Thursday, January 17, 2013

Reality Bites: The Purple Rose of Cairo

This post is riddled with plot spoilers, so if you haven't seen "The Purple Rose of Cairo," stop reading this blog, buy/rent the DVD, and THEN you can come back to read this column.

Written and directed by Woody Allen, this comedy/drama sat unwatched in a DVD boxed set that I had purchased years ago, mainly so that I could have "Radio Days," "Broadway Danny Rose," and "Hannah and Her Sisters." Finally, I decided to give it a whirl, and I am so glad that I did. The last movie to affect me the same way was "The Artist;" what makes "The Purple Rose of Cairo" much more powerful is that despite the fantasy and comic elements, it never lets the viewer forget that life can be full of harsh realities.

Mia Farrow is perfectly cast as Cecelia, a slightly awkward waif-like waitress during The Depression.

Trying to support her deadbeat husband, Monk (played by Danny Aiello), she often escapes to the local movie house to get lost in the enchantment of the silver screen. Cecelia's apologetic and mousey personality comes to life when she talks about Hollywood. She is most comfortable talking about fictional characters, rather than the depressing reality that is part of her daily routine. Even though she knows her cheating husband squanders her hard-earned money, she sheepishly plays the dutiful wife. Monk's pathetic justification for beating Cecelia is "I never just hit you, I warn you first."

You can see why she loves the movies.

Then one day, life changes for Cecelia. Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), the leading man in "The Purple Rose of Cairo," has noticed that Cecelia has watched the movie at least four times in a row. He literally steps out of the screen and joins Cecelia in the darkened theater, escaping with her into the outside world.

The rest of the cast watches with surprise and horror as Tom leaves them in limbo, unable to continue the plot of the movie without him.

Like a true 1930's romantic comedy, Cecelia finds that Tom has instantly fallen in love with her, wanting to spend the rest of his days with her. He no longer wants to be stuck playing the same scenes over and over every day inside of a black and white movie. However, real life rears its ugly head when Tom attempts to pay for the expensive champagne that the two have been indulging in; the money in his pockets is phony. Unfortunately, the wealth he has on screen doesn't translate to the real world. The two are forced to run out on the bill and must come up with an alternate plan to be together. Meanwhile, Monk catches up with the two and picks a fight with Tom for attempting to steal his wife. Unlike the movies, the punches actually hurt. On the plus side, Tom notes that: "I don't get hurt or bleed, hair doesn't muss; it's one of the advantages of being imaginary."

While trying to sort things out, Cecelia meets Gil Shepherd, the real life actor who plays Tom Baxter. To protect his career, he has flown out from Hollywood to get his alter ego back into the movie. Amazingly enough, Gil also finds Cecelia attractive, and the two share a romantic scene inside of a music shop where they play the ukelele and sing to each other.

Tom decides to take Cecelia into his world; here, his money allows them to go club hopping and Cecelia is able to enjoy the magic of the movies firsthand (even if the champagne tastes like ginger ale). The supporting cast is not happy with this, as it changes the entire plot of their movie.

Gil enters the theater and professes his love for Cecelia, forcing her to choose between fantasy (Tom) and reality (Gil). The cast of the movie attempts to give her their advice:

The Countess: "Go with the real guy, honey, we're limited."
Rita: "Go with Tom! He's got no flaws!"
Delilah, the maid: "Go with SOMEBODY, child, 'cause I's gettin' bored."

Both Tom & Gil attempt to woo her:

Tom Baxter: [to Cecilia] "I love you. I'm honest, dependable, courageous, romantic, and a great kisser."

Gil Shepherd: "And I'm real!"

Surprisingly, Cecelia chooses reality and decides to meet up with Gil later to go back to Hollywood with him. Sadly enough, Gil has duped her, feigning interest only long enough to get Tom back into the movie so that all of the prints of the film can be destroyed, thus saving his career. He flies back to Hollywood alone, feeling somewhat guilty, but not enough to do anything to help Cecelia's current situation: no husband, no job, and no way to get back to Tom. In an instant, Cecelia's newfound confidence and strength become shock and heartache as the theater owner tells her that Gil Shepherd has returned to Hollywood...without her. In her tearful eyes, you can see that reality has hit her hard, leaving her with virtually no options. I wondered how Allen would end things; would he tack a happy ending on or would he let the audience use their own imagination as to Cecelia's fate? Fortunately, he made the tough decision and chose the latter. The final scene of Cecelia in the theater, watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, is both heartbreaking and uplifting, as once again, she gets lost (temporarily) from the outside world and finds happiness through the flickering images on screen. This is what it must have been like for millions during the Depression.

The chemistry between Daniels and Farrow is fantastic; you totally believe that there is a love triangle occurring between three very different characters. For those that have seen the film, if given the choice, it would be interesting to know which life you would have chosen for yourself?

See more Silver Screen photos on my Movie & TV web pages.


Tallulah Morehead said...

This is definitely one of Woody's best movies. I've enjoyed it several times.

Daveland said...

I am curious as to how you feel about "Zelig"? That was the other movie in my boxed set.

Tallulah Morehead said...

Zelig is a weird one, but pure delight. And mind you, I can be a HARSH critic of Woody's films. I was one who hated Midnight in Paris, and found its screenplay Oscar deplorable. You can, if interested, read my thoughts on Woody and Midnight in Paris in full on a blog entry I wrote a year ago:

Daveland said...

I agree on Chaplin; once he starts preaching, his films go south quickly, which is a shame, because "Monsieur Verdoux" is a very cool film up until the ending. Here I thought I was the only one that noticed Woody's love of the typeface Windsor. Must be his lucky charm, like Hitchcock's cameos. I have to admit, I liked "Midnight in Paris." Of course, you have to suspend a lot of disbelief in not only the characters, but the plot, but still...I found it extremely enjoyable. "Zelig" though...I found it extremely painful to watch and couldn't even finish it.