Stars: Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello | Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Sumptuously designed and realised, Woody Allen’s 1985 fable didn’t exactly set the box office alight and isn’t always cited as a classic. Yet Allen, here drawing upon his dual-coast adorations for New York and Hollywood, himself regards Purple Rose as a favourite, and I would be inclined to agree.
Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is a weary waitress, eking a living in Depression-era New Jersey. Her husband (Danny Aiello) is a boor and a bore, all beer and women, and Cecilia’s sole escape is the cinema. She’s watches The Purple Rose of Cairo – an utterly convincing high adventure story about sphinxes and socialites – repeatedly, and falls in love with its star, Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels).
One day, Gil’s character Tom turns to the audience and starts talking to Cecilia. Tom then enters the real world, and he and Cecilia begin a whirlwind romance. Word of this magical connection reaches Hollywood. Fearing that his rogue creation might mess up his career, the real Gil Shepherd heads to New Jersey to make sure Tom returns to the world of the silver screen, in order to maintain the illusion – and the actor’s ego.
All of Allen’s comedies are fish-out-of-water to a greater or lesser extent, and here that trait is tinged with surrealism and a fair dose of the absurd. In the real world, Tom attempts to pay with prop money; he thinks cars just “go”; and he expects fade outs when making love. While the studio establishment panics, Tom and Cecilia find their peace. But then Gil arrives and suddenly Cecilia must choose: the ideal of Tom, infallible and invulnerable; or the flawed vitality of Gil, who quickly swoons over Cecilia’s burning passion for his work.
Hollywood the place becomes the literal escape plan for Cecilia. In many ways the film is a wish fulfilment fantasy for an abused woman, although ultimately it refuses to take the sentimental way out, and we’re left with a subtly feminist text. Farrow puts in a lovely performance, her nervous fragility concealing a bravery and a passion hitherto untapped.
Daniels, likewise, is perfectly cast. (Could Allen’s original choice, Michael Keaton, have mustered such puppy dog charm mixed with feline creepiness?) Tom’s contained world is predetermined and his worldview is as black and white as his films. He is an automation; practically a robot. If he’s programmed to love then love is not a choice. And if he’s not choosing, can it be called love?
“The real ones want their lives fictional and the fictional ones want their lives real!” one character remarks. Allen’s film is about – amongst many other things – the nature of authenticity. As real world humans, to what extent do we allow ourselves to surrender to wonder? Allen is muddying the waters of Hollywood’s pristine lies: that all we need to do is follow our dreams; that love will conquer all.
The meta is almost overwhelming, but Allen resists the rabbit hole, keeping things simple and silly across 84 swift minutes. Like all good fables, there is a general acceptance amongst the characters of the internal magic at work, with no screentime wasted on inquiry. Allen’s script is plot-led, and not subject to the intellectual digressions that can sometimes lend his films a lack of focus. Indeed, his one reference to God gets one of the best, most relevant punchlines, with Tom concluding that his own gods are the screenwriters.
Classic Allen moments abound. Tom’s visit to a brothel (an alien world to him) not only gives us a delightful cameo from the peerless Dianne Wiest, but also a scene of melancholy comedy gold, encompassing the essential romance vs. reality paradox, and perhaps epitomising the auteur’s entire worldview.
The Purple Rose of Cairo is an overlooked classic in the Allen canon. It achieves a skilful balance between the silly and the serious, resulting in a fun and moving work from a master who, while maybe not hopeful about his species, clearly never doubts our capacity to fall in love with our creations.
The Purple Rose of Cairo is released on Arrow Academy Blu-ray on 9 January 2017.