Growing up, Woody Allen was a controversial subject in my household. My father disdained Allen’s obnoxious screen presence and inane subject matter, whereas my mother appreciated his comedic and romantic sensibilities. Of course, once Allen’s heart and its socially unconventional desires made their way into the tabloids in the early ‘90s, my mother, an avowed ethicist, pretty much relinquished her position and took up sides with the Woody haters. But throughout that time, and amidst all of the ever-fluctuating animosity towards him, a special asterisk always hung next to The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Cairo is the one movie it was okay to like — or, perhaps more accurately, it was the one that it was just too hard to deny. It’s the accepted “exception” for the people who dislike Woody Allen movies, and the go-to recommendation for anyone not sold on the Allen filmography and looking for something to change their mind. Partly because Woody Allen, who is understandably a polarizing figure on-screen, doesn’t appear in it, but mostly because The Purple Rose of Cairo is undeniably the most charming movie ever made by Allen, or perhaps anyone else. Although it’s miles from being his smartest, funniest or most innovative movie, it’s one that only the blackened hearts of Sauron or Hitler could truly dislike.
The Purple Rose of Cairo filters the surrealism of Luis Luis Buñuel and early silent comedies through the big-hearted, crowd-pleasing sensibilities of Frank Capra. Unlike the generalist Capra however, Allen sets his sights on more specific subject matter: the escapist and restorative power of movies.
The film is set in New Jersey during the Great Depression. First off, we meet Cecilia (Mia Farrow), who works in a busy, run-down diner. But it’s not a real-life diner, it’s a movie diner, with crashing plates, a gruff manager with a towel over his shoulder and a threat perpetually on the tip of his tongue, and tables full of irritated patrons shouting well-choreographed demands for eggs, toast or their check.
Elsewhere, we meet Cecilia’s husband Monk, played by Danny Aiello (patron saint of Italian-American rough-around-the-edges character actors). He abuses his wife, drinks away their money and cheats on her right under her nose. Monk is not so much a person as a villain in the tradition of simple, silent melodramas. For Cecilia, a kind and gentle woman trapped in terrible circumstances, Monk and the diner represent the romantic and economic hurdles for her to overcome.
The movie, at least at first, paints its world in incredibly broad strokes. I should point out that I’m not saying this as criticism — it is a deliberate, enchanting stylistic choice. It’s also an effective dramatic tool, as the whimsical tone of the film’s first act slowly and unexpectedly leads the viewer into the film’s more modern, ambiguous core.
Cecilia, a prototypical plucky heroine, escapes the dreary existence of her life by submerging herself in movies. She’s on a first-name basis with the staff of the town’s only movie theater and sees everything they play. Many times. The theater’s most recent film has her particularly transfixed — a romantic adventure movie called The Purple Rose of Cairo.
During one fateful screening, the movie’s handsome protagonist Tom Baxter (“Tom Baxter, of the Chicago Baxters. Poet, adventurer, explorer.”) spots Cecilia sitting alone in the audience and literally walks off the screen and introduces himself to her. This is the first point at which the film truly elevates itself, and reveals a deeper ambition. The plot detail itself is pure whimsy, but the way it plays out is witty and incredibly skillful.
Allen directs the scene so skillfully, in fact, that no matter how many times you may have seen the movie, the precise moment that it occurs somehow comes as a surprise. Cecilia watches the movie over and over again, and we watch her watch it each time. Tom Baxter (played by Jeff Daniels) has one particular line (about being “on the verge of a madcap Manhattan weekend”) that we hear so many times we start to memorize it. But then, one time, he delivers the line slightly differently. Baxter is distracted by something just off-screen. He sees Cecilia, sitting in the audience by herself, and steps down off the screen and into the audience and asks her why she keeps coming to see this movie over and over again.
The notion of fictional characters crossing over into “reality” was not a new concept, per se. Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. had a similar scene in which audience members seamlessly enter a movie that’s screening, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Blazing Saddles both featured jokes in which characters become aware that they’re in a movie. Allen himself pursued this subject matter thirteen years previously in Play It Again, Sam in which his character interacts with Casablanca’s Rick Blaine. But in 1985, this premise had never before received such narrative prominence or sensitive exploration.
The particular details of Tom Baxter’s screen departure is dealt with less as fantasy than in the surrealist tradition. Like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or even Eraserhead, the film’s science-defying elements are not received with the awed reverence that they deserve, but rather mundane acceptance. Some audience members bemoan the film’s unexpected, extra-dimensional twist, but others appreciate the surprise. Elsewhere, the film’s cast and producers are more concerned with potential lawsuits than their film’s physical impossibility.
In the movie’s funniest running joke, the remaining characters of The Purple Rose of Cairo remain onscreen and struggle to figure out what to do without their main character.
The Purple Rose of Cairo is almost entirely about the dissonance between the fantastical and the realistic, but that theme’s more serious implications don’t make themselves known until the end of the movie. Until then, Allen mostly exploits it for humor. The New Jersey of The Purple Rose of Cairo is not exactly the intricate, fully realized Manhattan of Manhattan, but it’s still filled with unpleasant and inconvenient details of real life that confound Tom Baxter, who’s used to living the same tightly-scripted 90 minutes over and over again. For one thing, he has to pay for things with real money. He also can’t figure out how to start a car (in his movie, he just gets in and drives away). And, most famously, he kisses Cecilia passionately, and then looks around wondering when the fade-out is going to happen.
Tom’s time in the outside world is primarily spent romancing Cecilia. This is ostensibly a fantasy story, so he is of course madly, irrevocably in love with her simply because she is who she is. Like any good romantic hero, he exists for no other reason than to make her happy. He whisks her away on romantic adventures, fights for her honor, and even invites her back into his movie for a whirlwind evening of revelry in a glamorized cinematic approximation of Manhattan.
Eventually, however, Tom Baxter has some competition in the form of Gil Shepard, the Hollywood actor who played Tom in the movie (also played by Jeff Daniels). He’s come to New Jersey to try and get Tom back onto the screen for good, fearing that his “creation” running freely in the world could ruin his career. Like Tom, he’s exciting, handsome, kind, and insatiably in love with Cecilia (he’s also a bit more nervous and self-interested, but then again, he’s also a real person).
Initially, the role of Tom Baxter/Gil Shepard was played by Michael Keaton, but he was replaced by Jeff Daniels a few days into shooting. Despite my reigning status as the world’s biggest fan of Michael Keaton, a man who improves everything he’s in, I have to admit that this was probably a good idea. Keaton is incredibly charismatic, and generally awesome, but he’s also nuanced and self-aware in a way that would have been a major liability in a performance reliant on oblivious sincerity. In Allen’s words, Michael Keaton was ultimately “too cool.”
Those familiar with the Jeff Daniels of today — the sardonic professor of The Squid and the Whale; the blind meth addict of Brick; one of Dumb and Dumber’s titular idiots — might accurately think of him as a subtle, complex actor with a broad range, and maybe just as problematic and distracting as Michael Keaton. But in 1985, when Keaton was still at the height of his coolness, Daniels was just a 29-year-old kid with a fresh face, a blonde head of hair and non-threatening good looks.
Meanwhile, Mia Farrow gives what is possibly her best performance. In pretty much every review since A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy I’ve inelegantly attempted to define her unique screen presence, and each time, her portrayal of Cecilia is essentially what I was trying to describe. She’s an almost overwhelmingly likable woman caught up in a miserable situation thanks, in part, to her well-meaning but questionable judgement. But despite all the cards stacked against her, she remains wide-eyed and optimistic. Her unrepentantly sunny optimism stands in stark contrast to Allen’s typically more dour and neurotic leading ladies.
The Purple Rose of Cairo famously concludes with an ending that is both shocking and intriguing. Cecilia is forced to choose between the two Jeff Danielses — and, in essence, she has to choose between real life and fantasy. In this particular situation, “reality” is represented by Gil Shepard, a handsome movie star who is so perfect he’s pretty close to fantasy himself, making him a seemingly obvious choice.
But what Cecilia fails to realize is that while fantasy is, by definition, all you could ever want and more, reality is deceptive and disappointing. We find out Gil Shepard never truly cared about her, but was just trying to get apart from Tom Baxter long enough so that Tom would go back on the screen and no longer pose a threat to his acting career. He’s back on a plane to Los Angeles without saying goodbye to Cecilia, who’s still naively waiting outside the movie theatre for him to show up.
The ending’s harshness is striking because it conflicts with the rest of the movie so dramatically. The Purple Rose of Cairo pays tribute to the simple-minded adventure movies of the ‘30s, and for a significant portion of the movie, seems to resemble them. The world it portrays is emotionally exaggerated, and Cecilia, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, seems destined to pull herself out of her misery with the strength of her kind heart and meet the romantic hero she’s been dreaming of. All signs point to a happy ending, but instead, what we get is the equivalent of Dorothy dying an unceremonious death at the hands of some flying monkeys.
The point Woody Allen set out to make is that life is disappointing and it’s foolish to expect anything from it. This is not exactly new — Manhattan and Stardust Memories were often bursting with despair — but this seems like a particularly cruel way to deliver such a dreary message. It’s sort of like telling a kid all year that he’ll “probably” get a puppy for Christmas, and asking him all kinds of questions about what kind of puppy he might like, and what kind of toys a puppy might like, and then on Christmas morning, giving him a card saying “if you thought you were actually gonna get a puppy, you’re a stupid fucking kid who doesn’t know anything.”
The film’s final final scene tells a slightly different story, though. That scene shows Cecilia, after turning her back on the man of her dreams only to be discarded without a second thought, watching the musical Top Hat in the movie theater. Despite all that’s happened, as Cecilia watches Fred Astaire sing “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” to Ginger Rogers, a smile slowly creeps across her face. Although drowned in the melodrama of the film’s final twist, I think this moment contains the movie’s real message: life will disappoint, but fantasy will always be there for you, even in your darkest hour.
Of course, Top Hat will presumably end at some point and Cecilia will go back to her impoverished, miserable existence. So maybe a more accurate description of this movie’s take-away message would be: great art will always have the power to temporarily distract you from how crappy your life is.
Rationalizing it, it’s difficult to put an altogether positive spin on the movie’s outlook. Yet, somehow, there’s a sense of warmth and wonder that pervades my notion of the movie. Maybe it’s because the gentle, optimistic moments resonate stronger and louder. Tom Baxter first walking off the screen, for example. Or Gil and Cecilia’s impromptu banjo duet. Or Cecilia’s giddy expression when she tells her sister about the movie she just saw. Woody Allen’s pushy reminder that life is a constant disappointment kind of gets suppressed and forgotten. Maybe because we, like Cecilia, would rather just drift off into fantasy.
- “Yes. My husband is a student of the human personality.”
“Oh yeah, well we’re not human.”
“It doesn’t matter to Harold. He has trouble with humans.”
- “I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week; otherwise, what’s life all about anyway?”
- In an interview, in the ‘90s, Woody Allen described the message of the movie as “life is ultimately disappointing.” In 2011’s Midnight In Paris, Owen Wilson uses almost that exact same line. Also, Wilson’s character in that movie is named “Gil” — the same name as Jeff Daniels’ character in this The Purple Rose of Cairo. The latter is likely a coincidence, although the former is probably not.
- Woody Allen frequently claims that this is one of his best movies. Or at least the one that most closely accomplished what he set out to do with it.
- Dianne Wiest makes her first of five appearances in Woody Allen movies as a prostitute who shatters Tom’s innocence.
- Of the 18 movies so far reviewed here, this is only the second one (after Interiors) in which Allen does not appear.
- Allen apparently promised Michael Keaton a make-up role in a later film after cutting him from this one, but that obviously never happened.
- This movie garnered a single Oscar nomination, for Best Original Screenplay. It fared better elsewhere, though: it won the BAFTA for Best Picture and Best Screenplay (with additional nominations for Best Actress and Best Special Effects), it won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Actor (all three in the “Musical/Comedy” category); it also won the “International Critics” prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
- While Googling this movie, I found out that there is a well-known show Pitbull named ‘Purple Rose of Cairo’.