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

Why I now appreciate John Badham’s WarGames

I remember being terrified the first time I saw WarGames. Mind you, I’m pretty sure I was under the age of ten, but still, this light thriller gave me nightmares. Once I got a little older, I saw the film again and began to see it in a different light. I could finally appreciate the film, although I will say parts of it still make me feel uneasy.

Recently, I watched a special feature about the making of the film which turned everything I thought I knew on its head. I love hearing behind-the-scenes stories which make you feel awe that the film got finished, was successful, and was actually a good movie. WarGames is one such case of this.

But before we get to all that, here’s a little synopsis for those of you who are WarGames virgins. Made in 1983, the film follows David (Matthew Broderick), a teenager too smart for his own good. Obsessed with computers (which now look positively ANCIENT), he accidentally hacks into the military’s central computer and realizes the computer cannot tell the difference between game-playing and reality. There is, of course, a girl played by a young Ally Sheedy who goes on the roller coaster journey with David while also falling in love with him. Let’s just say…DRAMA ENSUES.

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The computers seriously look ANCIENT. #DidIMentionImAMillennial?

Here are just a few reasons you should check out WarGames:

The Cast

This is the type of film that relies heavily upon the charm of its actors. If its leads were boring and/or annoying, I think we would have more trouble buying into its fantastical story.

Matthew Broderick had only done one film before this, a Neil Simon comedy, Max Dugan Returns. Unable to come in for a callback for WarGames, he suggested that then-director, Martin Brest, watch his dailies from the film. At only twenty years old, he had a charisma that was undeniable. He was likable and effortlessly funny. He carried the film with his convincing technological know-how and charm.

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Look how young! #ALittleFerrisBuellerNo?

Ally Sheedy was about the same age as Matthew and was completely green, having only been in one film before WarGames. She was playing the “girl next door.” I’m sure her natural and appealing performance in this played a part in getting her the The Breakfast Club a few years later.

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SASS #ThatEyeRoll

John Wood is also wonderful as Professor Falken. Apparently, the character was originally based on scientist Stephen Hawking. Barry Corbin and Dabney Coleman also have standout roles as McKittrick and General Berringer, respectively.

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Aw, John Wood…#WordsToLiveBy

The Script

This is really one of the most interesting pieces. The story was conceived and written by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes. They were very involved in early development and did a lot of research. This script was their baby. When Martin Brest came on to direct, he decided to tonally go in a different direction and the writing team was essentially fired from the film.

A little while later, Martin Brest was fired from the film and John Badham was brought on to direct. The writers were then hired back and became apart of the process again. Their script, in addition to being fun and super entertaining, posed questions that were ahead of their time. Computers were not in wide use when the film was released and so, the idea of hacking, wasn’t as widespread and commonplace as it is today. When they were shopping the script around, apparently studio execs were confused by it.

The thing Lasker and Parkes understood so well was that the characters come first. So, even though there were these underlying science fiction themes and big questions that were being posed, the film was also accessible on a pure entertainment level.

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Great concept. #TheKidsAreAlwaysSmarter

The Direction

I was surprised to learn that the film originally was going to be directed by Martin Brest. Brest, in his own right, made some great films including The Scent of a Woman and Meet Joe Black. The studio, however, felt that the film Brest was making was not the film they wanted. They sought out someone new to direct even though they were a few weeks already into filming.

They decided to approach John Badham (brother to Mary Badham, aka Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird) who had already directed Saturday Night Fever and Dracula. He brought out the lighter side of the script, helping to develop the chemistry between Ally Sheedy and Matthew Broderick. According to Sheedy, she thinks the film Brest was trying to make had validity as well, but that it wasn’t going to be a popcorn flick the same way it turned out to be in Badham’s hands.

The movie was really a crowd pleaser and that’s because Badham knew the film needed balance. It had adventure, romance, and fun. He even had a writer come in to add a scene between David and Jennifer and I daresay, it’s one of the best scenes in the film.

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#RealTalk 

The Music

Music, for me, is a key reason to like any movie. WarGames is very much of the time period containing a lot of synthesizer and “techy” sounds. But, there’s one piece of music that this film is famous for. Arthur Rubinstein composed it and it’s called “Edge of the World.” Rubinstein, in the special feature included with the Blu-Ray, said that whenever he tells people he composed the film, they always bring up the harmonica. Although he gets kind of annoyed with it since he composed several other pieces of music for the film, this is what stuck and it’s for good reason. It is brilliant and gives you all the #feels.

The Romance

The film cannot be categorized as a romance as really it only has a few scenes that are really about that. However, I remember totally having a crush on Matthew Broderick after this film. He was adorkable long before Zooey Deschanel made that a thing. There is something about Jennifer and David’s relationship that just seems so sincere. Possibly because they were both so green, they seemed to have a natural and easy chemistry.

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Changing a girl’s grade is the secret way to her heart. #OBVI
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Almost seems like too personal a moment to watch…or is that just me? #BUELLER?

Because it’s smart, thought-provoking, and SO MUCH FUN. 

Hitchcock always said the audience comes first. Films should be life with all the boring parts cut out. This film was way ahead of its time. Technology was not a way of life the way it is now. The film actually inspired real changes in the world beyond my dad telling me he bought a computer because of it.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I love films that make you think and I believe it is possible to produce a film that is both entertaining and about something. The film has a message that is important and still relevant today. Badham summed it up quite nicely, saying, “…The more powerful and the more authority we delegate to computers, the more things we are abdicating. And that’s where it gets to be dangerous. Suddenly the roles are reversed and then, in a true Harold Pinter situation, we don’t know who’s the servant and who’s the master”(Badham, TCM Article).

More than anything, I came out of watching the film’s special feature admiring both the writers of this film and the film’s producer, Leonard Goldberg. It was through his bits that I understood that the real job of a producer is to have enough passion for a project to handle all the bumps that come with getting it made and this film had its bumps for sure.

All in all, it’s a very entertaining film that makes you laugh, cry, and cheer. And really, what else can you ask for?

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For the record, this is where you’re CHEERING…

Vintage trailer below: