I’m now well into one of my Woody Allen DVD box sets which, apart from A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, doesn’t have a dud. These weeks revisiting the early to mid 1980s work from the prolific filmmaker are a joy, particularly when it comes to a jewel like The Purple Rose Of Cairo.
Set in Depression-era New Jersey, the title of the film is also the title of a film playing at a cinema where Cecilia (Mia Farrow) goes to escape her troubles. When one of this film’s characters, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) steps off the screen to be with Cecilia, all sorts of trouble begins from the purely romantic to the puzzlingly philosophical. When the actor who played Tom Baxter, Gil Shepherd (also Daniels), arrives in town to help restore order, Cecilia finds herself caught between two fantasy figures, and decides to go with the one who is real. In the end, Cecilia painfully learns that Hollywood endings don’t happen in real life, and her only solace is that there is a new movie from RKO playing at the cinema.
This is one of the very few films which Woody claims he is happy with, which he often explains means it is one of his few completed films that realised his original vision. It’s certainly one which most holds up to repeated viewings. For one thing, it’s short and tight, with no extraneous characters or scenes. One of the problems with many ‘high concept’ films like this is that a lot of screen time is given over to explaining how something happened and what the rules are. Here it’s clear in an instant that in the real world Tom only brings with him the experience of his character. As to why or how a character left a film, is is only stated that ‘anything can happen in New Jersey’.
I’ve seen this film a handful of times over the years and I always enjoy watching it for a couple of main reasons. The first is the ingenuity of the conceit of the film. While the gimmick of a character leaving a film and existing in the real world gives rise to several funny moments in the real world (such as that character wondering why there’s no fade out when kissing begins) it also gives the characters left on the screen plenty to talk and complain and joke about as their story can’t move forward. But the real masterstroke for me is the introduction of the actor. This not only raises the stakes for Cecilia, but it also adds another layer to the theme of the movie; the choice between fantasy and reality.
This is the other main reason I enjoy the film, for the philosophical questions it raises. ‘Gil Shepherd’, we find out, isn’t even the actor’s real name, which means that even in real life he’s playing a character. He’s as concerned with making a living as Cecilia is, except that in his case returning home without cash won’t get him beaten up by a drunken spouse. Woody seems to be telling us that reality, on any level, is tough. And he also seems to be telling us that it’s fine to escape into the worlds of the movies (Cecilia even gets to literally do just that) but we can’t live there. It is simply impossible.
Watching this film after Broadway Danny Rose, we are presented with another film set outside the usual talky and intelligent world of contemporary New York. Similarly, like that film, this film has real heart. It was noted by the studio bosses at the time that if Purple Rose had a happy ending it would have been a huge hit. Watching it today, without these commercial considerations, it seems perfect as it is. In fact a typically Hollywood ending would undermine the point of the film.
All the performances are great, especially Jeff Daniels in a duel role and Mia Farrow in her best yet for Woody. This film also introduces Dianne Wiest to his company. Musical collaborator Dick Hyman gets to provide an entire original score (a first for a Woody Allen movie since the early 70s) and Gordon Willis’s cinematography also plays a duel role capturing the drab life of rural 30s New Jersey as well as recreating the studio pictures of that time. The entire cast and crew is in service, however, of a script which is the real star, deftly balancing light escapism with unavoidable truths.
One final thought that occurred while re-watching this film; this is the first time a female character takes centre stage in a Woody Allen film, kicking off a tradition which will continue to Blue Jasmine. Actors and critics have often pointed out how well Woody writes for women. It’s also worth pointing out that he’s not afraid to give his male characters supporting and mostly unflattering roles, while at the same time never creating (to use a 1930s term) a ‘women’s picture’. Cecilia’s longing for a better life is universal.
For me, The Purple Rose of Cairo is a top tier Woody Allen film. As a treatise on the hidden perils of fantasy and the unavoidable nature of reality, not to mention one that is also highly imaginative and entertaining, it is worth watching even if you’re not a fan.
Next week: Hannah and Her Sisters