After visiting with Danny Rose, Woody Allen’s most optimistic creation, perhaps it’s best to begin our exploration of The Purple Rose of Cairo with Woody’s take on the film, from Conversations with Woody Allen by Eric Lax:
When I first got the idea, it was just a character comes down from the screen, there are some high jinks, but then I thought, where would it go? Then it hit me: the actor playing the character comes to town. After that it opened up like a great flower. Cecilia had to decide, and chose the real person, which was a step up for her. Unfortunately, we must choose reality, but in the end it crushes us and disappoints. My view of reality is that it is a pretty grim place to be, (pause) but it’s the only place you can get Chinese food.
This should prepare you for the sadness that accompanies a viewing of this film and the sorry state of the lead character, Mia Farrow’s Cecilia.
Set in New Jersey of the 1930s Cecilia is buried beneath a country-wide Depression that has claimed the humanity of her husband Monk, a dastradly Danny Aiello, and, with the help of Allen’s longtime collaborator Gordon Willis, drained the color from the world around her. Woody recollects:
I deliberately wanted her to come out [of the theater] to a very unpleasant situation for her. Gordon was able to do that. I described to him coming out of the movie theater and it suddenly being the real world in all its ugliness.
Cecilia waits tables and trods beaten paths to broken door frames amid drab New Jersey browns. She finds solace at the local movie theater, where, in a neat reversal of the color-coding of The Wizard of Oz, the black-and-white of the fantasy world on screen is a veritable wonderland of richness and possibility and the colors of reality are stifling.
Woody Allen doesn’t appear in this film, and if you squint really hard, I guess you can see some of him in Cecilia. But I think that “looking for Woody” in the films in which he does not appear is sometimes a mistake. And it does a disservice to Mia Farrow’s performance. Woody Allen does not hold a patent on neurotic behavior – I found Mia’s Cecilia to be an original. Her beaming recollections of the previous night’s cinema smoothly countering her fumbling dishes at the diner.
But you can’t break dishes during a Depression. Her job lost and her two-timing abusive husband a constant oppression, she returns again and again to the cinema to lose herself in the latest bit of romantic escapism on display: The Purple Rose of Cairo, featuring an explorer named Tom Baxter, of the Chicago Baxters, whose import to the film is of some contention. Regardless, Cecilia fixates on him to the point that he notices. Upon her fifth viewing, Tom decides to approach her – by walking out of the screen and into the theater.
The smartest part about The Purple Rose of Cairo is that they waste no time explaining how Tom emerges from the screen. They waste no effects on it either. It just happens, and people are a little startled, and then they immediately start thinking about how this unexpected development effects themselves. And the funniest part for me, is the bickering of the characters left on screen who, robbed of their narrative, instantly descend into chaotic arguments. Here Woody anticipates the advent of reality television by a decade, as he accurately predicts that viewers will gladly sit there to watch unscripted interaction – as long as it is nasty enough.
Tom Baxter is the wide-eyed creation of up-and-coming actor Gil Sheppard – both are played by Jeff Daniels. After news of Tom’s defection reaches Hollywood, studio heads, in keeping with the pragmatic reactions in New Jersey, are less concerned with how this miracle transpired than with how much liability is at stake. They needn’t worry, for Gil quickly surmises that unless Tom is contained, his career is over. After all, we’re reminded several times, it’s the actor that is responsible for fleshing out the character and making him real. He speeds off to New Jersey to save his career from his greatest performance.
This is especially an interesting idea, considering that Jeff Daniels replaced Michael Keaton after about a week and half of shooting. In a sense, Keaton was unable to overcome his smash hit personas in Night Shift and Mr. Mom to pull off Tom Baxter. Woody didn’t say he was bad, but he was the wrong guy at the wrong time.
Michael Keaton was right out of the 1980s, not the 1930s. People are always trying to figure out if it was more than that, but that’s all it was… I’d love to do something with him, but that wasn’t the piece. I’d look at the dailies and he was fine, but you got no sense of a 1930s movie star from him: he was just too hip.
And Jeff Daniels as Tom Baxter is inspired casting. He has the perfect mix of bravado and naivete necessary to sell the fictional character within Cecilia’s reality. He’s slightly less compelling, I thought, as the actor Gil Sheppard where perhaps some of Keaton’s bite would have played better. Regardless, Daniels does a tremendous job.
Tom loves his freedom and pursues Cecilia robustly. She understands the impossibility of her situation, but softens after her initial resistance. Her home life is so devoid of hope or pleasure that hooking up with a figment is more promising than staying the course with Monk.
Gil Sheppard’s arrival complicates the absurd, yet budding romance. He is determined to get Tom back on the screen at any cost, but as long as Cecilia inhabits the real world Tom refuses to reenter the film. Gil, distraught at what looks like the end of his career, leans on Cecilia for support and pretends to fall for her as well. I say pretends, because, well, that’s how it plays out. But it sure seems like he is smitten, at least for a little while. So much so that you can forgive Cecilia for being a little confused at this point.
Tom, prevented from taking Cecilia on a romantic escapade in the real world by the large wad of fake currency in his pocket, concocts brilliant plan: he takes her into his film late at night, where his money is good and his friends are on the way to the Copa. They have a wonderful night, and the characters are so relieved to get on with the show, that they don’t mind Cecilia tagging along. She has the night of her life.
Cecilia and Tom come down off the screen once again into the theater where Gil is waiting for them. He puts Cecilia to a decision: the actor or the character. As Woody said, we must choose reality. But is it even a choice? In another comment on the film, Woody said, “…reality hurts you in the end, and fantasy is just madness.” Neither seems a winning hand. So Cecilia breaks Tom’s heart, collects her things to fly off with Gil, only to be informed, in front of the very same movie theater, that Gil fled town without her.
With absolutely nothing to show for her brief brush with adventure and the promise of happiness, or at least the illusion of the promise of happiness, Cecilia trudges into the theater and sits down amidst her suddenly superfluous luggage. She stares blankly at the floor thinking about the life she must resume, when all of a sudden, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers whirl across the screen, dancing cheek to cheek. She lifts her head, she begins to watch, and she begins to smile. Film rescued her once again.
Despite Woody’s negative feelings on reality, Chinese food access notwithstanding, I found the ending somewhat more positive than I had expected after Gil’s betrayal. I felt that the movie could be seen as a love letter to the transformative power of film. The awesome and dangerous power that fiction, especially cinematic fiction, holds over many. And the wonderful power of the imagination, that allows those devotees to bring the world of the film shockingly close to their own reality. It’s two way street – like love. It has to be Think of the Star Wars universe, and the extent that our insatiable demand for that reality brought forth such an array of content, product, and ultimately drivel that almost everything in the original films has been realized in almost every conceivable way. Check out the new Harry Potter theme park in Florida. It’s the world of the book and film in aching clarity.
Woody Allen didn’t need to waste a second of screen time on the explanation of how Tom Baxter came down off the screen. The answer was obvious – it was Cecilia’s love and devotion that made him real. Even if it only lasted while the lights were down.