While not impossible, it is somewhat rare for a musical to win the Oscar for Best Picture. In fact, in the 85 years that the statuette has been given out, only 10 musicals have earned the distinction of being the best of the year. That’s a mere 11%. Of course, if we look back to the “golden age” of the Hollywood musical, we’ll find half of these musical Best Pictures were made in a single decade spanning from 1958 (and Gigi) to 1968 (with Oliver!), which includes a back-to-back win with My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965). Needless to say, since the end of this decade of musicals, we have rarely seen them take the top award, even though musicals are occasionally nominated. This week’s two films look at the most recent winner and one of the winners in the “decade of musicals.”
Length: 113 minutes / 1.88 hours
Even though there seem to be more and more categories each year, the fact that a single film can garner 13 nominations is still somewhat of an impressive feat. Now, whether or not the film can win all of these nominations and sweep the Oscars is the more impressive bit, but six wins, including Best Picture, is still very good. And yet, what’s most impressive about Chicago (2002) is that it had been 34 years since a musical had won Best Picture, a distinction that marked the end of the Hollywood musical era in 1968. Of course, as was the case with many of its musical predecessors, Chicago was based on a theatrical musical that did well on Broadway before heading to the big screen. Perhaps the fact that the musical has been tried on the stage first is what allows it to do well as a movie.
What’s nice about film over the stage is that there are certain limitations to live theatre. While I have seen many impressive set changes, it is still much simpler to film two separate scenes and splice them together in post-production. In Chicago, the musical numbers are often offset from the reality of the actors in order to show a sharp distinction between the two. After all, life in prison isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially if you’re a woman. While Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) are trying to get out of prison for murder, they’re also trying to get in and stay in the limelight, respectively. Media attention is high for these two until Kitty Baxter (Lucy Liu) enters the prison system with a triple homicide on her record. What will they do to direct the attention back to themselves?
West Side Story
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 152 minutes / 2.53 hours
Even though Chicago holds the most nominations for a musical at the Academy Awards, West Side Story holds the record for most wins with ten (it was nominated for 11 awards). Only three other films have earned more Oscars than West Side Story, albeit they were not musicals. This is perhaps why this film has been placed as high as #41 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 lists. Of course, as is the case with many musicals, the settings of the film version feel much more realistic than their Broadway counterparts. Now, whether or not gangs would sing and dance in the streets of New York City is up to interpretation. Needless to say, there’s a level of realism attained through the scale of such a production that cannot be reproduced on the stage. After all, in the era of Hollywood musicals, they really knew what they were doing.
Racial gang warfare in Manhattan is the backdrop for this adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. While Tony (Richard Beymer) helped found the gang known as the Jets, he has since removed himself from them and now works in a local store. The main rival of the Jets is the Sharks; a group of Puerto Rican immigrants headed by Bernardo (George Chakiris), whose sister Maria (Natalie Wood) runs into Tony at a dance. When the two meet, it’s love at first sight, and soon they’re going against the social norms and the resistance of their respective gangs in order to keep their love alive. Even though they get married in secret, the animosity between the two gangs grows until a full-on brawl is called to settle the score. Tony gets entangled in the fight and in an attempt to stop the violence just makes things worse. Can Tony and Maria ever be together happily ever after?
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 musical masterpieces