Roxanne "Roxie" Hart: a criminal with heart of gold. Or should we say Hart of gold? Actually, we'll say neither, because we're not even sure she has a heart. What she does have is an insatiable drive for fame, and enough wit to know how manipulate people in order to reach the stardom she thinks she deserves.
Roxie lands in jail because she shoots her male-version-of-a-mistress, Fred Casely. Roxie shoots him for two reasons: he's a jerk, and she realizes he can't make her famous like he said she could. Huh: which do you think is the bigger reason she pulled the trigger?
Once Roxie lands in jail, she sees it as a land of opportunity. It's her shot to earn notoriety, and in Chicago, having your name in the papers is an invaluable form of social currency. So Roxie works it. And by "it," we mean the system and everyone in it, from rival performer Velma Kelly, to her gullible husband Amos, to the justice system and the press.
And she is a sensation. She successfully auctions all her belongs to pay her legal fees, and the public loves her. Even Mama Morton, the prison warden, gets herself a fashionable Roxie 'do. Hey, you can't spell "peroxide" without "Roxie."
Roxie ends up first achieving fame by a twist of fate, really. She doesn't kill Fred Casely to get famous, but she sees that she is becoming famous as a result, so she has to ride that crazy turn. As we said, she has wit, although maybe instead of "wit" we should describe it as, "she feels absolutely no remorse about lying and cheating her way to the top."
She gets Billy Flynn, an attorney with the same (lack of) moral values, and he coaches her, creating a persona for her. How many celebrities do you think act the way they do on TMZ the same way they act at home?
And she succeeds. Roxie is no dummy, and knows how to manipulate with the best of 'em. When Velma gives Roxie a box of caramels, Roxie retorts with "I'm watching my figure. You know, the trial." This shows two things: that Roxie knows how to manipulate public opinion… and how to insult Velma's figure.
But Roxie hides behind her peroxide locks and plays the classic dumb blonde. She tells the press, "I was a real dummy," but she's lying. She wants to seem dumb and innocent, with Billy the marionette pulling the strings.
But she has an uncanny ability to lie to the public and to her husband—like, for example, when she fakes being preggo. She doesn't just tell Amos the non-existent baby is his—she spins a whole story about really wanting it. She makes the non-existent bundle of joy her whole motive for the crime: "I wanted a real home and a child."
Sure, Amos is a sitting duck for any kind of nastiness Roxie wants to bring to the table. But Roxie doesn't always pick easy targets. She gets mad at Billy for manipulating her one too many times during the trial, telling him:
"I'm sick of everybody telling me what to do. And you treat me like dirt, you know that? You treat me like I'm some dumb, common criminal."
He delivers quite the burn in response:
"But you are some dumb, common criminal."
We disagree with the "dumb" part, although Roxie doesn't exactly know which battles to pick. One major problem she has is knowing when to keep her big mouth shut. When she lands one successful wisecrack, she thinks she can keep going, not realizing that she could quickly overstay her welcome. All the dramatic musical performances are in Roxie's imagination, so we know she has a high opinion of herself.
However, we do think she's a little justified in thinking that she's the cat's meow.
When Mama tells Roxie, "Killing Fred Casely was your act," Roxie responds, "That's a freak act! And besides, I am better than that." She might be right. Some celebrities are hacks, getting by on their scandal alone. But some actually have talent; they just need the scandal to boost themselves up the ladder, as Mama would say. Roxie falls into the latter category, so we think she might actually have a shot at success once the fame cools off. Maybe.
Even though Roxie doesn't really change throughout the movie—she's still focused on fame, she's still larger than life in her head—at least at the end of the movie, she has a legitimate shot at a career, which is something she totally lacked at the beginning.
Velma Kelly is a jazz singer with enough attitude to commit double murder and still kill it on stage minutes after washing the blood from her hands. Not only that, she has the guts and the talent to turn a duo into a solo and bring the house down. "Don't sweat it, I can do it alone," she says to the club owner after killing both her partners—her sister Veronica and her hubby. (They were, um, keeping it all in the family.)
But prison wears down Velma's resolve. In prison she has to depend on others—paying Mama to make phone calls and paying Billy to find her innocent at trial. Initially, she still has the rude, swollen headed attitude of a star too big for her britches… almost literally. When Roxie innocently asks Velma for advice after washing her delicates, Velma snarls at Roxie, "Keep your paws off my underwear." Yet she later has the gall to complain no one has class anymore. Talk about irony.
As Velma's career rapidly disintegrates, Roxie's takes off. Velma realizes she needs to hitch her rocket to Roxie's star, so as the bandleader announces, she performs "an act […] of desperation" practically pleading for Roxie to team up with her.
Roxie declines giving Velma the same attitude Velma gave her when she first got to prison, and then some:
"You're all washed up, and it's me they want now. And I'm a big star. Single. […] Oh, I almost forgot. You were in the paper today too. In the back. With the obituaries. Velma Kelly's trial has been postponed indefinitely. Ohh. Seven words. Wow."
She knows right where to hit Velma: in the celebrity.
Mama sympathizes with Velma:
"These days, you get a little success, and it's good riddance to the people who put you there."
Not that Velma had any direct involvement in Roxie's success… but Mama will sympathize with anyone for ten bucks.
But after Roxie's trial, and she and Velma are in the same place: nowhere. Both of them realize they "can't do it alone!" which is quite a change from Velma's cocky attitude at the beginning.
When both women are equally desperate, they team up. But we bet that as soon as their career takes off (if it does) they'll go solo faster than you can say "shooting star."
Billy Flynn is "the silver-tongued prince of the court room." This dude doesn't just think he's god's gift to women; he practically thinks he is the son of god. He's never lost a case for a woman (so maybe there is some divine intervention), but as far we can tell the only thing divine about Billy Flynn is his tap-dancing skills—and we mean tap-dancing literally and figuratively. His courtroom record has earned him the right to be cocky.
When Roxie first hears of Billy Flynn, she dreams of him as a singing savior, crooning, "I don't care about expensive things, cashmere coats, diamond rings, don't mean a thing. All I care about is love." But expensive things are pretty much all he cares about. The women are merely accessories on his road to fortune. Note in the song "All I Care About Is Love" his car made of women.
He even tells this to Roxie point blank later on:
"You mean just one thing to me. You call me when you got $5,000." She's a price tag, not a woman. Oh, and before you think that Billy is just sexist, we should tell you that Mr. Flynn is an equal opportunity offender. He treats men—like Amos—just as poorly as he treats women. (At least he's fair, right?)
Billy has no scruples about forging Roxie's diary to win her a "not guilty" verdict, either. He doesn't care about men, women, or justice. Take it from Velma Kelly: "Don't forget: Billy Flynn's number-one client is Billy Flynn."
It's the best piece of advice she gives Roxie, because it's the truth… which is a word we're not sure is in Billy Flynn's vocabulary. And he doesn't gain appreciation for truth or human rights over the course of the movie. He's simply $10,000 richer when the credits roll.
Matron Mama Morton is "the keeper of the keys. The countess of the clink. [And] the mistress of murderers' row." Yup: Mama is a prison warden who doubles as a talent agent.
For one thing, all phone calls have to go through Mama, and she charges a pretty penny for each ring. "Fifty bucks for a phone call!" Velma says. "You must get a lot of wrong numbers, Mama." But Velma pays. Everyone pays. In the prison system, prisoners have no choice but to do what the warden says.
Considering the sapphic double-entendres of Mama's song, "When You're Good to Mama," the way she flirts with the prisoners ("Aren't you the pretty one?" she says to Roxie) and the way Velma gives Mama a shoulder rub makes us wonder if money isn't the only thing exchanging hands here. These lines and scenes recall cheesy women's prison movies like Caged Heat.
Other than helping the girls out—if you can call it "help" when it's really a form of coercion—and providing some comic relief, Mama doesn't really have a storyline. Her biggest transformation comes when she gets Roxie's iconic haircut, irritating Velma who would much rather see Mama be #TeamVelma than #TeamRoxie.
Amos Hart is Roxie's poor gullible sadsack of a husband. Depending on when you ask her, he's either her "funny honey" who "follows 'round like some droopy-eyed pup" or a "scummy, crummy, dummy hubby of mine."
Considering Roxie is cheating on Amos before the movie begins, we see immediately where he rates in her eyes. And is he ever a doormat. He initially takes the fall for shooting Fred Casely in order to protect her. And even after he finds out she's an adulteress, he stands by her side. He helps pay for her trial and everything. His big song is "Mister Cellophane," in which he dresses as a hobo clown and complains about how no one notices him.
"You can look right through me, walk right by me, and never know I'm there."
The lights go out and slowly erase him, even though he gives the song his all. But no one in the audience even registers the performance, or applauds. This is Amos's moment of realization to divorce Roxie: "She probably won't even notice."
Roxie does notice, though… but only when she needs to win him back to win back the court of public opinion. She tricks him into thinking she's pregnant with his baby and that's the reason she shot Fred Casely. But both are lies. He finally leaves her in the end, not that he has any choice. She doesn't even want him back.
But the question remains, why does he stick by her? How does standing in Roxie's shadow so long benefit him at all? Billy always calls him "Andy" and even we barely remember who he is. We definitely don't know what's in it for him, but when Roxie sings, "He loves me so, and it all suits me fine," we know what's in it for her: total devotion.
Poor Katalin Helinski. We don't even know her name until she's put to death. The other prisoners only call this Hungarian woman "the Hunyak" and she only speaks three words of English:
"Unh-unh. Not guilty!"
Hmm. Make that two words of English.
The Hunyak does all of Velma's laundry "for a buck a week" but Roxie has no problem taking the duds to Velma and pocketing the cash.
That's far from the biggest injustice, though. The Hunyak is actually innocent, if the symbolism of the "Cell Block Tango" is to be believed—she is the only woman to display a white ribbon instead of a red one. Her whole portion of the song is in Hungarian, but, if translated to English, allegedly her lover killed her husband, not her. She may have committed adultery, but she isn't a murderer. [Source]
So why is she found guilty and hanged? Not speaking English is a big strike against her in America, plus she probably couldn't afford Billy Flynn's rich price tag. When she is hanged, Roxie imagines it as a "famous Hungarian disappearing act." In her fantasy, she disappears, but in reality, the noose snaps her neck.
It's a sad moment—maybe the only truly sad moment in the whole movie—and it also serves to snap Roxie back to reality. Only when the Hunyak hangs does Roxie realize her actions could have fatal consequences. "I'm scared," Roxie says to Billy, in one of her only moments of genuine fear. And she follows his advice from here on out, because she'll do anything to avoid the gallows.
Before she returned to the city of Chicago as Diane Lockhart on The Good Wife, Christine Baranski played Mary Sunshine, journalist of the Chicago Evening Star. (Maybe when newspapers stopped having evening editions, Ms. Sunshine had to find new work as an attorney.)
Mary Sunshine doesn't have much to do other than repeat everything Billy says. She's a mouthpiece for the slick attorney. But she serves more as a megaphone. She calls the Hart trial "the trial of the century" even though the century is barely three decades old.
And we have a feeling her newspaper has quite the slant when she declares, "To have your baby born in jail… my readers won't stand for it!" and then making the newspaper headline "Don't hang my baby!" Was journalism ever unbiased?
Roxie is cheating on her husband with hottie Fred Casely. He's a lying slimeball with a wife and five kids left to fend for themselves after Roxie plugs him. Not that anyone cares.
What we're mostly shown about Fred is his terrible attitude. Before Roxie shoots him, he admits that he never could have made her a star:
"Sugar, you were hot stuff. I woulda said anything to get a piece of that."
And then he pushes her. Eww, eww, eww.
Basically, as the "Cell Block Tango" says,
"If you'd have been there, if you'd have seen it […] you woulda done the same."
Because the movie doesn't show us anything nice about Fred, we can totally imagine that we woulda done the same.
We're not sure how Lucy Liu ended up in Chicago, especially since she only has one scene and no song. But what a scene it is! In a few short minutes, Liu, as Kitty Baxter, blows away her husband and the two—two!—women he's in bed with.
She's dragged to prison, where she apologizes (if you can call this an apology):
"Sure I'm sorry. Sorry I got caught."
She then kicks two photographers. One of them is listed in the credits as "Groin Reporter," so you can guess where she kicks him.
Kitty Baxter is basically the personification of everything the press loves—sex, murder, and scandal. Kitty's brief appearance causes the lights in Roxie's fantasy number to go out on her, making her desperate to regain her fame. So she fakes a pregnancy.
The bandleader is basically our narrator character. This being a musical, it's appropriate that the narrator is a bandleader, "leading" the action. Oh, and he's played by Taye Diggs, so he's the handsomest narrator in the history of narration.