The Purple Rose of Cairo: A Masterpiece of Fantasy and Reality

We look at the Woody Allen film that found the line between fiction and reality, and forbade crossing it.

Often when stepping into a Woody Allen movie, you have certain preconceived notions about what to expect. There will almost certainly be several anxious and witty characters that have great comic timing in all things related to self-deprecation and sex. One of these lovable neurotics will also be a male lead in a plaid shirt who, depending on the decade, Woody himself will play. And of course, this loquacious malcontent will be surrounded by charming postcard-perfect Manhattan streets or delightful European gardens, and between all the wisecracks charged to the expense account of pseudo-intellectuals, as well as nudges to fellow Ingmar Bergman fans, there will at last be an inescapable melancholy about the finality of life that all people must face, particularly Woody.

This perfectly marvelous style has given us more than a few classics over the last 40 years, but it’s also what makes The Purple Rose of Cairo such a uniquely satisfying affair. As one of Woody’s very best films, Purple Rose is also regularly overlooked for its differences from the majority of Allen’s catalogue. By eschewing what had become expected of his films, the idiosyncratic voice from Coney Island crafted something truly exceptional: an articulation about the bridge between reality and fiction, and why that enticing structure must always be admired, if never crossed. In many ways, it is Allen’s love letter to the power of motion pictures, as well as his lament about how they’re never quite good enough. 

As the story of what happens when a character from a movie steps out of the silver screen to make a day of it with his most devoted patron, The Purple Rose of Cairo is remembered for its brilliant use of magical realism to tell the love story of a woman and her favorite movie. Like Mia Farrow modestly quips about this romance, “I just met a wonderful new man; he’s fictional, but you can’t have everything.” The brilliance of this deceptively harmless daydream is the juxtaposition with which it is contrasted. Indeed, The Purple Rose of Cairo’s subtler magic comes not from celluloid-defying explorers, but from a series of comparisons.

The first of these implicit contours is that other than Interiors, a Swedish flavored family drama of tragic proportions, Allen had appeared in every single one of his directorial efforts since 1969’s Take the Money and Run. But despite being marketed as a light comedy, the second shot of 1985’s Purple Rose is the strikingly muted close-up of Mia Farrow as Cecilia, a “fetching” woman who has within moments expressed that she’s been little more than a retriever all her life. This point is made manifest through her wordless fawning over the poster for “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” the film-within-a-film comedy that she has already fallen head over heels in love with.

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Quite knowingly, Allen is playing to one of his greatest strengths by beginning his movie with a layered, complicated performance from one of his leading ladies—being 1985, this means Mia Farrow—at the square center of the shot. But this time there will be no bemused and awkwardly appealing narcissist to share the screen with her. This is most assuredly Farrow’s movie, and she already has us ensnared into her performance by evoking the same curiosity from her audience that her character is bestowing on a hastily drawn piece of movie art.

The reason for her adoration, and the other contrast that drives the movie just as much as the fantasy elements, is the setting. During the 1930s, the United States endured the hardships of a Great Depression from which there were few escapes out of daily misery other than film. And to combat the feeling of gloom for a populace where more than one in five moviegoers were jobless (as well as soothe anxious whispers of social upheaval), Hollywood produced a bevy of their most opulent and joyous fantasies ever produced. On the big screen, the good times never ended. In fact, there was no other alternative to these happy days for screen characters to even ponder.

Considered the birth of the first Golden Age in Hollywood, always at the center of these cinematic fantasias were New York socialites and high society song-and-dance men whose biggest woes were how to woo Ginger Rogers or other one-time “gold diggers” off the Warner Bros. and RKO back lots. Perhaps most fondly remembered of these celluloid escapes was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ Top Hat, a 1935 classic that features possibly the legendary pair’s best dance sequence (though my money is still on Swing Time in that regard), as well as a light, frivolous confection about two American neighbors on holiday in London who, after a misunderstanding, make up by singing and dancing their way to a wedding altar in Venice.

As directed by Mark Sandrich, and scripted by four credited writers (and one uncredited), Top Hat is fizzier than the fleeing bubbles of a newly uncorked champagne bottle. But the movie has the magic of Irving Berlin’s songs and Fred and Ginger’s feet, which collide for a visual symphony during the iconic musical number “Cheek to Cheek.”

It is with that song Woody opens the picture, a complementary score to his classic white lettering on black background credits and then on Farrow’s aforementioned face. The juxtaposition is flooring because while Farrow is every bit as fetching as characters will later attest, the Depression is weighing down heavily upon her within an instant.

Farrow’s Cecilia at first glance would appear to be doing better than most in 1935 since she has a job as a waitress that she works alongside her sister. However, it is quickly underscored that her life begins and ends at the movie house, because in addition to having a heartless misogynist for a boss, he’s still a shade better than her wife-beating husband, a knuckle-dragging bum named Monk that’s played with just the right amount of white male aggrieved privilege by Danny Aiello. Seeing his mousy wife as nothing more than meal ticket, Monk is the kind of winner that not only sits on his ass all day when he isn’t drinking or cheating on his wife, but also revels in showing off his loutishness to the “ball and chain.” He does this because he knows that Cecilia will never leave him—not in this economy.

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And to add the final insult, Allen shuns shooting in his preferred New York cityscape for this film. No, Cecilia lives in New Jersey—a disheartening proposition even if it weren’t during the Depression. Thus, the only place left for Cecilia to seek refuge is in that movie house where black and white soundstages take on the only source of love in an otherwise unhappy life.

By setting Purple Rose at the maximum point of contrast between our deepest low in American life and our highest fantasy in American film, Allen accentuates his story about a woman falling in love with a film character. By giving her nothing else, Allen allows Cecilia to do what many did during the Depression and lose herself in escapism. This release is personified by Tom Baxter, an adventurer and explorer from Egypt who thinks nothing about dropping his archeological dig in Cairo to go have a “Madcap Manhattan weekend” with a band of merry Broadway producers and sophisticates in “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” He doesn’t even bother taking off his explorer’s uniform during the Atlantic crossing or when going down to the Copacabana!

It’s an absurd plot for a frivolous film, but it’s played with endearing wide-eyed sincerity by Jeff Daniels. Perhaps too endearing. Tom Baxter is of course not a real person; he is a character created by Hollywood actor Gil Shepherd (also Daniels). But apparently Shepherd is a talented enough up-and-coming actor that he fleshed out his character with excessive amounts of optimistic humanity. When Tom notices that Cecilia has come to watch “The Purple Rose of Cairo” four times, he is smitten with how pleasant this fetching woman is and leaps out of the picture, thus beginning an impromptu date.

Usually the providence of literature, magic realism is still not commonplace in Hollywood films—Allen’s own recent Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love, notwithstanding—and was evermore the novelty in 1985. But the concept of treating supernatural events with a surreal lack of concern or awe, as if it’s any other Tuesday in a New Jersey movie theater when a character inexplicably walks off the screen, is perhaps why it works so well for this particular filmmaker. His tonal irreverence and sarcasm for anything outside of his personal concerns means magic “just happening” is as mundane and uninteresting for his characters as listening to a Columbia professor espouse the faults of Marshall McLuhan.

Yet purposefully, Allen is not actually playing a character in this picture. The closest reaction to the story’s events he might have shared come from the studio heads that produced the ‘30s film-within-a-film “Purple Rose of Cairo.” For them, the only primary concern is whether a marauding movie character is a lawsuit waiting to happen. If more than one Tom Baxter walks off the screen, they’ll have Gil Shepherd’s career! But on the flipside of such cynicism is how Daniels plays Baxter in the real world with total earnestness and not a drop of irony.

There is comedy about Tom Baxter unknowingly bumbling his way into a brothel and being unable to later steal a car because he does not realize that you need keys to start the engine. Indeed, the best gag is probably the shock Tom endures from kissing Cecilia, only to learn that there is no fade out for their lovemaking. He is flabbergasted that he’ll actually get to see the stuff the censors would never allow! But the joke is never on Tom since Daniels plays it with complete wholesomeness and (lest the audience sneer) matinee idol heroism that makes him the toast of Jersey. He is 1930s America, as defined by Hollywood, made flesh. It is also perhaps why Daniels ended up in the role, as Allen’s first choice, Michael Keaton, had to depart the picture after the director decided his sensibility was too modern and made the film more anachronistic than timeless.

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But all this Hollywood mythmaking come to life is again contrasted with reality for Cecilia when she gets an infinitely better romantic offer a day later from Tom Baxter’s real-life doppelganger, Gil. Sure, Gil does not have all the attributes that his fictional creation enjoys, such as that Tom is “honest, dependable, courageous, romantic, and a great kisser.” But as Gil counters, “I’m real.”

Cecilia and Gil also have a whirlwind romance of sorts too since he enjoys her being star-struck; they even have a musical duet with him on the piano and her on the ukulele. Yet, Tom seems the better choice in every way over Gil, except that Tom is a fictional ideal. Fellow onscreen characters from “The Purple Rose of Cairo” despair that Cecilia is “throwing away perfection,” but Gil also offers her an escape from her dead end life with a crummy husband by flying her away to Hollywood.

At the end of the day, it is no contest when Cecilia condemns Tom to go back up on the screen of “The Purple Rose of Cairo” by selecting Gil, even if she simply supplanted one delusion for another. At the crux of the actual film The Purple Rose of Cairo is the need to be able to separate fiction and reality, whether that reality is a horrible one or not. Cecilia made the right choice (if for the wrong reasons) and elects to run away with Gil. She wisely chose reality, in spite of its inevitable and immediate disappointment.

The bitter, bitter, bitter end of this bittersweet finale is that of course Gil was conning her—he just needed her to help him get Tom back up on the silver side of “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” As soon as that was accomplished, he’s flying back to Hollywood without a word of goodbye and with no chance of Cecilia being able to follow him. He has his career to think about, and Tom meanwhile will cease to exist as the studio has decided to burn all prints and the negative of “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” thus preventing another Tom Baxter exodus.

When I first saw this film as a child, I was heartbroken at the not-happy ending. How could Cecilia not choose Tom, and how could she be left with nothing? Only later did I realize how agonizingly perfect it is.

This is not a sad ending, because no matter how mediocre life turns out to be, losing yourself in fantasy is not living; it’s a delusion. Tom would never have lied or left Cecilia like Gil did, but he offered her only a chance to make love to fiction, which dangerously crosses the line into a special kind of madness. Gil also offered Cecilia a Hollywood fantasy that was not meant to be—and before you mistake that look on Gil’s face as guilt while his plane leaves Jersey in the dust, recall that he said earlier in the picture “I hate flying”—but he wouldn’t distract her past the end credits. By refusing to think Tom Baxter will come for her, Cecilia is able to leave her wife-beating husband behind and start her life over, even if it is still one as a mousy, freshly unemployed waitress in the Great Depression.

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It is a harrowing message that feels even more pertinent in 2015 than it did 30 years ago. Despite only growing with more advantages over Cecilia’s 1930s hardship, millions and millions more each year lose themselves in fantasy worlds, be they in video games, unending book series, or the newly minted concept of “cinematic universes.” The Purple Rose of Cairo’s hard truth about the frailty of art and artifice, and yet how its is always indispensable. This film shows both the danger of filmmaking’s world-building, as well as its beautiful catharsis.

At the end of all things, and in a moment of pure heartbreak, Cecilia returns to the movie house to discover Gil is long gone. But she also bears witness to the venue’s newest entertainment, a Fred and Ginger movie called Top Hat. We must live in reality; film and all other art can only be an excursion. But even in our darkest moments, it can still be a wonderful one, such as when Cecilia and we are allowed to go out together, dancing cheek to cheek.

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