One of the big question marks of the 2021 awards season was Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, a new adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel (there is also a 1947 film starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell) of the same name. Del Toro literally JUST finished the film, which means it will be a contender this year, throwing stars Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett into the Oscar race, and bringing Del Toro back following his Best Director/Best Picture wins in 2018 for The Shape of Water (it still bugs me that this incredibly weird yet lovely film is somehow treated as stereotypical Oscar bait, like, there’s FISH F-CKING, it’s the weirdest movie the Academy has voted for in a long time).
This is going to be an incredibly competitive awards season, given the backlog of 2020 stuff and the regularly scheduled 2021 stuff, but you can’t count out the combination of Del Toro, Coop, and Cate, especially working in a period noir piece about show business. Nightmare Alley, with no fish-men or ghosts or monsters of any kind, is much more typical Oscar fare than we’re used to seeing from Del Toro.
Which is the point of the first-look in Vanity Fair.
Del Toro goes to pains to emphasize this film isn’t what audiences expect from him, that it is not a ghost story or a monster movie, it’s just a noir set in the world of carnivals and con men. He name-checks Crimson Peak, one of his most infamous flops, as an example of audiences expecting one thing from him and getting something else—Crimson Peak was advertised as a horror movie, but it’s a melodramatic Gothic romance. (I have tried so hard over the years to make myself like Crimson Peak, but I just cannot get over how blatant and obvious the plot is. Heightened tone is one thing, telegraphing every single thing that happens well in advance is something else entirely.) Although the carnival setting is undoubtedly going to give Del Toro plenty of room to play with his dark fantasia style, there just won’t be any “real” magic or monsters or anything supernatural. Fine. Bring on the con man.
Said con man, Stan Carlisle, is played by Bradley Cooper, a carnival sideshow magician who learns the art of cold reading from the carnival’s mentalist, Zeena (Toni Collette), before striking out on his own. Rooney Mara will play his partner in the con, and Cate Blanchett the psychiatrist who attempts to expose him. The cast is outrageous, including Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Mary Steenburgen, Tim Blake Nelson, Richard Jenkins (Oscar nominated for The Shape of Water), Willem Dafoe, Jim Beaver, Holt McCallany, and Clifton Collins, Jr., who will be running his own awards campaign for Sundance hit Jockey (we’ll be talking more about Collins later this year). The cast, the craft, the period setting, Bradley Cooper still hungry for that first Oscar—we’re going to hear a lot about Nightmare Alley over the next several months.