The Whimsical Magic of “The Purple Rose of Cairo”

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!

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If only fictional characters could talk to us. Le sigh.

Here are just a few reasons you should add The Purple Rose of Cairo to your queue:

The Cast

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.

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Kinda gives you Waitress/Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore Vibes, right?

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.

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It’d be really nice if Tom Baxter was real…

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.

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That look THOUGH…

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).”

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I spy Richard Gilmore!

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!

The Script/Direction

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?

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Literally my favorite line ever. Or at least…it’s pretty close!

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.

The Cinematography

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.

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AMAZINNNNG, amiright?

The Music

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!

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When we’re dancing cheek to cheek…

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.

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Anyone else wish movie theaters still looked like this?

Vintage trailer below:

Images and Gifs property of Orion Pictures

The Genius of Robert Redford and ‘Ordinary People’

Robert Redford, renowned Actor, Producer and Director, celebrated his 80th birthday yesterday. In honor of his birthday, I thought I’d discuss one of my all time favorite films, the wonderful 1980 family drama Ordinary People.

I first saw the film in high school right smack dab in the middle of teen angst. While I had never dealt with anything close to what this family was dealing with, I deeply related to Timothy Hutton’s Conrad. I remember being so emotional after my first viewing of the film that I had to excuse myself, embarrassed that I was crying.

If you’ve never seen Ordinary People, the film follows an upper class suburban family dealing with the aftermath of an accident which left the eldest brother dead. For Conrad (Timothy Hutton), it’s especially hard – he was with his brother during the fatal boating accident. After leaving the hospital (where he stayed after he attempted suicide) , his parents Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (Mary Tyler-Moore) try desperately to pretend they’re just an ordinary family. More than anyone, Beth has trouble expressing her emotions as well as any affection towards the only son she’s got left.

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Awk…ward

Here are just a few reasons Ordinary People is a classic film staple:

The Cast

The cast makes this film what it is. Don’t get me wrong; it has many other strengths. However, without this cast, none of it would work.

Timothy Hutton was just 19 and if you can believe it, Ordinary People marked his first role in a film. And what a debut it was – Hutton was real, honest, raw. Perhaps, it was precisely because he was new that his performance was so natural. He’s one of the major reasons I fell in love with the film. He reminded me of another great actor, Logan Lerman. Hutton’s performance specifically made me think of Lerman’s performance in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. What can I say? I like emotional men…

Hutton won the Oscar that year for Best Supporting Actor…

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A good looking man, no?

Judd Hirsch was also wonderful as Berger, Conrad’s therapist. Redford had seen him in Taxi and thought his rapid-fire way of talking would be perfect for Dr. Berger, as he’s supposed to be a little nutty or off kilter. Hirsch looked back at the film for EW’s anniversary piece, saying, “The only person I hung out with was Timothy. He was so young and green and had just lost his father [the actor Jim Hutton] a few months earlier” (EW).

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Hirsch telling it like it is…

Mary Tyler-Moore played Beth, Conrad’s mother. This was quite the departure for her as she was known for playing upbeat, positive characters – specifically in the enormously popular sitcoms The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler-Moore show. With this film, Redford sought to explore Mary Tyler-Moore’s dark side. And her performance is fantastic, complex and subtle.

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A complex character to be sure…

Donald Sutherland played Beth’s husband and Conrad’s father, Calvin. Originally Redford wanted to see him for the role of Dr. Berger, but Sutherland convinced him he should play the husband. Sutherland’s Calvin is the parent really looking out for Conrad – he spends much of the film worried and trying to appease Beth, who believes they shouldn’t talk about any of their problems. He plays another great father in Pride and Prejudice so one could say, this film was just the start of this “type.”

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Quiet and reserved, but completely powerful

Elizabeth McGovern played Conrad’s romantic interest, Janneane Pratt. She was just about to start at Juliard, but Redford begged her to wait a few weeks. The film is certainly not hers, but her limited role gave her a chance to shine.

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Love that late 70s, early 80s hair…

The Screenplay

The film was based on a novel by Judith Guest. In the same EW article I mentioned, Judith spoke about the adaptation process, saying, “Ordinary People was my first book, and I was just thrilled that Viking was going to publish it. Then Redford called one day. I have a couple of brothers who are a bunch of jokesters, so when I got this call saying, “Hi, Judy, this is Robert Redford,” I said, “Yeah, sure it is.” I’m sure he gets that all the time. He just said, calmly, “No, it really is” (Guest, EW).

Alvin Sargent, who also wrote Paper Moon and Streisand’s A Star is Born, adapted Guest’s novel for the screen. Redford apparently sent Guest many drafts, asking her advice and giving her permission to criticize whatever she liked.

To me, the film is about loneliness and tragedy and the struggle to live through the worst moments in our lives. It’s also about understanding one another. Every character in the film is given depth, their own reasons for looking at the world the way they do. No one is a villain – they’re just imperfect people.

The plot in this film is small. It’s a character story. That starts at the script stage…and considering Sargent won an Oscar for his adaptation, I’d say he did pretty well.

The Direction

This is what it’s all about. Ordinary People was Robert Redford’s directorial debut. Funnily enough, Redford didn’t win any Oscars for his esteemed acting career. He, of course, won for directing Ordinary People and it is well deserved. The film is sensitive and unbelievably moving and that’s really because Redford believed in it. He put so much into it. For all aspiring directors out there, this is certainly one to watch.

It’s cathartic, superbly well-acted, and incredibly impactful.

Whenever a movie hits in such a big way, we wonder how it happened. And of course, the movie studios, try to replicate it. Success, many of them believe is just an equation. This element + this element = a great film. Unfortunately, in this medium, that’s not how it works. When a film works, it’s like lighting in a bottle. You have no idea how it happened – it just did. All you can do is appreciate it.

As an aspiring screenwriter and an avid movie-watcher, what I take away from the film is that caring is the key. You can’t watch this film and not see the love and sweat that went into getting it made. Studios didn’t want to make it at the time, believing it wasn’t commercial enough.

Ordinary People, to me, is an encouragement that little films, emotional films, films focused on characters, can also be successful. Redford, of course, founded The Sundance Institute to help fund independent films. And when you consider what this film was up against in the 1981 Oscars (Raging Bull and The Elephant Man), it’s an incredible statement that the film took home the Best Picture Oscar.

Vintage trailer below. Get ready for emotions you didn’t even know you had…😭