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WINDY CITY HOT AIR
By LOU LUMENICK
PHOTO "Chicago" creator Bob Fosse deserved an Oscar long ago.

February 12, 2003 -- BOB Fosse must be turning over in his grave. Rob Marshall's mediocre film adaptation of the late musical directing genius' 1975 stage hit, "Chicago," looks like a fait accompli for Best Picture after racking up 13 Oscar nominations yesterday.

Fosse's own two Best Picture candidates - vastly superior musicals - got snubbed on Oscar night.

True, "Cabaret" got gunned down by none other than "The Godfather" in 1972.

But Fosse's brilliantly autobiographical "All That Jazz" succumbed to the schmaltzy "Kramer vs. Kramer" in 1980.

But then, the motion picture academy has always had a tin ear where musicals were concerned.

Scan the 75-year-list of Best Picture winners and you won't see such landmarks as "42nd Street," "The Wizard of Oz" or "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

Nor will you see more recent gems like "Beauty and the Beast" and last year's "Moulin Rouge."

"Singin' in the Rain," generally regarded as the genre's high-water mark, wasn't even nominated.

Instead, Best Picture musicals tend to be lavish, dumbed-down, play-it-safe versions of Broadway hits - think "My Fair Lady," "Oliver!" and "The Sound of Music."

"Chicago" falls comfortably into this long and dubious tradition, including the lamentable practice of bringing in Hollywood stars with questionable singing and dancing credentials to replace the more talented Broadway originals.

Richard Gere's hoofing is so clumsy - even with massive editing - that even the academy couldn't look the other way and nominate him as Best Actor.

He follows in the footsteps of Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood, who replaced the leads in the screen versions of "My Fair Lady" and "West Side Story," respectively, only to have their singing dubbed.

Renee Zellweger snagged a Best Actress nod despite her amateur-night vocals, which she was brave enough to expose to public scrutiny.

In an ironic twist, Zellweger will likely lose to Nicole Kidman of "The Hours," who will triumph not only because she wears a fake nose - but because she got passed over for her bravura work in the musical "Moulin Rouge" last year.

"Moulin Rouge" was too challenging for the academy to embrace as Best Picture - but if it hadn't reinvigorated the genre, "Chicago" wouldn't be in the catbird seat today.

This take on "Chicago" may sound awfully cynical - but let's face it, movies don't get much more cynical than "Chicago," a musical about two murderesses whose lawyer manipulates the press and public.

The other murderess is played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose singing and dancing chops will almost certainly win her an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress - even though she clearly has a leading role.

Zeta-Jones is said to have requested the lesser category rather than Best Actress - where her odds of winning would have been far longer.

Talk about cynical.

Yes, bet the mortgage on "Chicago" - no other picture has a prayer of beating it.

"The Hours" and "The Pianist" are cold and depressing movies.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" can't win without a Best Director nod for Peter Jackson - the academy is holding its breath for next year's final installment of the trilogy.

And the botched epic "Gangs of New York" made it in strictly so the academy can give Martin Scorsese the Best Director Oscar he deserved for "Raging Bull" or "GoodFellas."

The old razzle-dazzle, indeed: Even Fosse might get a laugh out of that.

Llumenick@nypost.com


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