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