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Monday, April 21, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels

Mia Farrow has never been nominated for an Oscar, a fact which I find astounding every time I watch The Purple Rose of Cairo. In just one look at the end of the film, she conveys a universe of emotion, expressing both the agony and the ecstasy involved in watching - and loving - movies. This is a wonderfully funny and heartbreaking fantasy film from Woody Allen in which his satirical edge, his brilliantly constructed dialogue, and a light touch of drama come together to form the backbone of a story that only gets more rewarding with each viewing.

The film takes place during the Depression and stars Farrow as Cecilia, a waitress who goes to movies to escape her dreary life with her unemployed, adulterous husband Monk (Danny Aiello). She lights up when she talks about movies – and movie stars, for that matter, so familiar with their “real” lives that she’s able to offer carefully considered opinions on why one relationship failed and another succeeded – and sees one in particular (the eponymous Purple Rose of Cairo) several times until, during one viewing, the film’s hero Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) turns to her and says, “Boy, you must really like this movie,” before stepping out of the screen and whisking her away. They run off together while the theatre patrons, and the studio executives behind the movie, freak out, and while the other characters on screen are left in limbo because the story can’t go on without Tom. Eventually, Gil Shepherd, the actor who plays Tom Baxter, is sent to find his alter ego and finds himself competing with, well, himself for Cecilia’s affections, leaving her with a choice: the real man who might break her heart, or the perfect man who is unfortunately fictional.

Allen does a good job setting Cecilia up as someone trapped in poverty, who can’t leave her husband no matter how disillusioning her marriage is. She packs her bags, leaves and wanders the streets for a while, just long enough to see a couple of women (one played by Dianne Weist) preparing to prostitute themselves. She looks dazed then turns around and goes home, knowing that none of her options are good. When Tom comes along, he brings with him his fictional outlook on life, the life lived on-screen where there’s no Depression, where people have wonderful adventures and say perfectly witty things, and the hero is always faithful to the woman he loves, and his hair never gets mussed when he gets into a fight. Tom is a nice guy (“He’s fictional, but you can’t have everything,” Cecilia concludes), but is limited by the confines of his script. “Dad was a card,” he tells Cecilia. “I never met him. He died before the movie began.” Later, he expresses surprise that life doesn’t fade out when things get heated, and that his screen money, which is abundant, is worthless in the real world.

When Gil comes along, he offers Cecilia something that is both similar and different. He’s the person who created Tom (although Tom disagrees and he and Gil engage in a battle of semantics in which it is eventually agreed that the writer created Tom but Gil gave him life), but lacks Tom’s innocence. In place of that, though, he has carries bona fide Hollywood glamour and Cecilia is quick to fall under his spell. For a time, it seems that he, too, is falling for her, or at least the way she fawns over him and boosts his self-esteem. Sensing that he’s losing out, Tom takes Cecilia into the movie, which of course throws the whole story off kilter. Luckily the other characters don’t care that much since they’re finally moving forward again. Now Cecilia must choose between a fake life with a fictional character where she’ll have everything she could ever want, but none of it will be real; or a real life with a real person who might disappoint her and break her heart.

Farrow gives an excellently layered performance as someone who, in certain respects, is just as innocent and wide-eyed as Tom, but also knowing enough to recognize much of what he says as “movie talk” that doesn’t amount to much in the real world. She floats effortlessly from the comedic to the tragic, touching on both with only a movement of her face in close-up in the film’s final moments. Daniels is also excellent playing a dual role, creating two very distinct personalities for both characters. I’ve never really known what to make of his final moment in the film – is he remorseful simply because he’s given up Cecilia, or is it also that he’s realized that even with the benefit of the Hollywood glamour machine, he’ll still never be half the man that Tom Baxter was? – but it’s effective nonetheless.

The dialogue is as sharp as it is in all of Allen’s comedies, specially tuned in this case to it’s era (“I want to be free! I want out!” of the characters in the film within the film says. “I’m warning you, that’s Commie talk!” the studio lawyer replies), and it’s gentle in its post-modernism, couching it’s pointed, philosophical questions in humour. Which one is, after all, real: Tom or Gil? Gil is certainly the real person, but Tom is the one who will “live” forever via the medium of film, outliving Gil for as long as people watch the movie. And if people connect with Gil only through the film, by watching Tom, then doesn’t Tom usurp him as the real one, just as actors such as James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart and Greta Garbo exist to us now more as their screen personas than as actual people? But maybe it doesn’t matter at all what’s real and what’s fake, just as long as it’s there for you to escape into at the end of a hard day.


Anonymous said...

This is one of the films that made me fall in love with Mia Farrow. Her emotional vulnerability is heartbreaking. Great review of a great film.

Norma Desmond said...

Farrow is so great here and in other Woody Allen films. It's unfortunate that there was so much... unpleasantness because they worked together so well.