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‘Chicago’ shouldn’t have won best picture in 2003. Here’s what should have

Catherine Zeta-Jones dances onstage in "Chicago."
Catherine Zeta-Jones stars in “Chicago.”
(Miramax Films)
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There’s a case to be made that Oscars should be awarded not a few months but a few years after the movies are released. Maybe even 20 years, so as to weed out the overpraised clunkers, elevate the overlooked gems and ensure that the winners truly stand the test of time.

With that in mind, on the 20th anniversary of the 2003 Oscars, Times columnist Glenn Whipp and film critic Justin Chang looked back at the top eight categories and had a spirited discussion of what should have won — and what should have been nominated.

Much about the 2003 ceremony has aged poorly — or worse. Two decades on, we break down a night that portended a Hollywood reckoning to come.

March 7, 2023

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Best picture

“Chicago” (winner)
“Gangs of New York”
“The Hours”
“The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”
“The Pianist”

CHANG: Given its three shocking wins for adapted screenplay, lead actor and director, it seems safe to say that “The Pianist” came much closer to unseating the heavily favored “Chicago” for best picture than anyone expected. And it absolutely should have — it was the best of the five nominees, with “The Two Towers” running a close second — though I might have felt differently had either Todd Haynes’ magnificent melodrama “Far From Heaven” or Hayao Miyazaki’s anime masterpiece “Spirited Away” been in the running.

WHIPP: Pedro Almodóvar earned nominations for writing and directing “Talk to Her,” a fearless and funny film about love and loneliness and need. It might be the best movie Almodóvar has made (don’t make me choose), which means it was most certainly the best movie of this particular year. A close second: Alfonso Cuarón’s summer road movie “Y Tu Mamá También,” a profane and emotionally charged portrait of adolescence, masculinity and a hidden Mexico. Of the nominees, I agree: “The Pianist” holds up the best.

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Directing

Pedro Almodóvar, “Talk to Her”
Stephen Daldry, “The Hours”
Rob Marshall, “Chicago”
Roman Polanski, “The Pianist” (winner)
Martin Scorsese, “Gangs of New York”

Geraldine Chaplin and Leonor Watling sit next to each other while looking forward in a scene from "Talk to Her."
Geraldine Chaplin as Katarina, left, and Leonor Watling as Alicia star in Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Her.”
(Miguel Bracho / Sony Pictures Entertainment)

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WHIPP: I’ve already made my case for Almodóvar. How has he never won for directing? (It’s a rhetorical question. It’s the Oscars.) Here’s another stunner: Haynes has never been nominated as a director. With its immaculate Technicolor-era Douglas Sirk trappings that serve the story and comment on the era and pay tribute to those great ‘50s Hollywood melodramas, “Far From Heaven” is a divine directorial achievement.

CHANG: Almodóvar may have been the race’s token international nominee, but his exquisitely crafted “Talk to Her” ensured he was also the worthiest of the lot. I’m right there with you on the ridiculously never-nominated Haynes, Glenn, and I’ll just add that he should have been joined in the directing category by Spike Lee (“25th Hour”), who, also ridiculously, had never yet been nominated for directing. What an oversight: His drama of post-9/11 New York remains one of the most politically urgent and emotionally wrenching films of his career.

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Lead actress

Salma Hayek, “Frida”
Nicole Kidman, “The Hours” (winner)
Diane Lane, “Unfaithful”
Julianne Moore, “Far From Heaven”
Renée Zellweger, “Chicago”

CHANG: Lane and Moore, this category’s MVPs, both played married women in the grip of forbidden desires. The raw immediacy of Lane’s performance is hard to pass over, but if I give Moore a slight edge, it’s because she conveys similar longing in such an achingly constrained, immaculately stylized Sirkian register. (Don’t worry: In this fantasy timeline, Kidman still wins her Oscar two years later for “Birth.”) But speaking of forbidden desires: Academy voters deserved razor blades under their fingernails for not nominating Isabelle Huppert’s terrifying all-timer of a turn in “The Piano Teacher.”

WHIPP: I have to sit this one out, as Kidman has become a dear friend over the years. Forty-eight hours after winning the Oscar, she was back on set, struggling with a difficult scene in “Birth,” a spellbinding thriller that has become something of a secret handshake for her most devoted fans. I’m not at all surprised, Justin, that you’re a member of the club.

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Lead actor

Adrien Brody, “The Pianist” (winner)
Nicolas Cage, “Adaptation”
Michael Caine, “The Quiet American”
Daniel Day-Lewis, “Gangs of New York”
Jack Nicholson, “About Schmidt”

Adrien Brody stars in Roman Polanski's "The Pianist."
(Guy Ferrandis / Focus Features)

WHIPP: Day-Lewis has already won three Oscars, so giving him a fourth for his ferocious knife-wielding sociopath in “Gangs” might be a bit much. (Might.) And he’s my second choice anyway, following Cage’s genius twin turn as self-loathing screenwriter “Charlie Kaufman” and his easygoing, boneheaded brother, Donald, who, of course, finds the success in Hollywood that eludes Charlie. Cage won an Oscar in 1996 for “Leaving Las Vegas,” so perhaps voters thought it was too soon to give him another. I can think of no other rational reason explaining why he didn’t win.

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CHANG: Talk about a Cage match! He was brilliant, but so was Brody, who can keep this win for his physically grueling yet powerfully subdued transformation in “The Pianist” — a rare and laudable instance of the academy honoring an entirely interior performance. Not so interior, but no less deserving, was Adam Sandler for being such a thrillingly volatile romantic lead in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” — arguably the Sandman’s first great performance, but certainly not his last.

We know, we know — deserve’s got nothing to do with it. But still, here are Times film critic Justin Chang’s personal favorites in 11 Oscar categories.

March 2, 2023

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Supporting actress

Kathy Bates, “About Schmidt”
Queen Latifah, “Chicago”
Julianne Moore, “The Hours”
Meryl Streep, “Adaptation”
Catherine Zeta-Jones, “Chicago” (winner)

WHIPP: Streep has already won three Oscars, so giving her a fourth ... wait ... I’m repeating myself. But, wow, her open-hearted, comic and altogether human portrayal of author Susan Orlean is right there with her career-best work. On the whole, I wouldn’t tinker with this perfectly fine list, and as Zeta-Jones powered the best picture winner, I can’t begrudge her the win.

CHANG: I pretty much agree with you, Glenn (hey, it happens). Streep gave one of her most inspired performances ever in “Adaptation” — a reminder that, for all her much-vaunted skills as a dramatic actor, she may be an even better comedian. Even so, who would want to rip away Zeta-Jones’ ferociously deserved win (and risk getting murdered, “Cell Block Tango”-style)? My only objection to this category is that it didn’t include Patricia Clarkson’s stiletto-sharp turn as Julianne Moore’s treacherous best friend in “Far From Heaven” — a wickedly funny, emotionally bruising performance that does the great Agnes Moorehead proud.

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Supporting actor

Chris Cooper, “Adaptation” (winner)
Ed Harris, “The Hours”
Paul Newman, “Road to Perdition”
John C. Reilly, “Chicago”
Christopher Walken, “Catch Me If You Can”

Nicholas Cage as twin brothers in a scene from "Adaptation."
Nicholas Cage plays twin brothers trying to write a new screenplay in Columbia Pictures’ “Adaptation.”
(Columbia Pictures)

CHANG: I’m going to continue my “Far From Heaven” standom, Glenn, and say that Dennis Quaid not getting nominated for his anguished, soul-lacerating performance as a 1950s closeted gay family man was this season’s most outrageous Oscar oversight. In his inexplicable absence, this race easily comes down to the two Chrises, and while I was as delighted as everyone else to see Cooper prevail, I’d have cast my ballot for Walken, the most moving element of “Catch Me If You Can” by far.

WHIPP: Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” earned decent reviews at its time of release, but its standing has increased tenfold over the last two decades. An urgent meditation on crime and punishment in New York (and perhaps the best film ever made about 9/11), it features a dream ensemble including Edward Norton in the lead role and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin and Brian Cox. Pepper and Hoffman could have easily been nominated here, with Hoffman getting bonus points for the number of different ways he screams “shut up!” at Adam Sandler in “Punch-Drunk Love.” As for who should have prevailed ... weirdo-mode Cooper, of course! I’m not going to take away the one Oscar this movie won.

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Original screenplay

Todd Haynes, “Far From Heaven”
Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan, “Gangs of New York”
Nia Vardalos, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”
Pedro Almodóvar, “Talk to Her” (winner)
Carlos Cuarón and Alfonso Cuarón, “Y Tu Mamá También”

Dennis Quaid touches Julianne Moore's chin in a scene from "Far From Heaven."
Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore star in Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven.”
(David Lee / Focus Features)

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CHANG: This was the rare year in which a non-English-language film won this prize — a milestone that would remain even if I reassigned this award to the Cuaróns for their joyous erotic comedy “Y Tu Mamá También.” But why stop there? One of 2002’s best-written movies was “Late Marriage,” a scalding piece of work from Israeli writer-director Dover Kosashvili; submitted but not nominated for the foreign-language film Oscar, it more than merited consideration here as well.

WHIPP: So if Almodóvar wins for director, can I gift this Oscar to Haynes so he can have one too? I’d love to make room for “Frailty,” a psychological horror film written by Brent Hanley and directed by Bill Paxton, who also stars as the loving father who enlists his two young sons to help him follow God’s orders and murder the victims he brings home. It’s chilling and nervy in its examination of religious fanaticism — and also the only feature screenplay Hanley ever had produced.

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Adapted screenplay

Peter Hedges, Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz, “About a Boy”
Charlie Kaufman, “Adaptation”
Bill Condon, “Chicago”
David Hare, “The Hours”
Ronald Harwood, “The Pianist” (winner)

WHIPP: Boy, I’m going dark in these writing categories ... but David Cronenberg’s “Spider” ranks as one of the more underappreciated movies of this great filmmaker’s career. Patrick McGrath adapted his own novel, bringing an acute and sensitive understanding of trauma to this story of a mentally ill man (a superb Ralph Fiennes) leaving a mental institution after 20 years of confinement. I’d have given the Oscar to “Adaptation,” of course, though I do take heart that Kaufman won two years later for co-writing the even-better “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

CHANG: I remember rooting for “About a Boy” at the time, but 20 years later, it feels wrong that a movie actually called “Adaptation” — even one less ingenious than Charlie Kaufman’s meta-comic tour de force — failed to win the adapted screenplay prize. As far as what else should’ve been nominated: Since you’ve already spoken up for Cronenberg’s eminently worthy “Spider,” Glenn, I’ll bang the drum once more for “25th Hour,” superbly adapted by David Benioff from his own 2001 novel. It was Benioff’s first feature script — he would write several more, including “Troy” and “The Kite Runner,” before going on to create a little show called “Game of Thrones” — and it remains, dare I say, his best.

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