[NY Times, March 24, 2003]
To see why Chicago became the movie of the year in a year when America sleepwalked into war, you do not have to believe it is the best picture of 2002 (mine would be Almodóvar's Talk to Her). Nor must you believe that musical comedy is making a comeback in Hollywood (it's barely holding its own on Broadway, where even Hairspray has empty seats). All you have to do is watch a single scene.
That scene is a press conference in 1920's Chicago. A star defense attorney, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), wants to browbeat a mob of reporters into believing that his client, Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), did not murder her lover when in fact she did. "Now remember," Billy coaches Roxie, "we can only sell them one idea at a time." The idea: Roxie acted in self-defense. "We both reached for the gun," Roxie sings to the reporters, who obediently turn her lie into a rousing chorus, repeating it over and over in a production number that portrays them as marionettes, bowing and scraping to the tug of Billy's strings and spin.
For history's sake, this spectacle should be paired on the DVD with George W. Bush's fateful White House press conference of March 6, 2003. This was the president's first prime-time faceoff with reporters since a month after 9/11 and certain to be his last in what remained of peacetime. The former Andover cheerleader had failed to convince America's friends to come aboard. The economy was tanking. But the journalists at hand were so limply deferential to the president's boilerplate script that the subsequent, good-natured "Saturday Night Live" parody couldn't match the gallows humor of the actual event.
One reporter, April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks, asked, "Mr. President, as the nation is at odds over war, how is your faith guiding you?" — a God-given cue for Mr. Bush to once more cloak his moral arrogance in the verbal vestments of humble religiosity. "My faith sustains me because I pray daily," came the president's reply. "I pray for peace, April, I pray for peace." Far be it from Ms. Ryan to ask a follow-up question about why virtually every religious denomination in the country, including Mr. Bush's own, opposes the war. She might as well have been Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski), the sob sister reporter in Chicago, who tosses Roxie an image-burnishing softball at her press conference by asking, "Do you have any advice for young girls seeking to avoid a life of jazz and drink?"
At Mr. Bush's sedated show there were no raised voices, not a single query about homeland security or Osama bin Laden. As Billy Flynn says, one idea at a time is enough for the journalistic pack — in this case the administration's idée fixe of Iraq. And like their Chicago counterparts, the Washington press corps were more than willing to buy fictions if instructed to do so by the puppeteer. "Eight times [Mr. Bush] interchanged the war on Iraq with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001," wrote The New York Observer, "and eight times he was unchallenged." The unproven but constantly reiterated White House claim of a Qaeda-Saddam Hussein connection has now become a settled fact, not to be questioned at a press conference any more than any Chicago reporter challenges the mythical pregnancy Billy Flynn flogs in his propaganda campaign to save Roxie Hart.
The movie's press conference ends with Billy Flynn's message spreading from the servile reporters' lips directly to the next morning's paper: "THEY BOTH REACHED FOR THE GUN" is the banner headline we see rolling off the press. At Mr. Bush's press conference, under the guise of "news," CNN flashed the White House's chosen messages in repetitive rotation on the bottom of the screen while the event was still going on — "People of good will are hoping for peace" and " `My job is to protect America.' " No less obliging were the puppets at CNN's rival, Fox News, whose Greta Van Susteren sharply observed: "What I liked tonight was that in prime time he said to the American people, my job is to protect the American people." Though Mr. Bush usually appears on TV in front of White House backdrops stamped with the sound bite he wants to pummel into our brains, this time he didn't even have to bother. As he knew — and said, in his one moment of truth that night — the entire show was "scripted." It has been from the start.
That Chicago should catch the wave of an American moment in 2003 is remarkable when you consider that its roots go back to a Broadway play of 1926. Coolidge was in office when it had its premiere at the Music Box Theater under the direction of George Abbott — more than a year before the arrival of the most famous stage incarnation of Chicago city rooms, "The Front Page." Chicago was the first and only durable work by Maurine Watkins, a one-time Chicago Tribune reporter who had covered the Leopold-Loeb case and served as a movie critic. She was not enamored of her former profession. "They're awful dumb, reporters. Never get anything right," says the jail matron in a line that is paraphrased by Billy Flynn in Bill Condon's current screenplay.
When Watkins's play was reborn as a Bob Fosse musical on Broadway in 1975, it was seen as reflecting the cynicism of Watergate; the onstage band played a sardonic "Battle Hymn of the Republic" at the finale. When the musical was revived in 1996 — in the production still running on Broadway — Billy Flynn was identified with Johnnie Cochran and Roxie with O. J. Simpson. This year Miramax, the studio that produced the film Chicago, is trumpeting the movie's social relevance in one of the relentless commercials of its Oscar campaign. The movie is "all about American institutions being corrupt," says its director, Rob Marshall, as we see black-and-white photographs of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and of the disgraced Richard Nixon's departure from the White House.
That doesn't sound much like fun. But as concocted by Mr. Marshall, Chicago is nasty, clever fun. The director is a bit of a Billy Flynn in his own right. He has edited the movie within an inch of its life — or, more accurately, within an inch of Ms. Zellweger, Mr. Gere and Catherine Zeta-Jones's feet. You're never quite sure if the stars can really dance or if the dazzling montage is merely spinning the brilliant illusion that they can. But if the film is a "flimflam flummox," to quote its anthem, "Razzle Dazzle," that stylistic shell game could not be in more apt unison with the cynical content.
No one expected Chicago to become this big a hit (including me, though I've known two of its executive producers since they optioned a book of mine pre-"Chicago"). The movie's domestic box office is now double that of Moulin Rouge, the only other movie musical to fly in years, and, unlike that predecessor, Chicago didn't have to throw in David Bowie and Beck to entice the musical-phobic youthful demographic thought to spurn show tunes by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Young audiences have turned up anyway. Everyone has. The film has touched a nerve this year as no previous incarnation of Watkins's play (there were two previous film versions) ever did.
In a case of life imitating art imitating life, Chicago is even mirrored in the year's juiciest Oscar scandal. Miramax, no wiser for fielding a TV ad trumpeting the Watergate bona fides of "Chicago," was caught in its own Watergate last week by John Horn of The Los Angeles Times. He reported that a publicist for the studio was the real author of a widely promoted OpEd piece carrying the byline of the director Robert Wise, now 88, endorsing Martin Scorsese as best director for another Miramax nominee, "The Gangs of New York." In angry response, some Academy voters demanded their ballots back so they could cancel their Scorsese votes — a mission as doomed as the reballoting demanded by Palm Beach County's hapless Pat Buchanan voters. No matter: Mr. Scorsese has lost anyway, even if he wins. His would-be benefactor, Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, has made him look craven.
Such Oscar battles are welcome comic relief when set against the backdrop of a real-life war. Which is not to say that this year's Oscar nominees don't take war seriously. In Roman Polanski's World War II drama, The Pianist, a Nazi is moved to save a Jew's life after the Jew, starving and half-dead, plays an exquisite Chopin nocturne at the piano. This sentimental notion of art's transcendence über alles was echoed early last week in the vow by the Oscars' producer, Gil Cates, that the show (if not the red carpet) would go on tonight no matter what. After all, the Academy considered and rejected the notion of canceling in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Should Mr. Cates have reversed himself by now, he will have committed the cardinal Oscar sin of good taste.
It's hard to picture George W. Bush fretting about the fate of the Academy Awards, let alone seeing Chicago, but he knows his westerns. Last weekend Vice President Cheney spoke admiringly to Tim Russert of how the president "cuts to the chase." In the Azores last Sunday, Mr. Bush instructed his erstwhile allies to "show your cards when you're playing poker." On Monday night, he gave the Hussein gang 48 hours to get out of Dodge. In the days to come, we just may finally learn who is brought back dead or alive. © NY Times