Saturday, December 1, 2012

Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago

Catherine Zeta-Jones won the Oscar on her first nomination for her performance as Velma Kelly in Rob Marshall's Chicago. I think that it is safe to say that musical performances are among the most difficult to judge in terms of Academy Awards recognition. That comes with the fact that some people just outright hate musicals, and refuse to even give them a real try. Obviously film industry people are more likely to be accepting and loving towards musicals, which is why every once in awhile a good one comes around and captures the hearts of voters (Chicago, Moulin Rouge, and Dreamgirls are the most recent examples, though Les Misérables is certainly on the right path). Still, critics of Oscar winning musical performances seem to have one overlapping criticism that I've seen over and over again: "they just won because they had a few great musical numbers". Jennifer Hudson would surely agree with me. That may be true in many ways, but that's because in a musical, songs are the equivalent of crying scenes in dramas--the place where actresses get to show off the emotional core of their characters and just plain show off.

That is especially the case of Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago. There is no doubt that Velma Kelly is the flashiest and most fun character in the film, a grand diva type that relishes the fame afforded to her by murdering her sister and husband and is one of the few that has actual talent to back it up. It doesn't hurt that she gets all the best musical numbers, while poor Renée Zellweger is saddled with flatter tunes like "Roxie" and "Funny Honey". The problem Zeta-Jones faces is in Bill Condon's adaptation of the stage musical to screen. In order to keep the film shorter, most of her meatier scenes have been stripped away to keep the focus on Roxie (which is why Supporting Actress feels like the right category for her) leaving her musical numbers the only spots in which Velma truly gets to shine and feel like an active part of the storyline.

Thus, when Velma is not singing she comes off as a slightly one-note diva type character, with Zeta-Jones using her deep voice and overall forcefulness to full effect. She's got the character's blend of cold ruthlessness and desperate sexuality down pat, and those early scenes where Roxie fawns over the then more famous Velma are an absolute blast. Zeta-Jones adapts well to the sudden lack of attention she receives  and the jealousy she feels towards Roxie is potent yet subtle. Velma always maintains her rough outer exterior throughout the film, and that's due to the carefully modulated changes Zeta-Jones makes. When she's not singing, Velma is larger than life with a flash of humanity and sadness making appearances every once in awhile. However, she never really gets a moment to do anything but preen delightfully.

As solid as she is in her dialogue scenes, the meat of Velma Kelly and Catherine Zeta-Jones' performance becomes rousingly apparent in her musical numbers, and that's where she earns her Oscar 100%. Her three big numbers are the best in the film for a reason. "All That Jazz" is her most playful number, and has become the most iconic representation of the film. It's in that number where we get to know Velma Kelly's ruthlessness and lack of remorse, and Zeta-Jones is just flat out sexy in the face of having just killed her sister and husband. "Cell Block Tango" is technically a group number, but I only think of Zeta-Jones. It's in that number where Zeta-Jones is her most theatrical, but her rage bursts off the screen and thrives under that theatricality. My favorite number in the film has always been "I Can't Do It Alone", a truly desperate performance of emotional frankness in which Zeta-Jones is somehow pathetic, hilarious ("the first part's shit"), and absolutely winning. My reaction is literally the same as Roxie's everytime, as Velma wins me over gradually despite how awful she's been to her. Those three numbers, each deserving of being considered some of the best of all time, reveal the emotional core of the hard-edged Velma Kelly.

It's easy to forget that Catherine Zeta-Jones is also very funny in the film, whether chiding Mama Morton for copying Roxie's hairstyle or devising ways to flash the jury in order to sway votes. It's a purely enjoyable performance that I could watch over and over again and never get tired of. Sure, she can be pretty theatrical at times, but it's a musical and subtlety is not something you find in most musicals because of their inherent absurdity (especially Chicago). Many of her critics say that the performance is all glitz and great singing and dancing, but Zeta-Jones finds Velma's vulnerability buried underneath all the barbs and sequins. In the end, my point is that the most revealing parts of musical performances should be the numbers, and Catherine Zeta-Jones demonstrates that beautifully. 5/5 Thelmas.