Why Nightmare Alley Should Win Best Picture Oscar | Oscars 2022

ONEAt the time of writing, Nightmare Alley is the longest of long shots for the Oscars: it’s the complete outsider of bookmakers, and absolutely no one is tipping it. But just because it does not win the best picture Oscar, does not mean it should not. It’s a large, bram-free picture in the old style, crammed with heavyweight artists oozing class, and put together with seemingly effortless confidence by director Guillermo del Toro – who of course has pedigree at this level, having won this particular 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. Admittedly, Nightmare Alley is a less blatantly strange film, but like The Shape of Water, it has its roots in Hollywood’s past; a remake of a 1947 Tyrone Power film noir, one of those freaky bizarre kind of noirs, as opposed to the tight hat-and-gun type, or unhappy patsy head-over-heels in love type. Noir has not been a part of the serious Oscar conversation for years: Although the definition is quite resilient, and some might argue for the Joker, the last challenger 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 much more than an expensively dressed genre rehearsal: it’s one of those films whose indisputably ingenious acting elevates it to a level it might not otherwise have achieved. Sometimes one wonders what exactly Bradley Cooper is good at, but the answer is right here: behind the vanilla, the down-home charm is a performer of clever intelligence, giving his role as Stan Carlisle, a fairground- scammers trying and failing for the big con, a truly tragic dimension. Soft-spoken American leading men are quite often called the new Gary Cooper, but Cooper may have more in common with his predecessor than just a surname.

Factual Evil… Willem Dafoe, left, and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley.
Factual Evil… Willem Dafoe, left, and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley. Photo: AP

It is also fortunate that Del Toro has Cate Blanchett at hand, as the sleek analyst who guarantees Carlisle’s fake media play by giving him information about the wealthy types who hire him for readings. In the hands of a minor actor, the role may not be much to write home about, but as with everything Blanchett does, it’s super charged. The same is true of Rooney Mara, who has what would normally be a rather ungrateful task as Carlisle’s increasingly keen wife; the fact that Del Toro can install one of her caliber gives every corner of the film weight. Conversely, Willem Dafoe is largely at home as a nerd show operator: his lecture to Carlisle on how to capture his nerds is a masterclass in matter-of-fact ugliness.

At another time, Nightmare Alley would have a decent chance at the grand prize, yet it’s a bit of a mystery that none of its stars have been nominated for any of the actor awards. Probably it’s just too early in the noir revival cycle we can only hope is on its way.

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