This article continues our Screenwriting 101 series, begun with Screenwriting 101 Aboard the Black Pearl.
As I wrote about seven weeks ago, Chicago is a stand out movie in a lot of ways. One of the most impressive tricks Chicago pulls off is so perfectly fitting the mold of a screenplay while being an adapted property. I’ve never seen the stage version of Chicago, so for all I know screenwriter Bill Condon (who has had an interesting and varied career, it seems) may have had an easy job of it. But it is striking while watching the first act how much subtle character work and plot he is able to convey, especially while competing with songs. His work is delicate and subversive while still strictly retaining the mold of an Act 1.
Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) is the star of the show, an easy to identify protagonist though the movie itself starts with her counterpart Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Rewatching the movie for the first time in years I was shocked how little screentime Velma actually occupies. After opening Act 1 she is almost entirely absent, operating on a “higher sphere” than Roxie, re-entering the story only after Roxie has started to gain notoriety.
Instead Act 1 is all about Roxie. Roxie is an interesting character because though she predates the popularization of the anti-hero on prestige drama television, she is the perfect prototype. Much like Walter White her flashes of lucidity are not when she is struggling against her evilness and or striving for the good still in her.
Roxie’s journey in Chicago is about her uncovering, like Walter White, that she had been wearing a mask for a number of years. They both discover that they were never particularly successful at being good because they are really good at being bad. Their true being is evil but successful, better, happier. Roxie’s journey is all about taking away the social pressure to fit into the mold of a good young lady, and instead revel in her inherent callousness. Roxie isn’t talented as a performer on the stage but she is an incredibly talented performer in real life, and Act 1 is about her realizing how to use that to her advantage instead of playing the part of lovely housewife.
What elements build an effective Act 1? We will discuss four: a hook, an inciting incident, page 17, and the first plot point.
The Hook: What should the hook accomplish? Like page 17, it’s more loosey goosey than the other two terms, but in my mind a hook should 1) bring us into the world of the story, 2) tell us what this story will be about. The hook in Chicago is an electric scene that draws us into the mindspace of the movie. Chicago is all about performance – specifically how it bleeds off the stage and into real life. Here we see Velma Kelly coming directly from a murder and jumping onto stage. And we meet our protagonist Roxie in the audience, envious of the performance and glamor she perceives. This is one of two times (the final moments of the film being the other) that we see the real world and the stage actually interacting – the rest of our performances are dream sequences. Here performance and reality are literally bumping up against each other.
I’d say the hook extends a little further, following Roxie as she begins her affair with Fred Casley. The first thing he tells her is a lie: “yeah I talked to the owner about you” he says half-heartedly as he rushes her out of the club. She buys it hook line and sinker because she doesn’t yet recognize life itself is a performance (this will be the lesson she’ll have to learn). That isn’t to say she isn’t already a “performer” herself. When a neighbor catches her and Fred having their affair on the staircase she lies easily and quickly: “this is my brother”. It’s not convincing, but she’ll soon find out that’s only because she’s not dedicated.
Inciting Incident: Which brings us right to the inciting incident. Thing happen fast in Chicago, and the end of the opening number jumps us ahead a month. Fred Casley has started to lose interest in Roxie, and admits he doesn’t know the owner of the club, that he’s a liar, and he’s going to break things off. So she shoots him dead.
The Inciting Incident is supposed to rock the protagonist’s world in a permanent dramatic way, and killing someone obviously does this for Roxie. And while on the textual level it works well (seriously, there is probably few more dramatic events) on a subtextual level in continues the themes laid out in the hook. She realizes Fred Casley was a liar, that his whole persona was a lie from top to bottom, and most importantly that lying came easy to him. That’s what she’s mad about – that she didn’t catch it. That’s what rocks her too. As mentioned above, she is a performer, playing the role of happy housewife. Now, perhaps for the first time, she realizes that other people can wear multiple masks too, and she’ll either be taken along for the ride or in charge of the ride. It’s no mistake that the very next scene sees her husband lying on her behest. Lying has, in this moment, become natural and easy, and casting herself and others in roles is something she has already begun to subconsciously accept.
Page 17: Page 17 or minute 17 is the moment in the film, often at the 17 minute mark, where the protagonists needs are first revealed to the audience. The famous example comes from Jurassic Park. Dr. Alan Grant doesn’t like kids, but one day he’ll need to. That’s the emotional journey set up in the minute 17 moment (probably when he gets stuck in the car with Hammond’s grandkids, if I were to wager a bet, or maybe as early as threatening the random kid on the dig with a velociraptor’s talon).
Chicago goes with an even smaller moment, but it’s a truly effective one. After Amos (John C. Rieley) turns Roxie in for murder she is hustled out of their apartment and into the street where she is greeted with the flash of cameras and reporters shouting at her. She is shocked, but you can see the glee on her face. This is her page 17. She realizes for the first time that real life events can be sensationalized – that she can be a star not for what she does on the stage, but what she does in real life.
Plot Point One: Finally, we move onto the end of Act One, where Roxie watches Mama (Queen Latifah) and Velma Kelly through a hole in the wall. Velma and Mama discuss Velma’s rising prospects, and Roxie puts together everything she learned in Act One. Her life has been sensationalized, and she can leverage that into a bigger and better deal if and only if she can figure out how to play the game properly. Her decision to pursue this option is what plunges her and the rest of the movie into Act Two, where she and Velma (and others) try to outperform each other not on the stage but in the tabloids and in the real world. Approaching Mama after Velma and her talk is a definitive action – Mama promises she can make her famous but only if she survives. We have our narrative thrust. Rosy has already done the thing that will make her famous, so she just has to crawl forward and maintain that fame – her performance in life has suddenly become very real to her, and leaving behind the dreams of the stage she instead applies those dreams to her real life.
Wedged between a series of songs (which also, certainly, promote the degradation between the world of performance and the “real world”) these moments do an enormous amount of work to establish what Roxie’s path will be. A closer breakdown of Act III would find most of these moments mirrored as Roxie leaves prison and attempts to apply the lessons she learned there to her real life (another good article anyone is free to steal because I’ve probably written more articles about Chicago than anyone wants to read). But for now, let’s all offer a round of applause to Chicago’s stellar Act One.