Two-time Academy Award® winner, Cate Blanchett has played multiple real-life icons including Katharine Hepburn, Queen Elizabeth, and even Bob Dylan. In Guillermo del Toro’s noir Nightmare Alley, she pulls off a sleight of hand, channeling a classical, “Golden Age of Hollywood” energy as the film’s frostily seductive femme fatale and then turning that trope on its head. Blanchett is Dr. Lilith Ritter, a sharp-as-nails Freudian psychoanalyst who sizes up Stanton (Bradley Cooper) quickly as a broken psyche beneath his suave act, but also as a very dangerous man she has the game to outmaneuver and take down for good.
Blanchett sees the story as a cautionary tale, one as class conscious as it is attuned to psychological demons, and one very much about how contempt and dread can obliterate all, even love. “(The movie) is about fear, about greed, and it’s about manipulation. It has all the dark underpinnings of what seems to be a very polite society. The world of the carnival might have some trickery and deceit, but it has the beating heart of a true community. It is the high society in this film that is far more threatening and terrifying.”
“Stanton and Lilith’s clash is epic,” says del Toro. Adds Dale, “Lilith has her own dark past that she’s trying to avenge and she’s very smart. It was really like a battle of the titans watching Cate and Bradley working together as two equally brilliant manipulators.” Blanchett sees Lilith as the last in the continuum of women who each make their mark on Stanton. “Nightmare Alley is a trip into a dark night of the soul. But in that darkness, there are three beacons of truth in three different women he meets – Molly, Zeena, and Lilith,” she observes.
She wanted to play up Lilith as an enigma, one Stanton can’t solve, despite his studies of human nature. “Both Guillermo and I wanted Lilith to be unknowable and mysterious. At the same time, Guillermo was looking for those little perforations where you might see through Lilith’s many layers to what lies beneath – both physically and psychologically.” That opened a lot of possibilities. “The process of playing Lilith was that every day we’d discover a new, deep, frightening secret,” Blanchett says. “There’s a lot of damage behind what seems to be a calm pristine exterior.”
Like Cooper, Blanchett started at the root level of Lilith’s voice, the voice that pokes into Stanton’s dark corners as he lies on her couch. “I wanted it to be a voice that could go inside his brain. Like a demonic Jiminy Cricket, a noir Jiminy Cricket,” she muses. Blanchett notes that the fascination between Dr. Ritter and Stanton is not only sexual, though the chemical attraction is palpable. There is also a sense of recognition. “She’s a lone wolf and that’s where she and Stan connect. They are both running from the past, and they can see a similarity between them.”
She continues, “Lilith is also someone who’s interested in both the practical and mystical sides of psychoanalysis, so that’s part of why Stanton intrigues her. She’s trying to work out what makes him tick as she’s a bit of a shaman herself. Their entire relationship takes place in her office, so we thought about that set as being not just a physical space but a psychological space.” Passion and vengeance are among the unpredictable emotions that arise in that space. “In a way, Lilith’s office is where Stan is finally vulnerable. There are a lot of destructive urges in Stan that have a parallel in Lilith. It’s a manipulative, deceitful dance between them…and these things rarely end well.”
Working with del Toro for the first time, Blanchett found his openness enlivening. “The wonderful thing about working with Guillermo is, as he says, that he likes being right, but he loves being wrong. He’s really alive to the suggestions that actors make, and it’s quite an exciting way to work. We were always going for that extra level of detail. And the conversations I had with Guillermo kept getting deeper and deeper, like a constant investigation.”
Nightmare Alley available on Blu-ray, DVD, 4K Ultra HD and Digital starting March 8th.
— Ghalib Dhalla