The Purple Rose of Cairo

Hollywood greats like Casablanca, An American in Paris and An Affair to Remember have a lot to answer for. They have misled us to believe loving someone is letting them go, in love at first sight and that love can withstand even the greatest measures of distance and time. But real life and love isn’t like in the movies. How many of us would truly see the romantic side of Humphrey Bogart letting Ingrid Bergman go? Always having Paris no doubt sounds far more appealing than its dismal reality. What about love at first sight? More like, love until further notice. As for long-time-no-speak romance, in real life, Cary Grant would surely have forgotten all about Deborah Kerr after she stood him up at the Empire State Building, and proceeded swiftly on to the next dalliance. Do you see where we went horribly wrong? It’s this question Woody Allen addresses in his scathing 1985 comedy, The Purple Rose of Cairo, an oddball love story set in Depression-ridden, small town New Jersey between movie character, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) and maltreated housewife and cinephile, Cecilia (Mia Farrow).

Noticing it is not her first, or even her fourth, visit to the Jewel movie theatre to the same film, Tom, a character from the film, promptly decides to walk off the screen and into the alarmed auditorium to profess his love – at first sight, of course – for Cecilia, compelled to rescue her from her woeful fate. The Jewel is Cecilia’s refuge. When she’s not being pushed around by her bum husband, Monk (Danny Aiello) or being yelled at by her boss over the umpteenth broken plate at the greasy town diner, Cecilia can be found there, absorbing the latest release and guzzling popcorn. Like a character out of a Jean Rhys novel, when fed up of the real world, Cecilia resorts to the cinema to divert herself, if only for a while, with someone else’s, where, she says, ‘everything works out in the end.’ And what better time and place to set Cecilia’s lacklustre life than 1930s Depression-era New Jersey? Such a context only sharpens the contrast between the glamour of the silver screen and the humdrum existence of our unlikely heroine. New Jersey, even amid the Depression, comes off looking bleak. Of course, Allen loves to poke fun at New York’s lesser neighbouring state, issuing a fantastic line to one of the supporting characters who says, after hearing that Tom Baxter is loose in New Jersey, in a state of panic, ‘Anything can happen in New Jersey!’ In his New York Times review, Vincent Canby wrote of the film’s location as ‘a drab little New Jersey town where even the sunlight looks grey’ – which it actually does. Even the town’s amusement park, closed for the summer, resembles a less than amusing place where fun might go to die. At a remove from the life she knows all too well, the flickering monochrome of the movies is a small consolation for Cecelia – that hope, though far off, is in full view, if only for an hour or two.

And then, like in the movies, something miraculous happens and changes Cecilia’s world forever – well, for a bit. As one of the characters at the film studio says, when they learn of Tom’s groundbreaking disappearance, ‘Just because something’s never happened before doesn’t mean it can’t happen for the first time.’ A similar suspension of disbelief is required when watching Purple Rose as when watching Allen’s latest time travelling picture, Midnight in Paris. In many respects, Purple Rose is an earlier, less raucous model for Paris. The main characters in both are, to their detriment, incorrigible romantics; where Gil Pender longs for the Paris of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Cecilia desires the cheek-to-cheek romance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Moreover, their respective obsessions – a form of escapism from their similarly unhappy relationships and realities – manifest themselves in improbable romances; as Gil falls for Adriana in the 1920s, Cecilia falls for a character from a film or, as she puts it, ‘he’s fictional, but you can’t have everything.’ In much the same way that Gil is inevitably unable to deny the present, Cecelia cannot depart from reality. Though Tom is the perfect (imaginary) man for her and most probably for any woman, it is precisely because he is written to be. Reeling off a list of his qualities, Tom will tell you, ‘I’m honest, dependable, courageous, romantic, and a great kisser.’ But he’s also unfailingly one-dimensional and therefore as dull as he is dependable. In always sticking to the script, he’s perpetually predictable – so predictable that one of his lines is, ‘I’m sorry. It’s written into my character to do it, so I do it.’ There’s another problem: he isn’t written to function in reality, and so he doesn’t. Dining Cecilia at a flashy restaurant, Tom is disheartened to discover that they don’t accept movie money. Jumping into a car, he expects it to start without a key. Kissing Cecilia for a while longer than is PG, he’s flummoxed by the lack of ‘fade out’. Oh, and he walks around everywhere in a pith helmet. On the plus side, after a brawl with Monk, he still looks good – ‘one of the advantages of being imaginary’, he tells Cecilia who needn’t brush him off. But Tom’s funniest lines are, strangely, delivered in a brothel. So innocent, he doesn’t know what a prostitute is, Tom is lured by working girl, Emma (Dianne Wiest) – out of the sheer kindness of his heart – back to the brothel, where he tells the scantily clad women there that they’re dressed awfully seductively and isn’t it a pity none of them have husbands. When he finally gets the gist of what they do, he is awestruck and evidently impressed – remember, the guy’s never had sex without a fade out – but refrains from taking them up on their kind offers, even when they suggest a freebie: because he’s actually that nice! Unlike any other Woody Allen persona and human, Tom fails to err. It is just not in his character.

Another trait Purple Rose shares with Midnight in Paris is a character named Gil. This Gil, in Purple Rose, is Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels), the actor who plays Tom Baxter. In an effort to rein in his unruly character and salvage his acting career – in his next picture, he really wants to play Lindbergh – Gil journeys to New Jersey to get Tom back on the screen. A real version of Tom, if a little more self-absorbed, Gil soon wins Cecilia’s affections and it isn’t long before Cecilia goes from being unloved altogether to being loved by two men; both of whom, she exclaims, are the same person! The Purple Rose of Cairo, full of witticisms such as this, elicits some of Allen’s best comedy writing. After Tom’s great escape, for example, the other characters in the film must remain in the scene where he left them and cannot progress onto the next: dinner plans at the Copacabana. It’s particularly irksome for the other characters, as they become hungrier, that Tom didn’t have the sense to desert them until after dinner. Meanwhile, in Tom’s absence, there’s uproar at the Jewel as characters, moviegoers, the theatre manager and even the police grow increasingly restless. There are some hilarious interchanges between characters and their audience when one of the characters tells a complaining viewer to pipe down and makes a rather unkind reference to another viewer as a bag of guts. An especially Allenesque phrase comes from a more philosophical moviegoer, who says, ‘I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week; otherwise, what’s life all about anyway?’ There’s even an allusion to Tom Baxter’s walking off the screen as an act of Communism, as a Red thing to do and, therefore, a wrong thing that must be stopped. The hilarity of it all rests as much in its overall impossibility as it does in Allen’s cutting writing, no doubt on top form here. 

Not the only Allen movie to merge reality with film, The Purple Rose of Cairo is vaguely like Play It Again, Sam, in which Casablanca fanatic, Allan (Allen) enlists an imagined Humphrey Bogart as his alter ego to shed dating advice with Linda (Diane Keaton), but Purple Rose is the antithesis of films like Manhattan, Annie Hall, Midnight in Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona; the kind of postcard movies that make you wish you were in New York, Paris, Barcelona. Purple Rose seems to scream out: look what you’re not missing! A film that’s enough to discourage even the most romantic from falling hard, if at all, with New Jersey, Purple Rose is a revision of the Hollywood romance for real life. With its superfluous title, as ridiculous as the prospect of a character stepping out of the screen at a cinema in a gloomy New Jersey town, The Purple Rose of Cairo is a pithy, remarkably grounded realization of the relationship between real and pretend, movie love. In bridging their unfortunate inconsistencies and ironical similarities, Allen postures the idea of what life might be like if it ran like a movie; ultimately, he decides, much of the same. In this superbly wry, risible comedy, Allen grants the moviegoer their ultimate wish but only indulges their fantasy to a certain extent. Much to our dismay – and to Cecilia’s – the film ends, the curtains close and the magic is over. Entering the foyer, we’re back in the light again and back to reality.

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