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See the real live man who grew up in a carnival

  • >>Brooks Barnes, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-12-17 15:00:30 BdST

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For The New York Times reporter Brooks Barnes, “Nightmare Alley,” recalls a childhood spent working the circuit with his parents. Carnies like the World’s Smallest Woman welcomed him when cruel classmates didn’t. Zach Meyer/The New York Times

An old-time Ferris wheel, fully lit, turns against a sinister sky. The ride is part of a traveling carnival, seemingly set up in the middle of nowhere, and a storm is coming in the form of Stan Carlisle.

Is he man or beast?

Come closer and find out. As the sideshow barker shouts, his voice competing with rollicking carousel music, “Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!”

This is “Nightmare Alley,” a lavish noir thriller from Guillermo del Toro that arrives in theatres on Dec 17. Bradley Cooper plays the insatiable Stan, by turns damaged drifter, aw-shucks country boy, conniving killer, society charlatan, fast-disintegrating alcoholic and primal scream. The carnival cast includes Willem Dafoe as Clem, that rasping sideshow proprietor; Rooney Mara as sweet-hearted runaway Molly, who performs as the high-voltage Electrified Girl; and Toni Collette as the weary Madam Zeena, a phony fortune teller. The action eventually moves to the upper echelons of a city, where Cate Blanchett awaits in Art Deco splendor as the bone-chilling psychiatrist Dr Lilith Ritter.

Everyone is conning someone, some more treacherously than others. “The carnies know they’re carnies,” del Toro told me. “They don’t try to be anything else. It’s the people in the city who pretend they are judges and philanthropists and industrialists. True rot comes when you con yourself.”

For Searchlight Pictures, which has taken the top prize at four of the past eight Oscar ceremonies, including in 2018 for “The Shape of Water,” del Toro’s previous film, “Nightmare Alley” represents a breathtaking risk. It is an ultra-dark period movie that cost roughly $60 million to make, the most the studio has ever spent on a single film in its nearly 30-year history.

But for me, “Nightmare Alley” is something much different. Del Toro’s carnival is a vivid reminder, good and bad, of my childhood.

My parents were card-carrying carnies in the 1970s and ’80s. They owned concession trailers — corn dogs, cotton candy, caramel apples — and travelled with a carnival to fairs in the Midwest and Canada. An early scene in “Nightmare Alley” finds Molly, Stan and a few dozen other carnival workers eating breakfast at long tables set up under a tent. The greasy meals come from a trailer parked on one side — a “cook house” in carny slang. We owned one for a time. Ours had yellow “flicker” lights around the top. My eccentric father had a sign made for the roof that read, “Burger Palace: More than 2 Dozen Sold.”

There are certainly easier occupations. Mom worked until her hands quite literally bled. We lived in an RV, sometimes without electricity. For a long time, I thought it was a dream life. Hanging out in the turning fun-house tunnel! A wild cast of characters! All the snow cones I could eat!

People don’t quite know what to say when I mention my carny past. Some are fascinated, asking if I ever encountered sideshow performers. (Read on.) Some seem horrified, judging my parents for their disregard of child labour laws. (I was dipping corn dogs in the fourth grade, sometimes working alone while our adult employees took breaks.)

Others are puzzled, as if discovering for the first time that carnival life is real and not a Hollywood invention — a useful storytelling device for the occasional film (“Carny,” 1980) or television series (“Carnivàle,” 2003).

To clear one thing up: Carnivals and circuses are two different things. Circuses are single, controlled shows built around animals, clowns and trapeze artists: You sit and watch. Carnivals, in contrast, have rides like the Tilt-a-Whirl and games (pop the balloon, win a prize). Carnivals have an undercurrent of rebellion — and possibly nausea, depending on whether you ride the Zipper.

“The circus tried to preserve a feeling of grandeur and happiness while carnivals wore a dark side on their sleeve,” del Toro said, noting that he is a collector of carnival memorabilia and asking whether my parents were still on the road. (They fried their last dough in 2004 after 33 years.)

In “Nightmare Alley,” adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, Stan arrives at the carnival after a bus ride from somewhere, having done something awful to someone. He wanders the midway, captivated by the manufactured commotion, and meets some sideshow performers (“human oddities”) who take him in. Zeena provides a bath. Molly gives him sparks of the romantic variety. Pete, a kindly alcoholic played by David Strathairn, teaches him a mind-reading act.

“They can tell he’s on the run, but they say look, come into our family, whatever it is, we don’t care,” del Toro said.

The same was true for me. Outside the carnival — in Montana, where we lived in the offseason, and I went to school — I was an effeminate boy with a big perm (don’t ask) who hated sports and adored Whitney Houston. “Is it a boy or is it a girl?” a school photographer once asked a teacher within my earshot. When I signed up to lip-sync “How Will I Know” for the fifth-grade talent show, another teacher called me “unpleasantly abnormal” and sent me to the school psychologist. (Their loss. I would have killed it.)

To them, I was the sideshow freak.

Among the carnival crowd, it was the opposite. I was accepted, even celebrated. When I was still in grade school, my parents allowed me to roam alone when they were working, which was all the time. They knew that Slim, who ran the Ferris wheel, or Chief, the mustachioed merry-go-round operator with no teeth, or Ruby, a dwarf who performed as the World’s Smallest Woman, would drop everything and eviscerate anyone who messed with me.

“This really interesting melting pot of people — very insular, a society to itself — is one of the things that fascinates me about carnivals,” del Toro said. (For Blanchett, the appeal was different: “When I was young, I wanted to be a contortionist — you know, put your legs behind your head. To this day, magic tricks make me scream.”)

In the United States, a circus impresario, P.T. Barnum, popularised the often cruel exhibition of people with disabilities for the amusement of others — so-called freak shows or sideshows. As travelling carnivals proliferated in the 1920s and ’30s, growing out of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where the Ferris wheel made its debut, these acts were offered in tents (later trailers) set up along the midway.

Sideshows ultimately faded from carnival lineups, the result of ordinances prohibiting them and changing social mores — although some still exist, according to Marc Hartzman, author of “American Sideshow: An Encyclopedia of History’s Most Wondrous and Curiously Strange Performers.”

In “Nightmare Alley,” which takes place between 1939 and 1941, the Human Spider is based on an act del Toro saw at a carnival in Mexico around 1970. (He was about 6.) It involved a disturbing illusion with a person’s head appearing to be attached to the hairy legs of a colossal arachnid. “Even at that young age, I knew it was not a real spider body,” del Toro said. “But the juxtaposition of the human head — alive, talking to me — on that body scared me so much.”

My equivalent was the Snake Lady, who was exhibited inside a brown canvas tent. “Discovered alive in the Amazon!” a recording blared on a loop from a loudspeaker outside. The interior was lit by a lone red light bulb. An impossibly plump python body was coiled on top of a horizontal, waist-high platform. One end appeared to be attached to a woman’s head. (The rest of her was hidden under the platform.)

I met her a few times during her dinner break. Her name was Brandy. Once, she offered to teach me how to roll a joint. I was 9.

Part of “Nightmare Alley” involves a monstrous attraction known as a geek show that also existed in real life: A dishevelled man sits in a pit strewn with filthy straw and bites the heads off live chickens, appearing to drink their blood. In the film — as was often the case with actual geek shows — the man is a desperate alcoholic and addict who is rewarded with liquor and narcotics.

It’s hard to watch. Fortunately, I never saw one live.

The only other “Nightmare Alley” film adaptation, released in 1947 and starring Tyrone Power, tried to soften the geek components of Gresham’s novel. Even so, the reception was chilly. “This film traverses distasteful dramatic ground,” a critic for The New York Times wrote. (The picture has recently been reappraised by some as a captivating example of classic noir.)

Del Toro holds nothing back.

“To honour Gresham’s novel, especially that ending, we had to go all the way into the abyss,” he said.

In other words, don’t come looking for “Shape of Water” hopefulness. There isn’t any. Besides, del Toro added, the darkness of the source material aligned with his personal dismay over extremism in the current culture. “We have this appetite for being lifted out of reality even by the most impossible hucksterism,” he said. “We’re willing to be lied to and accept it.” Or as Blanchett put it, “It’s such an interesting examination of lies. The lies one tells oneself. The lies one tells in public.”

“Nightmare Alley” also lacks fantasy, a hallmark of del Toro’s work from the eyeballs-on-his-palms Pale Man in “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006) to the smoky ghosts of “Crimson Peak” (2015), not to mention the “Shape of Water” human-amphibian river god.

As J Miles Dale, who produced “Nightmare Alley” with del Toro and Cooper, explained, “This film is all naturalism. It really needed that vérité feel.”

To that end, the producers decided to build a carnival outdoors instead of on a soundstage, something del Toro called “a big, big, big decision.” Dale tracked down a 1917 Ferris wheel, a 1931 carousel and other period rides and signage.

They set up at a rural fairgrounds in Canada — after burying 1,000 feet of irrigation pipe in the dirt so that del Toro could have the right consistency of mud. (“That request woke the studio up, for sure,” Dale said.) They then had to abandon the set for more than six months because the pandemic halted production. By the time they returned, he added, “everything had become sort of gritty and aged, which was sort of perfect.”

Fair enough. I never met a carny with clean fingernails.

© 2021 The New York Times Company