He Said/She Said: ''Chicago'' or ''The Pianist''? Lisa Schwarzbaum and Owen Gleiberman take sides in a debate about Oscar's biggest prize

By Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum
March 20, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
He Said She Said Illustration by Eric Palma

”Chicago” vs. ”Pianist”: EW’s critics debate

Lisa Schwarzbaum
March 19, 2003 11:38 AM
Okay, Owen, this is it: the last chance for me to tell you — one more time! — why ”The Pianist” is more commanding and dynamic than you think, and for you to tell me one more time why ”Chicago” is more pointed and substantial than I think. Then we both kick around ”The Hours” together, tweaking its preciousness and its glum message that Women Suffer In Every Generation (so that actresses may win awards). And then we call it a day and prepare for our respective Oscar evenings. (You, per your usual regime, will happily be out at a party; I, per mine, will happily be home in my slippers.)

Before we do our thing, though, I thought I’d take the long view of the five candidates for Best Picture. And what strikes me is that each nominated movie, in its own way, reaches for a sense of the epic — five different contemporary versions of the epic, in fact. You’ve got old-fashioned storytelling on a mythic scale, of course, in ”The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” — the middle episode in a superb cinematic project I’m trusting will sweep up awards, as it should, when the final installment is released next winter. You’ve got a dramatically violent, anti-mythic depiction of one neighborhood in 19th-century New York City (in which, arguably, the modern American character was forged) in Martin Scorsese’s ambitious, hell-for-leather historical drama ”Gangs of New York.” Roman Polanski makes enormous historical horror vivid through the experience of one man against a background of 6 million others in ”The Pianist.” Taking its cue from ”Moulin Rouge,” ”Chicago” pumps up the movie-musical form to oversized proportions, emphasizing bigness and brashness and bedazzlement in every element from lighting to choreography to film editing — a story set in the 1920s, told for our era of collagen-lipped excess. And even ”The Hours” attempts a grand, unifying theme, attempting to bind generations of women (and the sons they damage) in a museum-quality portrait of misery.

Hmmm, interesting. I see now that in favoring ”The Pianist” as Best Picture among this quintet, I’m instinctively staying true to an aesthetic preference I mentioned last week when we were discussing the candidates for Best Actress: I tend to admire the quiet and the un-grand (which is why I love ”About Schmidt”) over the noisy and sumptuous.

Now’s your chance to ask me how I square that taste with my adoration of ”The Lord of the Rings.” Or about who designed the sweatshirt I’m going to wear on Oscar night. Or to come up with an epic Best Picture theory of your own, and lay it on me.