| Dir: Woody Allen
“I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week, otherwise what’s life all about anyway?”
Even to the present day, The Purple Rose of Cairo is one of his rare pictures that Allen himself even admits to liking -“It was the one which came closest to my original conception”. It also feels like one of his most personal, exploring the well worn theme of fantasy vs. reality within a love story to the picture house that has clear autobiographical touches. Every Woody film has these but here it’s not just sharing his unfiltered thoughts as if in a psychoanalysis session; he’s actually trying to place you into his experiences as a young boy, developing himself in the darkness of his local movie house. It’s one of his finest achievements in storytelling, charming and amusing and devastating you in equal measure at the appropriate interludes.
According to Allen, going to the movie house is a way to “avoid the harsh realities of life…the greatest kind of tranquilizer or embalment”. This is exactly why Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a Depression era waitress frequents them so often. With a job she’s not good at and a brutish unemployed husband (Danny Aiello), she dreams of living in the worlds of grand RKO pictures. When seeing their latest release for the fifth time, the film-within-a-film The Purple Rose of Cairo, character Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) steps off the screen and into the cinema aisle to declare his love for her. This bring in Gil Shepherd, the actor who portrayed the character, fearing the career consequences of a double raping and murdering everyone he comes in contact with. But Cecilia soon has the choice between this fantasy and a much more appealing kind of reality to her husband Monk, as Gil also falls for her. Allen’s worlds regularly have an essence of the physically impossible and simple excuses for suspending your disbelief in them – here, quaintly, it’s because this is New Jersey.
There’s a real tension between the fantasy of the fictional art we all love to watch on the big screen, and the harsh reality it’s supposedly trying to replicate. “The real one’s want their lives fictional and the fictional one’s want their lives real”, after all. Allen speaks so intelligently on how we romanticise the people and worlds in art, on screen, in books, in our imaginations and ultimately in our hopes. But our expectations cannot be matched. Fantasy is ginger ale instead of champagne, stage money, cars not starting when you get in them and no fade outs to kiss scenes. One side of her decision is honest, dependable, courageous, romantic and a great kisser – while the other side is real. Yet even when she’s kissing the real thing in Gil Shepherd, she’s still only kissing the versions of him that she adores watching on the big screen. She’s only playing the part of his female co-star. Real is putting too much pepper in the spaghetti sauce, living in fear of getting a beating from your deadbeat husband and being unemployed during the Depression.
“When you choose reality, you get hurt”. This is the pessimistic view of the world that Allen permeates into all his works and what makes them so affecting. Allen calls any other ending to this portion of Cecilia’s life “trivial”, and he’s right. Like the lives in Manhattan, Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose, Stardust Memories – these endings aren’t happy, but they’re the truth. The romantic choice we would all be sympathetic to siding with is the Hollywood perfection of Tom Baxter. But the truth is what ultimately becomes more satisfying as an audience member, even if it breaks your heart to see it unfold.
Michael Keaton was famously let go after 8 days of shooting, for looking “too hip” to be from the 30s, and replaced with Jeff Daniels. He has fun playing both sides of one individual in Gil Shepherd the pretentious actor and Tom Baxter the romantic creation (deliberately played with a cheerful bravado, and singled out for reviews on the East coast because of it). Farrow is also her element as the adorable Cecilia. She’s mousey, timid and downtrodden but grows strength the longer she immerses herself in this fantasy. How she beams with giddy adoration when first meeting Shepherd. She showed in Broadway Danny Rose that she had the vibrancy to be a star of the screen in this era and here she looks the part. The magical glow that Tom describes Cecilia having is all Farrow. And how perfectly she delivers one of Allen’s most poetic and bittersweet lines of dialogue – “I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional, but you can’t have everything”.
Allen remains playful throughout it all, mining every angle of the the concept for all its comic and dramatic possibilities. It’s such a subtle and deceptively somber meditation on the act of escape through the vehicle of the celluloid. What film speaks more directly to cinephiles, as who amongst us doesn’t prioritise the cinema when spending our limited but hard earned money? After losing the man of her dreams, twice, Cecilia returns to the one thing that’s truly dependable – celluloid and flickering shadows. And she’ll no doubt go to bed that night dreaming of dancing cheek to cheek with Fred Astaire.
Part of Woody Wednesday. Fourth viewing.