[Editor's Note: This essay is published in conjunction with "All That Fosse", a retrospective of Bob Fosse's work on film, currently playing through January 1st at The Film Society of Lincoln Center in Manhattan.]
Rob Marshall's Oscar-winning movie Chicago is a workhorse. In a better Holly-world every film would be this good. But in a more perfect Holly-world, only films that went beyond competence would merit 13 Academy Award nominations. No visionary himself, Marshall's strategy consisted of aping Fosse, calling it homage and hoping for the best. It was a canny decision. Fosse's filmmaking style—perfectly cut to the moves of dancers synchronizing flawless steps to Kander and Ebb's exhilarating score—might have yielded an impressive result no matter who directed. But a movie musical is more than the sum of its numbers. Fosse knew this, which is why his own film version of another Kander and Ebb musical, Cabaret, shot over three decades ago, feels less dated than Marshall's 2002 Academy darling.
Chicago plays like a movie about a movie about two murderesses striving for fame in the Roaring Twenties, Cabaret is a love trangle set in Weimar Republic-era Berlin. Renee Zellweger gives a capable performance as corrupt Chicago's good bad girl, the killer Roxie Hart. As Velma Kelly, a murderous rival of Roxie's who schemes to reclaim the spotlight that the younger woman stole, Catherine Zeta-Jones is also capable. The same goes for Richard Gere as crooked lawyer Billy Flynn; John C. Reilly as Roxie's suffering husband, Amos Hart; Queen Latifah as prison matron "Mama" Morton—they're all so fucking competent! But Liza Minnelli didn't just rise to her role in Cabaret; she reached higher, creating a three-dimensional Sally Bowles, so fake she's real. The quality gap between Zellweger's performance as Roxie and Minnelli's as Sally might stem partly from each actress' personal experience: Minnelli had the demons of her mother, Judy Garland, to escape, while Zellweger has admitted in interviews that she pretty much fell into acting. But bravery might also be a factor. As we watch Minnelli's fearlessly self-revealing performance as Sally, we glimpse in her wild eyes and anxious body language the screwed-up childhood that Sally must have had—the past that fuels both character and performer to sing and dance or die. If Zellweger harbors comparable demons, either she refused to tap them or her director failed to demand that she try. Her performance is content to charm rather than disturb. Even though we watch Roxie kill onscreen, the actress conveys no sense that the character would be capable of committing such a deed, much less using it as a platform for tabloid infamy. Her Roxie is a one-dimensional cutie pie, a spoiled, dreaming bad seed, and her mild drive to be a star seems disingenuous.
Equally distressing is Marshall's failure to invest Chicago's dramatic scenes with the degree of cleverness and energy that he brings to the musical numbers. In Fosse's Cabaret, the straight dramatic scenes and the nightclub interludes are threaded together seamlessly; they don't just butt up against each other, they intertwine and fuse. Fosse and his actors strengthen that sense of unity; we never get the sense that the performers prize the musical numbers over the spoken words. In comparison, the acting scenes in Chicago feel forced. It's as if the actors are just killing time before their next chance to sing and dance. Despite the lackluster attempts at Cabaret-style editing—weaving in and out of harsh reality and musical fantasy—the film's narrative becomes a glorified afterthought, a means of stringing satirical numbers together.
To be fair, Chicago is a less satisfying story—less of a story, period—than Cabaret. It's a statement on the power of publicity, the media's ability to turn life and death into fortune and fame. The movie version of Cabaret might have been content to be a statement—on the rise of fascism, and the disreputable underground that performers have always inhabited—but it's more than that: it's a story about love, and about finding oneself and then honoring that discovery. It has been said that the difference between Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams is that the former wrote about Big Ideas and the latter about particular situations and characters—and that this is why Miller's plays often don't hold up onscreen. Miller's Big Ideas were most powerfully realized when shepherded by a character-driven director like Elia Kazan. Chicago, a work that lacks the gritty poignancy that Cabaret had in spades, needed no less than Kazan's vigor or Fosse's sleazy humanism in order to rise above its "statement." This seems a tall order, but Fosse—who directed the original stage production of Chicago, and had first dibs on directing the movie version—might have pulled it off; a deeper filmmaker than Marshall might have had a shot as well. Marshall is great with the glitz, but he lacks Fosse's ability to be rhetorical and dramatic, cynical and hopeful all at once. Billy Flynn in Chicago is an amalgam of every sleazy lawyer that ever lived, and that's how Gere plays him on Marshall's watch. The master of ceremonies in Cabaret is arguably even more amorphous than Flynn, but Fosse's fascination solidifies him, and the actor's creepy eccentricity makes him specific. Zellweger's generic, front-page-ready, girl-next-door smile is outshone by the desperation in Minnelli's eyes when Sally sings.