Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Great Last Scenes: The Purple Rose of Cairo

Year: 1985
Director: Woody Allen
Great Because...: It's emotionally shattering, but it achieves this effect in the most gentle of ways. In a worldless scene Mia Farrow sits down in a theatre and watches an Astaire/Rogers movie, devastated by her most recent loss but slowly carried away by the magic of the film. Will things seem bleak once the lights go up? Sure, but for a little while at least she's allowed to find peace.

Cecilia has a rough life. She's a waitress whose husband either gambles away her paycheck or spends it on other women. She can't leave him because as bad as things are at home, her options if she leaves seem limited to prostitution. Her only escape from the bad things are movies, which she attends almost religiously. One film in particular - The Purple Rose of Cairo - becomes a favourite, her attendance so regular that even Tom Baxter, the film's main character, notices and feels compelled to climb down off the screen to meet her.

Eventually Cecilia is forced to choose between the fantasy represented by Tom and the reality represented by Gil Shepherd, the actor who plays him. Though she's enjoyed her time with Tom and knows that he's the "perfect" man - kind, dependable, faithful - she also knows that he's limited personality-wise, stuck within the narrow borders constructed by the writers of his film. Gil, on the other hand, is a real person just like herself, though at the same time he isn't just like her because he's a movie star. Star struck, Cecilia chooses Gil only to learn the hard way that being a real person means that he's capable of disappointing her.

Cecilia has packed her bags to move to Hollywood with Gil, only to discover that he's left without her, abandoning her to a life of uncertainty and hardship. The Purple Rose of Cairo has just left the theater, replaced with Top Hat. With nowhere else to go Cecilia goes into the theater and as she watches Fred Astaire singing "Cheek to Cheek" to Ginger Rogers, her face transforms into something that is not quite happiness, not quite sadness. It's a beautiful, perfect moment, capturing both the agony and the ecstacy of the audience's relationship to the art of film.

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