Every true cinema fan can name the movies that have caused them to feel transported, the ones elevating their life outside its often dire straits. Furthermore, every movie fan realizes the distinction between actors and the characters they play, and that appearances, especially in Hollywood, are deceiving. All of this is in encapsulated in Woody Allen’s 1985 comedy, The Purple Rose of Cairo, a loving (and ultimately realistic) tribute to the movies and the fantasy they build.
Cecilia’s (Mia Farrow) life is nothing to write home about. She’s one of countless Americans struggling through the Great Depression, and in her personal life she’s the punching bag for her unloving husband Monk (Danny Aiello). Her only source of refuge is the Jewel, her local movie house, where her favorite films and their stars take her away from the sadness of her life, if only for the duration of their runtime. While watching a romantic adventure, The Purple Rose of Cairo, ingenue character Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) becomes entranced by Cecilia and decides to leave the movie to get to know her! This puts the rest of the Purple Rose’s characters in a pickle. How will they continue the film without him?
Although Allen’s film was released earlier, this shares a lot in common with Pleasantville, the story of two 1990s teens who get stuck in a 1950s sitcom. Where the latter film reversed the immersion into a particular society, both films play on the distinction between fantasy and reality, the social mores of two clashing times, and how far our adoration goes towards elevating a particular entertainment medium. Cecilia is any average American, whether living in the Depression or not, who utilizes the movies for their escapism. As she yearns to get in, Tom Baxter is taken with her admiration and wants to get out.
For all the Hollywood flair Tom Baxter and the actor playing him, Gil Shepard (also Daniels) embodies, Cecilia is the star of both her own movie as well as the movie we’re watching. Tom wants to meet her because of her devotion to him, while Gil is drawn to her because she embodies a “real person.” Both characters want the reality she possesses and the love she has for them, although they turn it into a fantasy of what such reality looks like, just as she is taken in by their individual construction of fantasy. Practically all of Allen’s movies discuss the discrepancies between reality and fantasy, and yet he pays tribute to the fantasies that make reality bearable. This, Radio Days, and Midnight in Paris remain my favorite of Allen’s work because he plays on the fantasies of the past- whether real or imagined – and allows us to live their for a time while explaining to us why they would never work, or were never as perfect as we imagined.
But Allen certainly knows how to make celluloid look good! The movie within the movie, The Purple Rose of Cairo, is a perfect recreation of those frothy action/adventure romances Hollywood churned out; where characters spent their days sipping bubbly and their nights at the Copacabana. The actors assembled are seem ripped from a classic film, or their acting works enough to make you think that. Edward Herrmann, Van Johnson, and Zoe Caldwell are a few of the stars within The Purple Rose and give off that air that they’re in a 1930s screwball comedy. Herrmann’s diffident air gives off a George Brent-vibe, while Caldwell’s Countess could have been played by Dame Sybil Thorndike in a past life. The group on the screen steal several scenes as they take to attacking the audience – “If that’s your wife, she’s a tub of guts” – and generally giving up on any pretense of creating a movie after Tom leaves. The lovable African-American maid, one of the worst holdovers of classic cinema, even gets a chance to mingle with the group and complain about how she’s tired of waiting around for Tom to come back.
The scenes in “reality” are just as funny and charming as what Cecilia envisions the movies to be like. Tom is perfect for her, although he’s not real but “you can’t have everything” (Allen borrowing “nobody’s perfect?”). The two have a sweet romance but Tom can’t figure out why his money is no good and there’s no fade-out when the characters kiss. Much like the stars of Hollywood today, everything’s been taken care of for him, only here it’s because he’s a fictional creation. Allen infuses Baxter with humanity through the questioning of it. He wonders how God fits into his world, a world where someone wrote the scenario and created him. Furthermore, where does the actor begin and end when the character is what lives on? Gil Shepard is just as spoiled and pampered as Tom – and don’t you dare call either of them “minor” characters – but he’s the only one considered “villainous” for how his superb acting ends up duping Cecilia.
Michael Keaton was originally cast as Gil/Tom, but after ten days of shooting Allen found he wasn’t working and recast Daniels (himself a neophyte with only one role, Terms of Endearment, under his belt). No disrespect to Keaton, but Daniels works better. Daniels has that simple, green characterization in a nonthreatening form. When characters repeatedly fear that Tom, let loose in the world, could take to raping someone (“You know what they get for rape in a small town? Especially by a man in a pith helmet?) you laugh because Daniels is so nonthreatening. His chemistry with Farrow favors gentility over fierce passion, another element of the fantasy made real. When Cecilia and Tom kiss there may not be a fade-out but the moment holds its own type of poignancy nonetheless.
Twilight Time continues to release Woody Allen’s early work to Blu-ray, and as a novice to those films I’ve been swept away. Allen continues to lovingly pay tribute to popular entertainment in a way that’s fresh and zingy. Mia Farrow and Jeff Daniels are great. Allen took a lot of flack for not giving audiences the fantasy ending but that’s the point of The Purple Rose of Cairo: reality may have its flaws, but it helps you appreciate the fantasy all the more.