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Chicago turns 19: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger’s musical was a satirical commentary on womanhood

As Chicago turns a year older, here’s a deep dive into the film which revived the status of musicals in Hollywood.

Shreya Paul
Dec 27, 2021
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“We Both Reached For The Gun”

“Stay away from jazz and liquor, and men who play for fun!“

Chicago, Rob Marshall’s 2002 musical broke the dry spell that musicals were unfortunately facing at the Oscars. After 1969’s Oliver!, the much-hyped film, managed to bag the Academy Award and place the status of musicals securely within the acceptable forms of commercial entertainment in Hollywood. 

Following in the footsteps of its most recent predecessor Moulin Rouge! [which released a year prior to Chicago], Marshall’s film celebrated the excesses of life – in terms of both his narrative and his filmmaking style. Nearly two decades after its release, it’s imperative to analyse what made the musical everyone’s favourite and had the critics both question the ‘true’ meaning of authentic acting on screen.

With Chicago, Marshall paved the way for not only burlesque entertainment, but also ensured that he knit a watertight tale of women’s emancipation. An incisive commentary on the American judicial system, Chicago soon became the mouthpiece through which you could punch up to privilege, question the power struggles that bureaucracies get unwittingly embroiled in, making the common man suffer.

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Following the notorious crimes of murderers Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the film charts the deviously charming defence attorney Billy Flynn’s (played by Richard Gere) skilful attempts at exonerating the women of their charges. 

Flynn’s strategy to achieve this seemingly difficult task is to play on his client’s naivete and showcase her as an innocent damsel in distress, who was forced towards such heinous crimes just as a means to combat the injustice of the society around her. Subverting the concept of feminism, Flynn played into the gender dynamics and extracted the most out of it.

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Both Hart and Kelly avenge themselves by murdering their male partners who were betraying them in one form or another. Their abject hatred for the men hardly undergoes any transformation. In fact, in a particularly cathartic scene in the film, Hart reiterates, “yeah I killed him and I would kill him again!” Neither women undergo any remorse for their actions, making the audience privy to the uselessness of their male counterparts. Hart’s lover and Kelly’s husband are insurmountably pathetic and hardly match up to the integrity that the women seamlessly have. 

The men’s actions then, are simply inexcusable. Marshall’s choice to pose such black and white objectivity in his narrative is a purposeful move. He makes his viewers privy to what the women face on a daily basis.

The Cell Block Tango track is especially insightful, with the piercing number enumerating each woman’s ill fate as they tried to navigate cheating partners and husbands. But what Marshall introduces is an element of delicious and sadistic pleasure that these women clearly extract from obliterating the male wrongdoers from their lives. The Cell Block Tango borders on the carnival-esque, almost pitting the women’s acts of crime with celebration or as ‘Mama’, the warden of the Cook County Jail, spells out, “in this town, murder is a form of entertainment.”

The very act of Hart and Kelly’s crimes are a mere conduit for them to capitalise on the obvious sensationalism it created. Their ‘rebellion’ perse is how they choose to refurbish their plight into something sellable, since they hope to utilise their past as currency for their future as actresses. 

Flynn fits in perfectly in this grand deception and helps the women achieve what they intend to. His attempts at showcasing Hart’s actions as self-defence instead of cold-blooded murder are crucial in stitching their false persona of the quintessential ‘good’ woman, who breached propriety only because she was compelled to.

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The reality was the stark opposite. Both Hart and Kelly (and by extension, Flynn) were playing on a specific form of femininity, that entailed portraying the “fairer sex” as hapless parties, plainly witnessing the wrongs in their lives and reacting to it. The lack of female agency (which is an unfortunate fact for most women), is actually a tool for Flynn who uses the point to establish how powerless his client is. He plays on the woman card and ensures Hart gains the prompt sympathy of the jurors.

Hart’s transgressions with Casely (who she ultimately murders) is portrayed as an act to combat the acute loneliness that crept up after her husband refused to accommodate her in his life. Immediately then, Hart’s position in society becomes clear. She’s just someone who is an unfortunate product of her circumstances.

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In fact, Hart is sacrosanct about her position of importance and feels insecure when a fellow inmate starts becoming others' centre of attention. Promptly, she declares that she is pregnant, faking a single mother’s tribulations, in order to gain further sympathy. Flynn insists that Hart embody the role of the ‘reformed sinner’, a woman desperately trying to turn a new leaf and make something of herself in society. She announces to the world that her unfulfilled desires include raising children, forging bonds with her loved ones and even washing her husband’s laundry! 

This immediately posits her as an ideal homemaker, a clear step away from the femme fatale that she actually is. Hart’s desperation to convince audiences of her fake alter ego keenly weaves a narrative of innocence and vulnerability, conforming to the set notions of gender roles assigned to her. However, in reality, she plays on her sexuality to reach her goal and manipulate the jurors.

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Chicago was a film that spoke of people mired in situations which they do a brilliant job of getting out of. The film was a satirical commentary on how people use their disadvantage and package it in a manner that plays to their convenience later. It’s also a hard-hitting narrative on the judicial loopholes that American courts experience on a daily basis, compromising the quality of judgements passed.

Watch the film here


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