The Purple Rose of Cairo

Jamie Gillies

“In New Jersey, anything can happen,” says a minor character to actor Gil Shepherd, played magnificently by Jeff Daniels. The Purple Rose of Cairo is a simple yet deceptively clever film by Woody Allen which was a critically acclaimed masterpiece in 1984, even winning best picture at the British Academy Awards. Mia Farrow plays Cecilia, a Depression-era housewife in a small New Jersey town who is forced to work as a waitress to make ends meet. Danny Aiello plays her womanizing, alcoholic and abusive deadbeat of a husband, a penny- tossing freeloader too proud to take on menial employment. The film, however, is about the power of movies and movie stars over Cecilia, who seeks refuge at the town’s Jewel Theatre in order to escape the realities of her own personal Great Depression.

We meet explorer and adventurer Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), dressed in safari outfit and pith helmet. He’s a minor character in the film The Purple Rose of Cairo, which is now showing at the Jewel. Fired from her job, Cecilia stays in the theatre watching this film all day until, magically, Baxter suddenly pops out of the picture, walks up to Cecilia, and takes her out of the theatre. Together, they hide in an abandoned amusement park. Baxter, as he explains to Cecilia, is through with playing out the repetitive scenes on screen. He wants to be free and escape the film forever. Meanwhile, the thespians still onscreen back at the Jewel are beside themselves. They stop acting and start badmouthing the audience watching them – folks who are offended and demand their money back. After members of the press show up to document this remarkable turn of events, the theatre’s proprietor immediately calls the movie studio to explain that one of the characters has escaped the screen. The studio brass contact Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels again), the actor who plays Baxter on screen, and tell him that he must get his character under control if he ever wants to work in Hollywood again.

After the real actor shows up, things get complicated because both Baxter and Shepherd fall in love with Cecilia, who is desperate to escape her loveless marriage. The scenes in which Jeff Daniels argues with Jeff Daniels are hilarious. Baxter is baffled by the real world, since kisses don’t fade out and making love is not the same as being in love, as evidenced by some truly hilarious scenes at a brothel with a prostitute played by Dianne Wiest. The ending is depressing, even for Allen, but it reinforces the belief this poor woman has in the movies. Having imitated and celebrated Ingmar Bergman (Interiors) and Federico Fellini (Stardust Memories) in previous films, with The Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen is inspired by François Truffaut’s classic 1974 film Day For Night, with just a touch of The Wizard of Oz thrown in. While not his best and perhaps even slightly overrated by some, Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo is still a cinematic original and its timeless story will hold up very well over the years.

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