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. Renée 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.