So, this one may be a stretch in regards to my Halloween theme, but it is fantastical so I’m gonna go ahead and say it works. I first saw this movie back in my early teen years and initially, I wasn’t a big fan of it. I had already been introduced to Woody Allen by this point, but most of the films I had seen were his “early, funny ones.”
The Purple Rose of Cairo is something entirely different. Don’t get me wrong – it’s still very much a comedy, but it’s rooted in a real, emotional story. As I’ve gotten older, the film has grown on me more and more and I now consider it one of my favorite Woody Allen films.
If you’re unfamiliar, The Purple Rose of Cairo, made in 1985, follows Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a poor young woman in the depression. Her husband, Monk (Danny Aiello) is out of work. He has very little interest in finding any work or treating Cecilia with any sort of basic level of respect. The only joy in Cecilia’s life comes from her consistent trips to the movies. She has more interest in those fictional worlds than she does in her real one. One day, in the midst of watching a film she’s already watched multiple times, one of the characters notices and walks out of the screen. Thus, drama ensues!
Here are just a few reasons you should add The Purple Rose of Cairo to your queue:
Even though, of course, there’s been drama between the film’s leading lady and Woody Allen, I’d say this film is probably Mia Farrow’s best performance, certainly of the films she made with Allen. You automatically relate to Cecilia’s situation and understand why she loses herself in the movies. That’s partly due to great writing, but the credit should also be given to Farrow’s performance which is shiningly sincere and sweet.
The dual role of Gil Sheperd and Tom Baxter was a bit more difficult. Allen had originally cast Michael Keaton in the role. Keaton took a major pay cut to be in the film, but ten days into shooting, Keaton and Allen both agreed that something wasn’t working. Apparently, though Allen though Keaton was giving a strong performance, he felt that Keaton was just too modern for the audience suspend its disbelief.
The part was recast – Jeff Daniels took over. When I think of Daniels, my mind can’t NOT go to Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant HBO show The Newsroom. He will always be Will McAvoy to me. But, of course, at the time, Daniels had only two film credits to his name, Ragtime and a little film called Terms of Endearment. Watching the film, it’s difficult to imagine someone else in the role, especially Keaton. There’s a naivete that Daniels had that made Tom Baxter (the character in the movie she loves) completely lovable. He’s almost like a puppy, excited by everything and idealistic enough to think that if you love someone, every other problem can be fixed. Conversely, Daniels brought a completely different sensibility to Gil Sheperd (the actor who plays Tom Baxter). He’s pompous, confident, and he has a tough exterior. He looks out for himself over everyone else.
Danny Aiello is also notable as Cecilia’s awful husband. Now, it’s true, he’s a bit of a stereotype. However, he’s more there for comedic effect and as a contrast for the loveliness that is Tom Baxter. A brilliant character actor, Aiello is best known for his roles in The Godfather: Part II, Do the Right Thing, and Once Upon a Time in America. Even though he’s despicable, Aiello makes it so you can’t completely hate him.
Also, special mention: Gilmore Girls fans may not know much of Edward Herrmann’s roles outside of patriarch Richard Gilmore. He actually had an extensive film career and by the time this film was made, he had already had roles in The Great Gatsby, The Paper Chase and Reds. Of the film, Herrmann said, “…it was a great cast, all these very clever people, and we were having a hell of a good time acting ’30s (Herrmann, The AV Club Article).”
John Wood, the man next to Edward Herrmann above, is also very good. Recognize the name? He was also in WarGames, which I discussed a few weeks back.
Dianne Wiest is also hilarious. So many great character actors in this one!
Much can be said about Woody Allen as a person. There are people who I’m sure are probably annoyed that I would even discuss one of his films. But, I’m a firm believer in separating the artist from the person. And, as a writer, Woody Allen is one of the best!
This film is said to be one of his favorites of his own work. The fantastical nature never bothered me because I felt like the film was grounded in real emotions. And, as all of you know from reading my posts, I love the 1930’s. So, for me, it seems like a no brainer that I’d fall in love with it. After rewatching it this last time, I couldn’t help but see the similarities between this film and a film much later in Allen’s oeuvre, Midnight in Paris.
Both films are really about the difference between reality and fiction, between our idealistic notions and the hard cold facts. Whereas Midnight in Paris was about how we idealize a time period, The Purple Rose of Cairo ponders the way we idealize the characters we see in movies. Every fangirl (and guy) out there understands this true dilemma. The characters we see in movie are just too amazing. How can real people live up to that?
Also, interesting to note that Allen had to fight to keep the film’s melancholy ending. “Orion executives asked Allen to change the painful conclusion, which punctured the escapist fantasy of the rest of the film, but Allen refused (Feaster, TCM Article).” I can’t imagine the film ending any other way.
You may not know Gordon Willis by name, but you’ve certainly seen his work. In addition to the Godfather trilogy, he also shot All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, and The Paper Chase. In other words, he served as DP on more than a few classics. Oh, and did I mention he was nominated for some Oscars?
I love the color in this film, the dreariness makes you believe in the time period completely. Also, when Tom Baxter walks out of the screen…EPIC.
As with all Woody Allen movies, the music is incredible. The first scene of the film is Cecilia watching Astaire and Rogers. Literally warms your heart. No, really, it does!
It’s fanciful, intriguing and makes you feel ALL THE FEELS…
To me, The Purple Rose of Cairo has a little bit of something for everyone. If you can suspend your disbelief, you’ll be taken on a magical adventure and find yourself both laughing AND crying along the way.
Woody Allen doesn’t attend any award ceremonies with the exception of the 2002 Oscars (he talked about NYC after 9/11). He’s written and directed almost fifty feature films. Some are fantastic and some are…not so fantastic. But, he keeps plugging away. Some hit the mark exactly and this film is certainly one of them.
Vintage trailer below:
Images and Gifs property of Orion Pictures