Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett starring in a movie together sounds like a Hollywood dream come true. Though, before you start conjuring up visions of Blanchett as a beautiful Renaissance queen and Cooper as her trusted advisor and secret lover, you should know that the film the pair is circling is directed by Guillermo del Toro of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water. And its title, Nightmare Alley, only starts to hint at the darkness of the subject mater.
According to Variety, Blanchett is currently in talks to portray one of the key female characters, while Cooper is already attached, having replaced a previously committed Leonardo DiCaprio.
Del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan are adapting the film from William Lindsay Gresham’s classic 1946 pulp novel of the same name, which concerns itself with the underbelly of carnival culture, the occult, and good old-fashioned scheming.
Without giving too much away, the novel uses the idea of a carnival’s geek show as a framing device. That’s not another name for “freak show,” but rather something truly next level depraved. Usually serving as an opening act, the geek show would involve a person standing on stage while live chickens were released around them. (Just jump to the next paragraph now if you’re easily grossed out.) The performer would then be tasked with chasing the chickens, biting their heads off, and swallowing them. The legend goes that carnival promoters usually found alcoholics or addicts to perform and paid them in booze or drugs. At first, they were allowed to fake things, but then the promoter threatened to cut off their supply if they didn’t complete the act for real.
In the film, Cooper is set to play Stanton Carlisle, who starts out as a slight-of-hand magic performer but trains to become a mentalist while working his way up through the circus. Eventually he meets the psychotherapist Lilith Ritter, whom Blanchett would reportedly play should she close the deal. As the noir tale’s primary femme fatale, she promptly seduces him under her control. Eventually they concoct a plan to scheme a rich man with an interest in the occult who desperately mourns a girlfriend who died during a back-alley abortion. The scheme backfires, and without spoiling too much more, the novel famously doesn’t end on a happy note.
Nightmare Alley has been adapted for the screen once before, in 1947, with Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, and Helen Walker starring. That version avoided from some of the book’s more depressing depravities, but was still considered a “brutal” watch by critics of the time. Del Toro’s version is said to stick even closer to the source material.
Neither actor has worked with del Toro previously, nor have they appeared together in a feature film. At one point, Cooper was rumored to be joining Blanchett in 2013’s Blue Jasmine but it didn’t come to fruition.
Though, Variety didn’t confirm the rumors, Collider passes along the whispers that Toni Colette, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlmen, and Willem Dafoe may also join the cast. Filming would reportedly start in early 2020.