Wednesday, April 17

Why Nightmare Alley should win the best picture Oscar | oscars 2022

TOt the time of writing, Nightmare Alley is the longest of long shots for the Academy Award: it’s the complete outsider at the bookies, and absolutely no one is tipping it. But just because it won’t win the best picture Oscar doesn’t mean it shouldn’t. It’s a big, brash picture in the old style, stuffed with heavyweight performers oozing class, and put together with seemingly effortless aplomb by director Guillermo del Toro – who of course has pedigree at this level, having won this very award in 2018 with The Shape of Water.

Now, The Shape of Water was admittedly a bit lucky to win ahead of Dunkirk, Phantom Thread and Get Out, but perhaps its eccentricity and Creature from the Black Lagoon references made it distinctive. Certainly, Nightmare Alley is a less obviously odd film, but like The Shape of Water, it has its roots in Hollywood’s pulp past; a remake of a 1947 Tyrone Power film noir, one of the freaky bizarre kind of noirs, as opposed to the tightlipped hat-and-gun type, or hapless patsy head-over-heels in love type. Noir hasn’t been part of the serious Oscar conversation for years: while the definition is pretty elastic and some might argue for Joker, the last contender was probably LA Confidential in the mid-90s. So we can be grateful to Del Toro for this, if nothing else.

But Nightmare Alley is a lot more than an expensively dressed genre exercise: it’s one of those films whose undeniably brilliant acting raises it to a level it might not have achieved otherwise. Sometimes you wonder what exactly it is that Bradley Cooper is good for, but the answer is right here: behind the vanilla, down-home charm is a performer of astute intelligence, who gives his role of Stan Carlisle, a fairground scammer who tries and fails for the big con, a genuinely tragic dimension. Blandly handsome American leading men get called the new Gary Cooper fairly regularly, but Cooper may have more in common with his predecessor than just a surname.

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Matter-of-fact nastiness … Willem Dafoe, left, and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley. Photograph: AP

It’s also fortunate that Del Toro has Cate Blanchett on hand, as the slinky analyst who underwrites Carlisle’s fake medium play by feeding him information about the wealthy types who hire him for readings. In the hands of a lesser actor the role might not be much to write home about, but as with everything Blanchett does, it’s supercharged. The same is true of Rooney Mara, who has what would normally be a pretty thankless task as Carlisle’s increasingly put-upon wife; the fact that Del Toro can install someone of her caliber de ella gives every corner of the film heft. Willem Dafoe, conversely, is pretty much on home ground as the geek-show operator: his lecture from him to Carlisle on how he snags his geeks from him is a masterclass in matter-of-fact nastiness.

In another time, Nightmare Alley would have a proper shot at the big prize, but even so it’s a bit of a mystery that none of its stars are nominated for any of the acting awards. Presumably it’s just too early in the noir-revival cycle we can only hope is on its way.

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