Classic Corner: The Purple Rose of Cairo

The films of Woody Allen are full of a nostalgia for times that most likely never happened, longings for an idealized past that lives only in the collective imagination. But in these yearnings lie a warning; most of his movies are cautionary tales about being careful what you wish for. The Purple Rose of Cairo is one of Allen’s sweetest and saddest pictures, a fondly remembered gem from a 1980s run during which the filmmaker was seemingly hitting nothing but dingers. It was a more refined era of moviegoing, when a small studio like Orion Pictures saw good business in giving a dependable artist his run of the place. Allen had a loyal audience and unprecedented creative freedom, back before all the unpleasantness that followed. But there I go, romanticizing at my peril. Then again, that’s sort of the point of the picture. 

A luminous Mia Farrow stars as Cecilia, a shrinking violet of a housewife working as a diner waitress in Depression-era New Jersey while her brutish, out-of-work husband Monk (Danny Aiello) shoots craps with his buddies. When Monk drinks too much he bats her around a little, then argues that he’s better than most fellas because at least he warns her first. Cecilia finds solace almost every evening at her local cinema, staring up in adoration at the glamorous, larger than life stars on the silver screen. She sees the pictures more than once when she can afford it. There’s one she’s especially fond of called — you guessed it — The Purple Rose of Cairo

At a matinee during an especially rough week, the movie’s dashing hero Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels, wearing an instantly iconic pith helmet) notices Cecilia’s back again for yet another viewing. He decides he’s simply got to meet her and steps out off the screen into the auditorium, from fiction to reality, from black-and-white into color. It’s a sublimely silly conceit that speaks to a primal wish-fulfillment fantasy inherent in our relationship to movies. What if the people on screen could love us back? Allen, as was his forte, entangles the romance in his trademark absurdist logic. My favorite scenes when I was a little kid show Baxter’s abandoned high society co-stars milling about up on the screen, arguing over what they’re supposed to do now.

Such supernatural interventions seldom work out for the best in Allen’s efforts. Purple Rose is reminiscent of his 1977 New Yorker short story “The Kugelmass Episode,” in which a City College professor meets a magician who can transport him into the pages of his favorite novels. The New York nebbish is soon wining and dining Emma Bovary, until the trick goes haywire and he winds up stuck inside a remedial Spanish textbook, being pursued by an irregular verb. There are also obvious parallels to Allen’s last great movie, 2011’s Midnight in Paris, in which Owen Wison’s frustrated contemporary writer aches to be a part of the Lost Generation in 1920’s France, only to get there and find everybody complaining that the Belle Epoque was better. The grass is always greener, even when your wildest dreams come true. 

Things are further complicated when suave matinee idol Gil Shepherd (Daniels again), the actor who played Tom Baxter in The Purple Rose of Cairo, is dispatched from Hollywood to New Jersey to find his cinematic alter ego and talk him back up onto the big screen. (Gil’s worried this whole boondoggle might cost him the lead in an upcoming Charles Lindbergh biopic.) When he likewise falls for Cecilia, our long-suffering waitress is forced to choose between fantasy and reality, an ontological debate Allen handles with deceptive effervescence. The Purple Rose of Cairo is one of the director’s breeziest, most consistently delightful efforts. Until the final scenes sneak up on you and you realize how much the movie has to say about escapism and our sometimes unhealthy reliance on it. 

Farrow is in full Giuletta Masina mode, constantly gazing upward either at the movie screen or the massive men in her life. One would be tempted to call this the actress’ finest work, were it not for the spectacular comic turn she delivered the year before in Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose. Purple Rose is an exquisitely acted picture, with Aiello bringing an unexpectedly sympathetic helplessness to his abusive oaf. Daniels is note perfect in both sides of his dual performance. A pre-Beetlejuice Michael Keaton was originally cast as Tom/Gil, with the role recast and reshot as the notorious perfectionist Allen was known for doing back in those days. I love Keaton but I’ve never been able to picture him in the part. He’s too cerebral a screen presence, too modern in his flip sensibility. Daniels has the right wide-eyed innocence for Tom, but he might be even better as Gil, exuding the same dubious charm he’d brought to his role in Terms of Endearment two years before, playing Debra Winger’s handsome husband who can’t help disappointing her at every turn.

The Purple Rose of Cairo was the first of Allen’s five collaborations with Dianne Wiest, the beginning of a creative partnership that would result in two Oscars for the actress. It was his eighth and final film with the great Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis, who since Annie Hall had helped usher the director’s crude comic sketches into an increasingly sophisticated cinematic sensibility, equal parts Borscht Belt and Bergman. The Purple Rose of Cairo is one of his most off-handedly beautiful films, the sumptuous Depression-era production design offering contemporary audiences the same vicarious thrills that Cecilia seeks from the glitzy Hollywood backlots at the bijou. The whole movie is a hall of mirrors, with Cecilia a surrogate for a modern viewer’s sometimes troubling but inescapably romantic relationship with the cinema. These silly fantasies may be no good for anybody, but life would be unbearable without them. As someone once said, the heart wants what it wants.

Anyway, there’s a new picture opening this week. I hear Fred Astaire’s in it. 

“The Purple Rose of Cairo” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Hoopla.

Back to top