“All you need to make a movie,” the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said, “is a girl and a gun.” While guns—anatomical and otherwise—are the props used to propel much of Chicago‘s plot, they’re secondary to the girl part of Godard’s dictum. Set, mainly, in the women’s ward of the Cook County Jail in Chicago in 1926, the film, along with its progenitor, Bob Fosse’s musical of 1975, has a largely female cast that makes clear what the play on which both were based and the two nonmusical films that preceded them did not: that Chicago is, among other things, a powerful examination of female rage and a demonstration of blackness as a corrupting style. There’s the rage of one “jazz baby” murderess, Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger in the movie), who has a craving to be a celebrity. There’s the rage her archrival—another murderess, the vaudeville star Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones)—feels once Roxie’s celebrity begins to eclipse her own. And then there’s the rage of the other incarcerated women—all candidates for classes in anger management—who share the jail-stage with Roxie and Velma. They may have killed a man or two once or twice, but they shouldn’t be locked up for it, since their victims “had it comin’.” So the women sing in one of the film’s brilliantly performed numbers, “Cell Block Tango.” (“He took a flower/In its prime/And then he used it/And he abused it/It was a murder/But not a crime!”)
All that rage shows itself in fairly direct cinematic ways in the beginning of the film before Roxie goes to jail: murder, mayhem, melodramatic plot points. In the first scenes, Roxie is betrayed by her lover, Fred Casely (Dominic West), a furniture salesman who claims to have connections in show business. More than anything, Roxie wants to be a star. But when Fred spurns Roxie with the truth—he has no connections, he lied to her to get her into bed—Roxie, her kimono flying, reaches for a gun conveniently kept in her bureau drawer and blows Fred away. He had it comin’.
But what elevates the film—what makes it so artful—is the emphasis of its director, Rob Marshall, on the chilly narcissism at the non-hearts of his women, projecting—with their black helmets of hair or processed finger-waves; their rolled stockings and dresses with dropped waists; their rouged lips, cheeks, and eyelids—a “don’t care-ish” attitude. And that style informs their behavior. It is a black style—loose and funky—which grew out of jazz and its love of the low-down, and which enables the actresses to adapt their movements to something like those of the Negress that Zora Neale Hurston described in her essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934):
Everything is acted out. Unconsciously for the most part of course. There is an impromptu ceremony always ready for every hour of life. No little moment passes unadorned….
A Negro girl strolls past the corner lounger. Her whole body panging and posing. A slight shoulder movement that calls attention to her bust, that is all of a dare. A hippy undulation below the waist that is a sheaf of promises tied with conscious power. She is acting out “I’m a darned sweet woman and you know it.”
Like Hurston’s strolling Negress, Zellweger and Zeta-Jones, whose dancing consists largely of undulations, “act out” a sort of “conscious power” as well: in their case, by their wit, a perversion of sorts as well as a resource of rage.
The women in Chicago are, literally, murderesses. Roxie and Velma want to be stars and try to use their notoriety as murderers to get them there. But there’s only one stage and one audience for one killer, or one woman, at a time. And that creates the film’s dramatic tension: Will Roxie knock Velma out of the running, or will Velma win? Or can they coexist? (They can.)
Bob Fosse was given a copy of the 1926 Maurine Dallas Watkins play Chicago in 1963, by his then wife, the actress and dancer Gwen Verdon. Watkins had based her play on a murder case she had covered when she was a cub reporter for the Chicago Tribune. On April 3, 1924, a woman named Beulah Annan shot her lover, an auto mechanic. She committed the act while “the Hawaiian foxtrot ‘Hula Lou’ (‘She’s got more men than a dog has fleas…’) played on her Victrola.” Beulah told her husband, Al, a mechanic who worked nights, that she’d murdered the man because he was an intruder. The police arrived. Beulah, drunk, confessed that, in fact, the victim had been her lover and she’d shot him when he tried to walk out on her. Beulah’s attorneys claimed that she had shot her lover because she had been under the influence. (Temperance laws had been established in 1919.) Chicago’s “prettiest prisoner,” her lawyers said, suffered from what we might call “existential dread”: she was a dim-witted, lovely white woman who didn’t know who she was given the confusing times. Beulah’s story generated a lot of press.
While in jail, Beulah claimed, falsely, that she was pregnant (Illinois law prohibited executing an expectant mother). Her trial was delayed. More press. Beulah as a martyred mother-to-be. When the case finally did go to trial, the twelve-member jury (four of whom were bachelors) declared Beulah Annan not guilty. She died in a mental institution four years later.
When Fosse approached Watkins about adapting her play as a musical, she wasn’t interested. In the years after Chicago, she had become a born-again Christian who did not want to condone the wayward lives she had described in her play. Neither Fosse nor Verdon gave up on the project, and Chicago finally reached the stage in 1975, after Watkins’s death. It’s not difficult to discern what drew them to the play: it shows the Annan case for the vaudeville and latter-day amorality tale it was.
In Watkins’s play, a kind of comedy, Annan is renamed Roxie Hart. She lives in Chicago, where she lies in the hotbed of booze, men, and hotcha. Jazz is her downfall. This music, born out of minstrelsy and the blues in the Storyville section of New Orleans, was first called “Jass” music, in homage to the jasmine perfume that the prostitutes wore in the red-light district. Like so much black underground culture, it became a fashion among whites when it moved up north to cities like Chicago. Many flappers—the new independent women, who had been given the vote in 1920—claimed it as the soundtrack of their lives: fast, vibrant, wicked, so unlike the songs Mama had sung at the kitchen table.
Watkins’s play provided the outline that both Fosse and the makers of the current movie followed. In the play Roxie hates being a homebody. She’s also a hard case. In Chicago she marries—a girl must earn her living somehow—Amos Hart, a stand-up, nowhere guy who earns a meager living as a mechanic. The faucet drips in the tenement flat he shares with Roxie; Roxie thinks Amos is a drip, too. To relieve the boredom of her domestic life—and throw a little shine on her dirty linoleum—Roxie takes up with one Fred Casely, an auto salesman. Roxie wants to be a star. She knows show business is her true home, but how will she get there? Fred—her audience of one—tries to leave her. Roxie, disillusion smearing the greasepaint she thinks she’ll never get to wear, finds the convenient revolver—it’s a melodrama with laughs sometimes—and shoots.
After she mows Casely down, Roxie, like Annan, tells her husband that Casely was an intruder and that she shot him to protect herself against his advances. Amos supports her claim. At first. But then Amos learns Roxie has been the stiff’s lover and tells the police his wife tried to make him take the rap for it. But now he won’t. He’s no fool.
Thus busted, Roxie is carted off to jail. In jail she becomes—fame as a lure—one of the favorite girls of the prison matron, Mrs. Morton (Queen Latifah in the movie), because she is a favorite with the press, including the sob sister Mary Sunshine, who writes for a “dry” newspaper and enjoys nothing more than pointing out the corrosive effects of booze and jazz. Roxie is Velma Kelly’s least-favorite girl. Until Roxie made a name for herself, Velma was the prison’s star. (Velma, a minor character in the play, was based on a real murderess, the cabaret singer Belva Gaertner, who was, like Annan, eventually acquitted.)
In jail, Roxie becomes famous—a victim of her immoral times, as her lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere in the movie), tells reporters. He specializes in defending a new breed of criminal—the “jazz baby” who hits a sour note. When the reporters’ interest turns to other women who kill, Roxie’s story gets a little old. So, like Beulah, Roxie, not one to be upstaged, lies and says she’s pregnant. Every woman sympathizes. Not only does she have to go through the bother of being on trial for knocking off a creep, she has to raise a child.
Flynn treats the jury like an audience (and the audience like a jury). He razzle-dazzles them, using the familiar questions that bring out the familiar patriarchal: Is gallantry dead? How could this young woman, a mere provincial, end up in a courtroom, pregnant and alone? Who is the man responsible for this? Did he deserve to die? Why should Roxie die twice—first as a young girl with dreams, and now as a mother? Roxie gets off, presumably to pursue show biz beyond the gallows.
Watkins’s play opened in New York on December 30, 1926. It ran for 172 performances. In 1942, William Wellman directed his film version (the first, a silent movie, was released in 1927). Retitled Roxie Hart, it boasted Ginger Rogers as Roxie. The film is static, no more than a filmed play that tries, largely through Rogers’s frenetic performance—she’s much too old for the part and cracks gum and bats her eyelashes incessantly—to make up for its lethargy. Ginger’s Roxie murdered her lover—this time he’s a cheap chiseling producer—because he tried to walk out on her without offering her a contract. Roxie doesn’t regret murdering him. And in any case the newshounds are more interested in taking pictures of her gorgeous gams than understanding the “reason” she clipped him in the first place.
Roxie revels in her amorality. She even dances “The Black Bottom” to seduce a skeptical reporter—and her future husband. Ginger doesn’t hang either. She gets off because Roxie’s got moxie, and she’s cute and the nearly all-male jury loves her. But Roxie doesn’t end up a star. She marries the reporter who followed her case. They have seven children—a different kind of packed house. Texas Guinan, bathtub gin, and vengeance are all a thing of the past, like the rest of the Roaring Twenties, including Roxie herself.
But it’s precisely Roxie’s unrepentant nature, her need for an audience, her will not just to survive but to triumph, as well as her exoneration by a corrupt legal system that seems just another part of show business, that drew Verdon and Fosse to Watkins’s material. Chicago the musical reached the stage in 1975.
Gwen Verdon had worked with the influential choreographer Jack Cole, who coached dancers at Columbia Pictures, and who incorporated “ethnic” styles of dance—Balinese hand movements, flamenco, African-inspired pelvic thrusts—into his own work. Fosse, on the other hand, had been, since the age of thirteen, a hoofer in various dives in his native Chicago. There was always something of a beer-hall stench in his work, a Runyonesque feeling for diamonds in the gutter. Fosse’s choreographic style was based on the body turning in on itself, so that only isolated body parts—the pelvis, legs, knees, hands, arms, shoulders—articulated movement. What was articulated was rarely joy. Fosse’s work was characterized by a grim sexuality and a fierceness that “explodes” in a shoulder shrug (don’t care-ish). He used the black American dance vernacular, which vaudeville had grown out of—minstrelsy, jazz, and tap—and he crossed that vernacular over to a white mainstream audience. (In the way of popular culture, Fosse’s style was made even more recognizable in music videos starring Michael Jackson.)
In Chicago Fosse exploited the blackness at the core of Roxie’s and Velma’s witty, angular style. In Hurston’s essay, she might be describing Fosse’s choreography and what it engendered in his audience when she wrote in the section called “Dancing”:
Negro dancing is dynamic suggestion…. For example, the performer flexes one knee sharply, assumes a ferocious face mask, thrusts the upper part of the body forward with clenched fists, elbows taut as in hard running or grasping a thrusting blade.
What separated Fosse from his contemporaries—Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd, and so on—was his desire for his dancers to project thinking, wit, above feeling. This made him the perfect choreographer and director for the grim post-Oklahoma age of theater. His women were often gauche because they were of their times, not idealized or prettied up. In Sweet Charity (1966), Charity is a dance-hall girl, maybe a hooker, too—innocent and conniving because she demands compassion from the audience even though she’s a bit of a flake, ramming her beleaguered optimism down our throats.
Fosse was a feminist. He examined real women trying to make it in the real world of show business. His female protagonists’ continual defeat once they get their sleeves and egos caught in that machinery called show business is rarely equal to their determination. Take Sally Bowles in Fosse’s film Cabaret (1972). Sally, an American, won’t let a little thing like the rise of Nazism deter her from her aim: to be up there on a movie screen, adored. Fosse showed, too, the ways in which women exploit their being seen as “objects,” and how they can be complicit with being used and dismissed by a system that sees tits and feather boas before it sees sensitivity, as in his film Lenny (1974), where Honey Bruce (Valerie Perrine), a former stripper, won’t let a little thing like her drug habit stand in the way of the only fame she’ll ever know: being a wife to the “legend” Lenny Bruce. Fosse doesn’t make the women in his films madonnas or whores or victims. They’re a combination of all those things, and much more. They’re too broken and resilient—too multifacted and human—to play one role. Roxie, as it happens, is one of the few Fosse heroines to survive on her own terms, no matter how twisted those terms are.
Fosse stripped Watkins’s play down—fewer wisecracks. He set it mostly in jail, and beefed up the Velma Kelly role. He focused the story on Roxie and Velma’s rivalry, and their relationship to Billy Flynn and Matron Morton, whom the girls all call Mama. By reducing the number of speaking parts, and making the show close to a vaudeville, Fosse got to the heart of what Watkins was trying to convey—that the legal system was vaudeville, too. Numbers were introduced by an announcer. (At the start of the show—but not in the film—he says: “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, you are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery—all those things we all hold near and dear to our hearts. Thank you.”) The scenes unfolded between songs. But they weren’t scenes exactly; they were skits. And the skits were less the old seltzer-and-baggy-pants routines one associates with vaudeville. They’re too literate, with a wit as dry as ice. (Announcer: “And now Miss Roxie Hart and Miss Velma Kelly sing a song of unrelenting determination and unmitigated ego.”) They’re a window into the narcissism inside a star—a female star’s—shine. (The only woman to actually hang in the show is, of course, innocent.)
Fosse worked on Chicago with John Kander and Fred Ebb, the composer and lyricist, respectively, of Cabaret. Most of their songs are in the film. The songs in the musical and the movie—jazz, ragtime, the torch song—were sung directly to the audience. These songs—“Cell Block Tango,” “Roxie,” “Nowadays”—are like voiceovers in newsreels. There’s a documentary feel to what is being said because the characters’ lyrics are their thoughts. Velma sings, in “Class” (a number cut from the film): “Whatever happened to fair dealing?/And pure ethics/And nice manners?/Why is it everyone now is a pain in the ass?/Whatever happened to class?” And then the matron muses: “Class./Whatever happened to ‘Please, May I?’/And ‘Yes, thank you?’/And ‘How charming?’/Now, every son of a bitch is a snake in the grass/Whatever happened to class?” This is being sung by a murderess and a prison matron who has ties to the William Morris agency, but never mind.
As in the movie, Fosse’s Casely is a furniture salesman who pretends to have connections in show business. When he admits that he doesn’t, that he only told Roxie what she wanted to hear so she would sleep with him, Roxie murders him. By killing the man who kills her dreams, Roxie does what any red-blooded American girl or man would like to do in a similar situation: knock off the creep who kills your professional (and hence your class) aspirations. The sympathy the audience feels for Roxie at that point is the sympathy most of us feel for the provincial inside ourselves, the rube with the bad shoes and a taste for life at the high table.
Roxie is a bit raffinée, but so what? To be a star is to live outside class boundaries. You shine and twinkle and society arranges itself around you, like tiny constellations. Roxie is calculating and deeply unsentimental. She knows most men are fools, except for Flynn, who’s no boob. He’s Roxie’s first director—the Pabst to her Lulu.
Fosse’s irreverence, his obsessive love of rot and greasepaint, are missing from the film. Rob Marshall, who also rechoreographed the dance numbers, has made them his own by opening up Fosse’s tight, hyper-controlled choreographic style; he liberates Fosse’s torso, so that the dancers use as much heart as they do wit. Marshall has a sunnier disposition than Fosse. He goes for the joke in most scenes rather than let the audience try to find it for themselves. Marshall hasn’t lived in the down-and-dirty atmosphere that Fosse became an artist in. Instead he adapts Fosse-as-filmmaker’s signature visual style—fast cuts in two-character scenes, mouths seen in close-up, medium close-ups when an actor is sitting against a wall being reflective, a flash of leg or foot or thigh in the dance sequences. In the film’s first number, “All That Jazz,” one of the dancers is made up to look like Gwen Verdon at her louche best. The movie’s backstage environment of world-weary or performance-weary dancers smoking and hanging out is reminiscent of the stifling, closed-off backstage world of Cabaret.
But Marshall doesn’t doggedly follow Fosse. He uses scenes from many other musicals. Chicago is, among other things, a collection of fan’s notes by a boy crazy about the form. The long panning shot of the mirror over the backstage area at the beginning of the movie is not unlike John Huston’s pan of the mirror reflecting café society in his version of Moulin Rouge (1953). The ladies behind bars near the conclusion of “Cell Block Tango” remind us of the dance sequence behind bars in Elvis Presley’s film Jailhouse Rock (1957).
In other words, Marshall has influences. And also a love of musicals. He imparts his joy to us, the audience, through his reminiscences of them. About the great days of the MGM musical. About the great days when Fosse was alive. The film is written as a homage to him.
The scriptwriter, Bill Condon, had the idea that the musical numbers shouldn’t be presented as skits, as they were in Fosse’s version. He puts all but three of the musical sequences in Roxie’s mind. Her mind is a stage and the stage is her home. And because everything is an aspect of Roxie’s imagination, which is to say psychology, Velma becomes Roxie’s doppelgänger. Velma is what Roxie wants to be—and surpass.
In the beginning of the film, watching Velma sing “All That Jazz,” Roxie imagines herself finishing a chorus wearing Velma’s costume. When Velma is dismissive of Roxie later on—divas behind bars—you can see Roxie’s shock and determination to give Velma the brushoff. It’s an eerie, brilliant premise and gives the movie part of its sexual and psychological weight. Released in her dreams, Roxie is everywhere. When Zellweger dances in a hall of mirrors in “Roxie,” she makes love to her image with a sense of joy and abandon that none of Roxie’s lovers, we suspect, has experienced. The number is equal parts Marilyn in Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, Rita Hayworth at the end of Lady from Shanghai, and Fred Astaire in Swingtime. But Zellweger doesn’t so much dance in the number as gesticulate. She extends her arms in a pleading gesture: Can’t we just love her?
We can. We fall in love with her whiteness, which is to say her lack of rhythm, her self-consciousness as a dancer, her emotional directness as a performer, despite these qualities or because of them. They only enhance Zellweger’s charm, which is seen playing off against Velma’s slick, black-influenced style of dancing and walking. We aren’t supposed to love Velma because at heart she’s what Zellweger’s Roxie isn’t, a cynic. Velma’s a narcissist without being cute about it. Madonna opened the doors to that kind of self-love in her music videos. Catherine Zeta-Jones is the Madonna spirit in the film.
In his brilliant The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,* David Thompson writes of Renée Zellweger:
There has always been a natural decency in some players—it was there in Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard—an innate honesty that the public trusts.
We trust Zellweger as Roxie because she suspends our knowledge of her rottenness. We love her despite ourselves because she works so hard to convince us that we should. And why not? To paraphrase Marianne Moore: Women have power and sometimes one is made to feel it.