Thursday, 4 March 2010

Performances of the Decade (Female)

You know me well enough by now to realise I’m not averse to honouring some of the more maligned performances if they work for me. It is (as they say) what it is, and when I like it – I like it. Still, it’s not like I think they’re bad otherwise I wouldn’t like them. Still, there are quite a few performances I like that haven’t caught on, but this is one of those that’s a head scratcher for me. I never can understand what’s not to like about this performance since it’s so obviously good. Isn’t it?
               
#12 Catherine Zeta Jones in Chicago (2002)
I don’t know what it is about the Supporting Actress Oscar but it seems to attract bitchy women; well not bitchy but definitely opinionated. Since Jolie’s psychotic patient we’ve had strong willed artists, strong willed drifters, strong willed actresses, strong willed human rights activists. With the exception of Jennifer Connelly – it’s been a long line of strong willed ladies and it’s not difficult to see the attraction. Who doesn’t love seeing an actress sink her teeth into a nice, juicy diva-esque role? The thing about these roles is that as much as you need to ascertain the almost theatrical behaviour of your character you need to fill in the edges and make the character ring true – and Catherine does.
                  
It begins with “All That Jazz” – acting in musicals is not about being a great singer. I’ll attest that, even if some will disagree, but having a good voice is not a throwaway either and Catherine has some amazing chops. The things is, unlike a recent singing Supporting Actress winner Catherine doesn’t sing, then act, and then sing again; she does it in tandem: which is why the performance works. Marshall and Condon do really take a gamble with Chicago because within twenty minutes so much goes down that it’s easy to miss it. We know Velma has murdered someone – the blood on her hands…we can fill in the blanks – and when the police enter the club during her performance I love the awareness on Catherine’s face as she notices them, which immediately segues into the line “No, I’m no one’s wife but oh I love my life”. Sure, it’s part of the song, but that look on Catherine’s face is an excellent acting moments. Right there, she’s filling in the blanks and we’re not even realising it yet. She still has much heavy lifting to do.
Heavy lifting like “Cell Block Tango”: a number that depends on her candour and her ability to showcase Velma’s ego and talents. I remember while listening to the DVD commentary Marshall remarked on how in touch with the character Catherine was. The moment in "Cell Block Tango" as she’s telling her story and she poses for the camera as the light bulb flashes. It’s almost an offhand moment, and also an improvised one. Still, it’s completely Velma: still the star even while playing the victim. She’s so caught up in her own game she’s unable to draw the line between the role and herself. It’s her crowning glory and it’s her crutch, and Catherine knows this. As despicable as Roxie is, can you really trust anything that Velma tells you? She’s a savvier diva than Ms. Hart, which is what makes her so dangerous.
I like Chicago a whole lot, you already know that. I’ve probably said it before, but my favourite moment in the film is probably the one that should work the least. As a scene being read “I Can’t Do It Alone” doesn’t really work with the film. It’s more performance than plot driven and could be excised without a glitch – just have the lines spoken – but when Catherine reaches that zenith of performance it’s all outstanding. It’s my favourite part of the film. The raw emotion packed into this number, the oozing sexuality mixed with the heightened desperation is pathetic and scintillating all at once, and it never feels phoned it. She’s never just singing, or just dancing, or even performing. She is being Velma Kelly. As she flutters through the courtroom, performs the (unfortunately) deleted Class and that final spoken moment, her reaction to the torn stocking – another moment that’s really not that *big*, but that’s the thing that makes me wonder how she’s become so underappreciated. She sells us the big moments, boy does she sell them. But when she needs to get subtle, when she needs to sell the want with her eyes Catherine delivers. It’s not just a good musical performance – or a good singing performance. This is a brilliant acting foray. Catherine Zeta Jones IS Velma Kelly. Say what you want, but I’m a believer.
But have at it? How does she measure up in your opinion? Excellent or passable?

10 comments:

Mike Lippert said...

"Catherine doesn’t sing, then act, and then sing again; she does it in tandem"

I think you answered your own question as to why this performance asn't quite caught on: she's such a constant whirlwind that it doesn't seem as if she's doing much acting, as opposed to Rene who, with this role was just getting out of her cutesy romcom comfort zone and showing that she had many more different notes in her. Catherine however fits more easily into her role: you never get the sense of acting as you do with Rene and therein I think lies the difference. I also love Rochard Gere in this movie and think his performance is also quite underrated. Good pick.

Luke said...

Shoot! Missed it. But this is an equal if not better choice than Nicole. I know, most bloggers would consider that blasphemy... :)

Jose said...

She is fabulous, it's a shame that she's done NOTHING since to prove this wasn't a one time thing.

anahita said...

she was wonderful in this - the sheer amount of energy she put into her role made it electrifying to watch. one thing, you say that with the exception of jennifer connelly, the supporting actresses recently have all been strong willed. I think she was definitely a strong willed character. sure, she may not have been a bitch but she fought with her husband against his condition and stood by him even when it was tough, and wouldn't let him give in. definitely strong willed, i would say xxx

Twister said...

Joe, I think you know how I feel about the performance, but look for my review of it on my blog.

Not only was her performance flawed as hell, but she beat out two gems.

joe burns said...

Well deserved win! I know some people hate it, but I love it?

Anja said...

I've never gotten it why people disliked her perfomance, for me she's one of the best in Chicago.

Caz- Lets Go To The Movies said...

Brilliant choice, this performance made me a Catherine fan and also a Chicago fan. From the moment she appears in All That Jazz to the very end she really does have you glued to the screen. "Keep your paws off my underwear" brilliant. You have to love a bitchy female character it really is a winning type.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

mike you're probably right. truth be told, i like renee fine...but no one compares to catherine.

luke no it's not blasphemy. i agree with you after all :)

jose nothing at all. she tried in intolerable cruelty, oceans 12, but nothing exceptional.

anahita i hate j.c. in a beautiful mind. don't ask why i just do ;)

twister hee hee. i know how you feel.

joe well deserved indeed, even if she's not my pick.

anja i agree

caz you DO have to love those bitch women.

Nigel said...

right you are, Catherine is Velma.

I really appreciated her dedication to the role.

One scene that she sold so well is when she comes to recruit Hart right after she's released. I like that glance she gives to Hart right when her tattered clothes are revealed.

She gives this cold, desperate expression but then she still holds on to her pride and dignity. Sure you pity her, but you still believe in the "diva" trapped inside her.