Twenty years ago, on July 20, 2001, a film that would become one of the most celebrated animated movies of all time hit theaters in Japan. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, titled Spirited Away in English, would leave an indelible mark on animation in the 21st century. The movie arrived at a time when animation was widely perceived as a genre solely for children, and when cultural differences often became barriers to the global distribution of animated works. Spirited Away shattered preconceived notions about the art form and also proved that, as a film created in Japanese with elements of Japanese folklore central to its core, it could resonate deeply with audiences around the world.
The story follows an ordinary 10-year-old girl, Chihiro, as she arrives at a deserted theme park that turns out to be a realm of gods and spirits. After an overeating incident leads her parents to turn into literal pigs, Chihiro must work in a bathhouse that serves otherworldly customers in order to survive and find a way to return home.
Imaginative and inspired, Spirited Away immerses the viewer in a fantastical world that at once astounds and alarms. Many of the deities are based on figures in Japanese folklore, and part of the Japanese title itself, kamikakushi, refers to the concept of disappearance from being taken away by gods. The story is also a tale of resilience and persistence, as Chihiro gradually draws on her inner strength to endure this land where humans are designed to perish.
In a 2001 interview with Animage, Miyazaki said he had an intended audience in mind for the film. “We have made [My Neighbor] Totoro, which was for small children, Laputa, in which a boy sets out on a journey, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, in which a teenager has to live with herself. We have not made a film for 10-year-old girls, who are in the first stage of their adolescence,” he said, as translated by Ryoko Toyama. “I wondered if I could make a movie in which they could be heroines.”
Spirited Away would go on to resonate far beyond its target demographic. Immediately upon release, the film broke the opening weekend record in Japan by earning $13.1 million over three days. It beat previous numbers set by another one of Miyazaki’s films, 1997’s Princess Mononoke. Spirited Away went on to become Japan’s highest-grossing film of all-time, and held the record for 19 years, surpassing $300 million at the local box office last year after the movie was re-released. (It was eclipsed soon after by Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train in December.) .
In the years following Spirited Away’s premiere, the film traveled widely as it was screened at international film festivals and released theatrically around the world. In 2020, it became available to even more audiences when it entered Netflix’s catalog in dozens of countries and joined HBO Max’s catalog in the U.S. when the platform launched with a Studio Ghibli collection. Two decades later, the story of Chihiro continues to reach new audiences, including through new formats: a stage adaptation of Spirited Away directed by John Caird (Les Misérables) and produced by the Japanese entertainment company Toho, which originally distributed the Miyazaki film in Japan, is set to premiere in 2022.
For its 20th anniversary, TIME looks back at Spirited Away’s historic path from Japanese blockbuster to Oscar winner, its U.S. release by Disney following a complicated history between Miyazaki and foreign distributors, and the film’s lasting impact on Japanese animation and beyond.
The significance of Spirited Away’s box office records and awards
Spirited Away raked in $234 million, overtaking Titanic to become Japan’s highest-grossing film. Its commercial success helped make animation “a very significant, legitimate film genre in Japan,” says Dr. Shiro Yoshioka, a lecturer in Japanese Studies at Newcastle University’s School of Modern Languages and author of the chapter “Heart of Japaneseness: History and Nostalgia in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away” in Japanese Visual Culture. He explains that its popularity had a compounding effect on that of another Studio Ghibli release from four years earlier. “Princess Mononoke was already successful and put animation on the map in Japan,” he says of the 1997 film that was Japan’s box office leader before being unseated by Titanic. “Until then, animation or anime was more like a niche genre,” Yoshioka explains
Dr. Rayna Denison, who wrote the chapter “The Global Markets for Anime: Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away” in Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts and is a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia, says that while Studio Ghibli films had been growing in Japan’s box office since Kiki’s Delivery Service was released in 1989, Spirited Away was able to reach blockbuster status—surpassing records previously set by movies like E.T. and Jurassic Park. “It’s a major shift in the local market proving that films from Japan could be the equivalent of, in blockbuster terms, big Hollywood movies,” Denison says.
International critical acclaim soon followed the film’s domestic commercial success. At the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival, Spirited Away was a co-recipient of the Golden Bear, the first animated feature to win the highest prize in the festival’s history. In 2003, Spirited Away was awarded Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards, becoming the first—and to this day, only—non-English-language movie to win the award.
“The fact that a non-Western, Japanese animated film would win major awards from two major Western sources was a very big shot in the arm to the Japanese animation industry,” says Dr. Susan Napier, author of Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art and a professor at Tufts University. There was also special significance to Spirited Away taking the Oscar win during only the second year after the Best Animated Feature category was created. (Shrek was the first movie to win the category.) “For so long, cartoons have been seen in the West—America in particular—as kind of childish, vulgar, things that you didn’t take seriously,” Napier explains. When Spirited Away took home the Academy Award, Napier says, “people were starting to say, wow, what’s all this about animation that it’s getting its own category, that it’s considered a real art form.”
According to Yoshioka, the Oscar win was hugely important for Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli and Japanese animation more broadly. “It made Japanese animation a more global film genre rather than very niche,” he explains, noting that animation was no longer perceived to be content strictly for otaku, a term often used to describe passionate fans of Japanese culture who heavily consume entertainment like anime and manga.
Disney’s partnership with Studio Ghibli and the complicated history behind it
A major component of Spirited Away’s global popularity was the partnership between Tokuma Shoten, then the parent company of Studio Ghibli, and Disney. Forged in 1996, the agreement gave Disney the home video rights to a handful of Studio Ghibli films in addition to the theatrical rights for distributing Princess Mononoke outside of Japan. Disney would later acquire the home video and theatrical rights to Spirited Away in North America.
But this partnership had a rocky history. Miyazaki was wary of foreign distribution for his films after the director’s 1984 movie Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was infamously edited by Manson International for its U.S. release. A full 22 minutes were cut from the original film, and it was promoted as Warriors of the Wind with posters featuring male characters who do not appear in the movie.
“The distributors edited the film in such a way that it’s become almost like a kind of children’s adventure story, there’s no nuance,” says Yoshioka, noting that the movie, which follows the heroine Nausicaä in a post-apocalyptic world, has a layered plot. “The assumption behind the editing was that American audiences wouldn’t understand the storyline, because in the States and in many Western countries, the assumption was that animation was for children.”
The heavy editing of Nausicaä was part of the reason why, when the U.S. release for Princess Mononoke was in the works, Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki sent Harvey Weinstein—who led Miramax, which was handling the film’s American distribution—a samurai sword with the note, “no cuts.” The movie hit U.S. theaters in its uncut form in 1999, but did not perform strongly at the box office—grossing $2.3 million for the initial release. Napier says it’s hard to pinpoint why the film didn’t quite catch on. “Maybe at that point people weren’t quite ready for it. It was another kind of dark film, it had an ambiguous ending,” she says. “It also doesn’t have a conventional good-versus-evil kind of plot which American audiences tend to expect.”
By the time of Spirited Away’s limited release in the States in 2002, Napier says that Disney was more familiar with Miyazaki as a brand. Another major difference from Princess Mononoke was that Pixar’s John Lasseter, who had long been a fan of the Japanese director, was at the helm of Spirited Away’s distribution and English adaptation efforts. “That kind of industrial support from people in America that were, at the time, very well respected in the animation world was really important to raising Miyazaki’s profile, raising the profile of Studio Ghibli,” Denison says. Lasseter and Disney boosted Spirited Away’s visibility in America by heavily campaigning for the film to be considered for the Academy Awards, including with a full-page advertisement in Variety. “They were very, very careful to push the film to the foreground to keep it in everybody’s minds,” she says. “And I think, in no small part, that’s one of the reasons it succeeded and won the Best Animated Feature.”
Drawing in $10 million, the film did not see huge success in U.S. theaters. But Yoshioka says that, in contrast to Princess Mononoke, it was the first Studio Ghibli movie to reach a broader American audience. It also attracted significant viewership beyond the U.S, grossing around $6 million in France, for instance, and more than $11 millio in South Korea.
How Spirited Away influenced animation
Spirited Away is not just the only non-English-language animated film to have won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, it’s also the only hand-drawn animated film to receive the honor. Nearly all of the other winners are computer-animated works. “Spirited Away comes at a time when there’s a big changeover happening in Japanese animation, and more and more people are using computers rather than traditional two-dimensional, cel-based animation,” Denison says, referring to the technique in which every frame is drawn by hand. The film incorporated computer animation, but sparingly.
“As a viewer, it’s very subtle and nicely done. It still looks like 2-D, more traditional film animation,” says Dr. Mari Nakamura, a lecturer of modern Japanese studies and international relations at Leiden University. “This is very characteristic of Japanese animation in general—how to have a good balance between 2-D and 3-D.” And while many studios have left behind two-dimensional animation over the decades, the style has remained core to Studio Ghibli’s style. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly last May, Studio Ghibli’s Suzuki talked about the hand-drawing process for Miyazaki’s upcoming film, How Do You Live? “We have 60 animators, but we are only able to come up with one minute of animation in a month,” he said. “That means 12 months a year, you get 12 minutes worth of movie.” It’s a painstaking process, but one that has undeniably shaped the singular animation aesthetic of Miyazaki films.
There is, indeed, plenty to think about in Spirited Away for audiences of all ages. Napier says that in addition to the aesthetic impact of the film, there has also been a psychological one. “This willingness to see children in a dark and scary world, the possibilities of children having to confront dark and scary things on their own,” Napier says, “A number of anime were already dealing with it before Spirited Away, but I think after that it becomes even more of an important motif in Japanese animation.”
She draws similarities between Spirited Away and Makoto Shinkai’s 2016 film Your Name—Japan’s fifth highest-grossing movie of all time—which tells the story of two high school students, one boy and one girl, mysteriously swapping bodies. “Both stories, although they’re very different, really are about young people confronting very strange, destabilized worlds,” Napier says. Like Chihiro, whose name is taken away by the sorceress Yubaba and becomes “Sen” as she begins work in the bathhouse, the characters Taki and Mitsuha in Your Name lose their identities through the body switches. Napier hypothesizes that these themes relating to uncertainty are connected to a dominant feeling in the 21st century of children being more on their own and feeling at a loss. “I think one reason why these films are so popular is that they do recognize and acknowledge that the world can be scary, and that we don’t always know what’s going to happen to us,” Napier adds.
Outside of Japan, Miyazaki has inspired filmmakers from Wes Anderson to Guillermo del Toro. In the case of the latter, Napier says that there are clear similarities between Spirited Away and del Toro’s 2006 live-action fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth. That movie’s main character, 10-year-old Ofelia, is taken to the countryside to a new home like Chihiro was. Napier describes a scene in Pan’s Labyrinth’s opening sequence, in which Ofelia gets out of the car and enters the forest, as a direct homage to Spirited Away. “She sees a kind of stone image that is so overtly similar to an early scene in Spirited Away when Chihiro confronts a stone image,” Napier explains.
And while not specific to Spirited Away, Pixar’s Lasseter—who directed films including Toy Story, Cars and A Bug’s Life and in 2018 left the company after allegations of sexual misconduct—has long spoken of his admiration for Miyazaki’s works. In Toy Story 3, the character of Totoro even makes a cameo as a plushie. Napier points to a later Pixar film that she thinks “really clearly shows influences from Spirited Away”: the 2015 movie Inside Out. “It’s about a young girl who is, as with Spirited Away, leaving her old home for a new one,” Napier says. “She’s being confronted by a variety of challenges and emotions.” Napier adds that it’s another example of a female protagonist carrying the film, something that has only become slightly more prevalent in the last decade after Pixar’s history of centering male protagonists.
Spirited Away embaced as a classic, 20 years later
As Denison puts it, “This is a film made by a master animator at the height of his powers and it is one where the quality of the animation really does set it apart from everything else around it. Nobody else was making films that looked like this or that were as inventive as this was at this time.”
To Yoshioka, one reason why Spirited Away continues to be adored two decades after its release is its ambiguous nature. “It’s not entirely clear when watching for the first time what the story is about,” he says, adding that earlier Miyazaki films often had clearer themes. Spirited Away can be interpreted in numerous ways by the viewer. “This sort of elastic or enigmatic feature is key for the film to be loved as a classic,” he says. In this way, even 20 years on, Spirited Away is a movie that can be watched and rewatched, pondered in solitude or mulled over in company, the film’s meticulously crafted and intricately designed visuals washing over you with each new viewing.
An Open letter to Vladimir Putin from Roger Waters
Recently I have been reading comments on social media, asking why I’ve written to Mrs Olena Zelenska but not Mr Vladimir Putin? Very good question, I’m glad you asked, here it is.
An open Letter to Vladimir Putin:
Dear President Putin, since The Russian Federation invaded Ukraine on February 24th this year I have tried to use my small influence to encourage a ceasefire and a diplomatic settlement that addresses the security needs of both Ukraine and The Russian Federation.
In that endeavor I have written two open letters to Mrs Olena Zelenska the the wife of the Ukrainian President. These letters are readily available on the internet. I am increasingly asked to write to you too, so here goes.
Firstly, would you like to see an end to this war? If you were to reply and say, “Yes please.” That would immediately make things a lot easier. If you were to come out and say, “Also the Russian Federation has no further territorial interest beyond the security of the Russian speaking populations of The Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk.”
That would help too.
I say this because, I know some people who think you want to overrun the whole of Europe, starting with Poland and the rest of the Baltic states.
If you do, f**k you, and we might as well all stop playing the desperately dangerous game of nuclear chicken that the hawks on both sides of the Atlantic seem so comfortable with, and have at it. Yup, just blow each other and the world to smithereens. The problem is, I have kids and grandkids, and so do most of my brothers and sisters all over the world and none of us would relish that outcome. So, please Mr Putin indulge me, and make us that assurance.
Alright back to the table, if I’ve read your previous speeches correctly, you would like to negotiate a state of neutrality for a sovereign neighboring Ukraine? Is that correct? Assuming such a peace could be negotiated it would have to include an absolutely binding agreement not to invade anyone ever again. I know, I know, the USA and NATO invade other sovereign countries at the drop of a hat, or for a few barrels of oil, but that doesn’t mean you should, your invasion of Ukraine took me completely by surprise, it was a heinous war of aggression, provoked or not.
When Mrs Zelenska replied to me via Twitter, I was very surprised and mightily moved, if you were to reply to me, I would mightily respect you for it, and take it as an honorable move in the right direction towards a sustainable peace.
Roger Waters is a musician
An Open letter to Mrs Olena Zelenska from Roger Waters
Dear Mrs Zelenska,
My heart bleeds for you and all the Ukrainian and Russian families, devastated by the terrible war in Ukraine. I’m in Kansas City, USA. Iread an article on BBC.com apparently taken from an interview you have already recorded for a program called Sunday with Laura Kuenssburg which broadcasted on the BBC on September 4th.
BBC.com quotes you as saying that if support for Ukraine is strong the crisis will be shorter. Hmmm? I guess that might depend on what you mean by “support for Ukraine?” If by “support for Ukraine,” you mean the West continuing to supply arms to the Kiev government’s armies, I fear you may be tragically mistaken. Throwing fuel, in the form of armaments, into a firefight, has never worked to shorten a war in the past, and it won’t work now, particularly because, in this case, most of the fuel is (a) being thrown into the fire from Washington DC, which is at a relatively safe distance from the conflagration, and (b) because the “fuel throwers” have already declared an interest in the war going on for as long as possible.
People like you and me actually want peace in Ukraine, don’t want the outcome to be that you have to fight to the last Ukrainian life – and possibly even, if the worst comes to the worst, to the last human life.
If we, instead, wish to achieve a different outcome we may have to seek a different route and that route may lie in your husband’s previously stated good intentions.
Yes, I mean the platform upon which he so laudably ran for the office of President of Ukraine, the platform upon which he won his historic landslide victory in the democratic election in 2019.
He stood on the election platform of the following promises.
To end the civil war in the East and bring peace to the Donbas and partial autonomy to Donetsk and Luhansk.
And to ratify and implement the rest of the body of the Minsk 2 agreements.
One can only assume that your husband’s electoral policies didn’t sit well with certain political factions in Kiev and that those factions persuaded your husband to diametrically change course ignoring the people’s mandate. Sadly, your old man agreed to those totalitarian, anti-democratic dismissals of the will of the Ukrainian people, and the forces of extreme nationalism that had lurked, malevolent, in the shadows, have, since then, ruled the Ukraine. They have, also since then, crossed any number of red lines that had been set out quite clearly over a number of years by your neighbors the Russian Federation and in consequence they, the extreme nationalists, have set your country on the path to this disastrous war.
I won’t go on.
If I’m wrong, please help me to understand how?
If I’m not wrong, please help me in my honest endeavors to persuade our leaders to stop the slaughter, the slaughter which serves only the interests of the ruling classes and extreme nationalists both here in the West, and in your beautiful country, at the expense of the rest of us ordinary people both here in the West, and in the Ukraine, and in fact ordinary people everywhere all over the world.
Might it not be better to demand the implementation of your husband’s election promises and put an end to this deadly war?
Roger Waters is a musician.
Bob Dylan Book on ‘Modern Song’ to Come Out in November
Bob Dylan has a new book coming out this fall, a collection of more than 60 essays about songs and songwriters he admires, from Stephen Foster to Elvis Costello.
The new book, “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” is his first release of new material since the acclaimed memoir “Chronicles, Volume One” was published in 2004. “The Philosophy of Modern Song” is scheduled for Nov. 8.
“He analyzes what he calls the trap of easy rhymes, breaks down how the addition of a single syllable can diminish a song, and even explains how bluegrass relates to heavy metal,” according to an announcement issued Tuesday by Simon & Schuster. “And while they (the essays) are ostensibly about music, they are really meditations and reflections on the human condition. Running throughout the book are nearly 150 carefully curated photos as well as a series of dream-like riffs that, taken together, resemble an epic poem.”
The 80-year-old singer-songwriter won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016 and has continued to tour and record, his most recent album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” was released in 2020.
Jennifer Hudson wins top honor at 53rd NAACP Image Awards
Jennifer Hudson was named entertainer of the year at the 53rd annual NAACP Image Awards that highlighted works by entertainers and writers of color.
After Hudson accepted the award Saturday night, the singer-actor thanked the NAACP for inspiring “little girls like me.” She beat out Regina King, Lil Nas X, Megan Thee Stallion and Tiffany Haddish.
“I was just standing here thinking ’It was here – the NAACP Awards – where I watched so many legends and icons that inspired me,” said the Oscar and Grammy winner. “Now, I’m standing here holding an award like this. It’s because of seeing the Arethas, the Patti LaBelles, the Halle Berrys, all these legends right here on this stand that inspired me.”
Hudson played her idol Aretha Franklin in the film “Respect.” She was summoned to meet with Franklin in 2007 to portray The Queen of Soul shortly after Hudson won an Oscar for “Dreamgirls.”
“Respect” follows Franklin from childhood through the 1972 recording of the gospel album “Amazing Grace.”
“This is for Ms. Franklin’s legacy,” Hudson said after she earlier won best actress.
The awards ceremony aired live on BET in Los Angeles with some talent appearing in person while others watched virtually. There was no in-person audience.
Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, were honored with the President’s Award. He showed gratitude to the NAACP for welcoming him into their community before he spoke about those in Ukraine impacted by the ongoing Russian invasion.
“We would like to acknowledge the people of Ukraine who urgently need our continued support as a global community,” said Prince Harry while standing next to his wife. The couple was recognized for their outreach efforts in the U.S. and around the world.
“It’s safe to say I come from a very different background than my incredible wife,” he said. “Yet, our lives were brought together for a reason. We share a commitment to a life of service, a responsibility to confront injustice and a belief for the most overlooked that are the most important to listen to.”
Both talked about inspiring the next generation of activists through the NAACP-Archewell Digital Civil Rights Award. It’s a newly created award that acknowledges leaders creating change within the social justice and technology realm to advance civil and human rights.
On Friday, the inaugural award was given to Dr. Safiya Noble, who Meghan called a “visionary.”
Samuel L. Jackson received the NAACP Chairman’s Award for his public service. The ceremony highlighted his acting achievements and activism including a moment when he was expelled from Morehouse College in 1969 for for locking board members in a building for two days in protest of the school’s curriculum and governance.
The video mentioned Jackson’s efforts to raise awareness toward cancer checkup for men and autism. It also spotlighted him and his wife, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who created a performing arts center at Spelman College.
Jackson quoted activist Marian Wright Edelman after he accepted his award.
“I was fortunate to grow up in a lot of different eras where I had the opportunity to use my voice and my legs and my body to fight for things that were right,” said the 73-year-old actor. He has appeared in more than 100 films including Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” and Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever.”
Jackson also starred in several other films such as “Do the Right Thing,” “Unbreakable,” “Snakes on a Plane,” and multiple Marvel films including “The Avengers” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
“We got it done,” he continued. “Right now, we still have things we need to do. The most important thing being the voting rights act. I know we can’t change that. But we can put our legs, our bodies and our voices to work to make sure that people do get out and vote – no matter what they do to keep us from doing it.”
The awards ceremony featured a performance by nine-time Grammy winner Mary J. Blige, who was a co-headliner at the Super Bowl halftime show this month. She performed her single “Good Morning Gorgeous” and “Love No Limit” from New York City’s Apollo Theater.
Anthony Anderson, who returned as the show’s host, won best actor in a comedy series. With his mother in attendance, the “black-ish” star screamed out “I told you I was going to win, Momma” before he ran on stage and chest bumped her.
“I would like to thank my momma for sleeping with my daddy and making me,” he jokingly said before turning serious. “I’m just a kid from Compton, California. If you dream and believe, anything is possible.”
Other top awards handed out include Will Smith who best actor for his role in “King Richard” and “The Harder They Fall,” which took home best film. Issa Rae won for best comedy series and Nikole Hannah-Jones was honored with the social justice impact award.
Sterling K. Brown shouted with joy when he won outstanding actor for a drama series. After Tiffany Haddish virtually presented him with the award, the “This Is Us” actor thanked the show’s network, NBC, before he joked about hanging out with Anderson’s mother.
“There’s way too many white people on my show for me to actually win this thing,” he said. “But I got to say ‘Thank you, Black people for voting for me. I really do appreciate it.’” AP
Three Members of K-pop BTS Diagnosed With Covid-19
Three members of the K-pop superstar group BTS have been infected with the coronavirus after returning from abroad, their management agency said.
RM and Jin were diagnosed with COVID-19 on Saturday evening, the Big Hit Music agency said in a statement. It earlier said another member, Suga, tested positive for the virus on Friday.
All three took their second jabs in August, the agency said.
The BTS is a seven-member boyband. The four other members are J-Hope, Jungkook, V and Jimin.
According to the agency, RM has exhibited no particular symptoms while Jin is showing mild symptoms including light fever and is undergoing self-treatment at home. The agency said Friday that Suga wasn’t exhibiting symptoms and was administering self-care at home in accordance with the guidelines of the health authorities.
RM had tested negative after returning from the United States earlier this month following his personal schedule there. But he was later diagnosed with the virus ahead of his scheduled release from self-quarantine, the agency said.
After returning to South Korea this month, Jin underwent PCR tests twice — upon arrival and later before his release from self-quarantine — and tested negative both times. But he had flu-like symptoms on Saturday afternoon before he took another PRC test that came back positive, the agency said. Media reports said he also traveled to the U.S.
Suga, who has had a number of personal engagements in the United States during the band’s official time off, was diagnosed with COVID-19 during quarantine after returning from the U.S., the agency said.
The agency said it’ll continue to provide support for the three members for their speedy recovery. It said it will cooperate with the requests and guidelines of the South Korean health authorities.
Since their debut in 2013, BTS has garnered global recognition for their self-produced music and activism, which includes giving a speech at the United Nations and publicly calling out anti-Asian racism. The band topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart three times in 2020, and was nominated for prominent music awards like Billboard Music Awards and MTV Video Music Awards. AP
Blanchett, del Toro on the femme fatale of ‘Nightmare Alley’
With a touch of Barbara Stanwyck, a sumptuous Art Deco office and a deadly shade of crimson lipstick, Cate Blanchett plays a femme fatale in Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” with cunning embrace and subversion of the film noir archetype.
If “Nightmare Alley” is del Toro’s lushly composed love letter to noir, the movie’s pulpy heart is in Blanchett’s conniving psychiatrist Lilith Ritter. She doesn’t enter the film until halfway through, when Bradley Cooper’s carnival huckster, Stan, catches her eye in his nightclub mind-reading act, and the two begin scheming together. But when she does turn up, Blanchett shifts the film’s fable-like frequency, conjuring deeper shades of mystery from the movie’s rich tapestry of shadow and fate.
“We tailored the part for her, but she fit in those clothes on the first try,” says del Toro.
In period films like “Carol,” “The Good German” and “The Aviator,” Blanchett has often evoked a classical kind of mid-century movie stardom. But in “Nightmare Alley,” an adaptation of the ’40s novel first made into Edmund Golding’s well-regarded 1947 film (currently streaming on the Criterion Channel), Blanchett slides into one of the movies’ most iconic types by trading less on her character’s seductiveness than on her razor-sharp intellect.
“What I thought was timely and dangerous about this story was it’s an exploration of the truth,” Blanchett said in an interview from Brighton, England. “Playing such a deliberately mysterious and ambiguous character I found really challenging because you have to know there’s a lot going on, but you’re never invited into exactly what she’s thinking.”
It’s one of two roles this December for Blanchett that revolve centrally around American deception and disinformation. There’s “Nightmare Alley,” currently in theaters, and Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up,” which arrives Friday on Netflix. In the latter, she plays a TV morning news anchor who cheerfully steers the news away from an impending asteroid doomsday and toward lighter subjects — like the sex appeal of Leonardo DiCaprio’s scientist.
There may be something timeless about Blanchett in “Nightmare Alley,” but to her, both films are characterized by their timeliness.
“It was such a privilege to be on a film set in this particular point in human history,” Blanchett says. “One should always be alive to the time in which what you’re making is going to be viewed. I never felt that more profoundly than making these two films.”
Blanchett and del Toro had discussed various projects for years but came together for the first time on “Nightmare Alley.” (She also voices a role in the director’s upcoming stop-motion animated “Pinocchio” — another film about truth telling.)
Del Toro, who calls his kinship with author James M. Cain “profound,” had long pined to pay tribute to noir. His affection for the genre runs deep. In his previous film, the best-picture Oscar-winner “The Shape of Water,” del Toro explicitly referenced Otto Preminger’s “Fallen Angel.” An avid collector, del Toro calls the portrait that hangs in Preminger’s “Laura” “the one prop I would kill to own.”
“I read all of (Raymond) Chandler right before I married,” says del Toro. “I’m not sure why.”
Del Toro scripted “Nightmare Alley” with film critic Kim Morgan, whom he wed earlier this year. His taste in noir leans toward seedy, rather than the more elegant varieties, and films that inhabit an audacious psychology.
“I like these characters, like Bette Davis in ‘Beyond the Forest,’ who are too smart for their environment,” he says. “I root for them not because I think they do things that are good but because I agree that they are left without recourse in what seems like a rigged game. That’s the noir that I find interesting.”
One touchstone for “Nightmare Alley” was 1949’s “Too Late for Tears,” a nasty noir starring Lizabeth Scott as a housewife who finds a bag full of cash. (Del Toro and Morgan screened it recently on TCM.) Tasting a chance for freedom from her husband and more, Scott’s character clings to the money. Del Toro and Morgan envisioned Lilith similarly as operating within a male-controlled society.
“Frankly, it’s the character I was completely passionate about creating with Cate,” he says. “She’s almost like an avenger. We said: Whatever happened to her in the past, she’s sort of righting the wrongs.”
To Blanchett, the term femme fatale suggests a diabolical woman — “like a siren seeking to draw the male character onto the rocks to destroy them for no reason apart from they have diabolical urges.”
Blanchett and del Toro instead played with subtle gradations in Lilith’s motives. Blanchett thought one line of dialogue was too straightforward, and del Toro agreed in cutting it. But he still quotes the speech a little ruefully: “Do you know what it is for a woman like me to grow up in a town where the smartest man is just a stupid beast?”
“Even though there’s nothing explicit that Lilith says about her background, there’s a sense that she’s damaged goods from the system, that she wants to burn down and she’s going to use Stan to do it,” says Blanchett. “Her faith in him and the men who run the system is nonexistent.”
Del Toro shot Blanchett’s scenes with Cooper, he says, like three 5-10-minute miniature plays. Inside Lilith’s ornate, wood-paneled office, the two con artists dance — a shifting drama told through blocking and camera movement. It’s a chess game that Lilith, inevitably, will win. AP
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