Queen Latifah received her first and only Oscar nomination to date for her performance as Matron Mama Morton in Rob Marshall's Chicago. It now seems inevitable that Chicago's Best Picture win has become something of a controversial one, because the film isn't the type of powerfully moving drama that the Academy rewards these days. Instead, Chicago is a biting social satire hidden beneath layers of sequins and frisky musical numbers. It's about Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), a common housewife who murders her lover and finds herself loving the fame and attention being tried for murder gives her. Queen Latifah plays the corrupt matron of the Cook County Jail, who trades legal favors and supplies for cash from the ladies on Murderess's Row. Also of importance is Velma Kelly (Best Supporting Actress winner Catherine Zeta-Jones), a vaudeville diva who killed her sister and husband and was Mama's favorite before Roxie came along.
Mama Morton is just about everything you'd expect a character played by Queen Latifah to be-- bold, earthy, and eminently lovable. Sure, at heart she's probably not a very good person but the film loves it's characters immoral and Latifah has the charisma to pull it off. Her big (and only) number is the playful "When You're Good to Mama", which is a nice showcase for her voice and allows her a glamorous and completely enjoyable entrance. But that's really the first and last time that Mama Morton has any moment of significance, and for the remainder of the film she serves as the mediator between Roxie and famous lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), often just explaining plot points and being greedy. Honestly, it is hard for me to come up with much of anything to say about this performance because it really highlights the best parts of Queen Latifah the actress, but doesn't allow her to dig much deeper than her usual genial acting style.
There are little scraps of what the performance could have been such as the question of Mama's sexuality, but Latifah's never given any scenes to flesh these moments out. Ultimately, I liked Queen Latifah in Chicago for the same reasons I like Queen Latifah in any movie--she's undeniably fun to watch and brings a natural blend of good humor and toughness to all her roles. Her chemistry with Zeta-Jones and Zellweger is fine, and I always enjoyed when she was on screen. But as far as Oscar is concerned, this performance shouldn't have even come close to getting a nomination as one of the best of the year. 2.5/5 Thelmas.