.

Nicole Kidman also succeeded in avoiding making her character too obvious – lines like ‘the female ones are larger. And less colorful’ basically hit the viewer over the head but Nicole Kidman manages not only to make this dialogue work but expresses it in a way that neglects every bit of symbolism – instead of emphasizing her sharp figure, her constant depressions and desperations, she turns them into a normal part of her character, presenting it without overstating it. But not only her lines about female birds, but so many of them actually feel too contrived, calculated and exaggerated for their own good but Nicole Kidman managed to handle them with surprising ease. Her quiet monologue at the train station during which she tells her husband that she wants to decide her own life herself is such a moment. Surprisingly, the character of Virginia Woolf actually offers little to Nicole Kidman in the context of The Hours since the character appears severely underwritten many times, despite so many overstated lines – but Nicole Kidman was able to put Virginia Woolf’s personal problems, her obsession with her work and her desire to return to London in a greater context in which she was able to tell almost the whole character of this woman without needing the words to highlighten it. The scene with the dead bird, already mentioned for the heavy-handed dialogue, is more than anything noteworthy for Nicole Kidman’s ability to portray honest desire, fear, desperation, grief and even curiosity at the same time. By displaying such images of inner pain convincingly, Nicole Kidman most of all managed to make her Virginia Woolf understandable – she enters the movie already completely developed by the script and the direction and there will also be no true development but she managed to give a face to the depression that is haunting her, making her troubles, sorrows and bitterness visible without overdoing it. Because of this, no explanations for her behaviors ever feels necessary.

Overall, Nicole Kidman gave a performance that makes both the physical and mental exhaustion of the character completely perceptible at every moment of the movie. Looking back at this review, I may have sounded a bit more enthusiastic than I actually am – the great moments of Nicole Kidman’s performance all feel rather singular, meaning that they are all easy to admire but it’s somehow hard to construct a complete whole out of the single pieces, mainly because this performance, as mentioned before, it not without its flaws. More than anything, Nicole Kidman creates images with this performance – images of Virginia Woolf lying next to a dead bird, slowly disappearing into a river, hesitating before she talks to her servants or sitting alone on a bench at an empty train station. And for her ability to create these intriguing images while also filling her parts of The Hours with a captivating, dark and quiet desperation, she receives