02 March 2006

100 films: The Purple Rose of Cairo

purple rose of cairo
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starring: Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello, and Irving Metzman
written and directed by: Woody Allen
PG, 84 min, 1985, USA


Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a waitress in a bad marriage, finds an escape from her dreary life at the movies. Under the flickering lights, she gets lost in the stories, in the back stories, and in the lives of the actors themselves. But her affections do not go unnoticed, as one day Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels)--archeologist, adventurer extroardinare, and fictional character--stops the film, walks down into the audience, and whisks Cecilia away. Cecilia is delighted, but the rest of the film's cast is flabbergasted, unsure as to what they should do without Baxter who, while a minor character, is the one the plots turns on. The film stops as the characters sit around waiting for Baxter to come back, passing the time by playing cards and interacting with the remaining audiences members, who run the gamut from fascinated to livid. Meanwhile, Baxter is adjusting to the real world, Cecilia reconciles herself to being in love with a fictional character, and Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels), the actor who brought Baxter to life, flies in from Hollywood to ensure his creation doesn't ruin his career.

There's something beautifully bittersweet about The Purple Rose of Cairo, one of Woody Allen's forgotten gems. Mia Farrow's Cecilia is as empathetic a character as you're likely to find, too distracted by her Hollywood obsession to always concentrate at her job, occasionally beaten by her unemployed husband (Danny Aiello), and not too proud to cry as spends her evenings at the movies. So when Baxter notices her in the audience, even remembering how many times she's seen the movie, and comes down off the screen, it becomes one of those fairytale moments that you only see, well, in the movies. But it's the type of moment that can bring a smile to even the hardest soul partly because it's so unexpected, but mostly because of who Cecilia is. This is a dreamer who wouldn't even consider hurting a soul[1], and the world uses that delicacy, that naive sense of trust, against her. So to see something good happen that's beyond even her wildest dreams is a delight.

It doesn't take a genius of a director to figure this out, but Woody Allen does it in ways that most wouldn't. Things like not making Cecilia an aspiring actress who wants to be a movie star, but instead someone who's just in love with the Hollywood ideals of that time[2]. She has no delusions of grandeur, no ulterior motives, no aspirations to speak of. Her love of Hollywood is as pure as it can possibly be and Farrow plays it with a wide-eyed wonder. Allen also has the presence of mind to make Baxter nearly as innocent as Cecilia, trying to pay with fake money, confusing the screenwriters with God, and wondering why there isn't a fade out when he goes to kiss her. They make quite a pair as they fall in love both with each other and the ideals they've projected onto the other person (or fictional character, as the case may be).

And while Farrow's great in this role, she's no match for Jeff Daniels dual performance of Baxter and Gil Shepherd, the actor who created him. As good as he is here[3], it's almost stunning to consider that is essentially took twenty years before he again had a role this good.[4] Daniels plays Baxter as a supporting character in a 1930's movie in that slightly over-stated, happy to be in a movie way that's common in the time period. But the beauty of it is that he plays the character the same way even after he's come down off the screen. He may be free from the constraints of the plot, but he cannot change who he is. He cannot fully become real, he cannot avoid doing and saying the type of things his character might say. Shepherd, of course, has no constraints. His concern is primarily with the state of his career, so he spends his time alternately worrying that Baxter may become a felon and defending the importance of Baxter to the film, no matter how minor the character may be. But in one of Woody Allen's interesting twists, he has Shepherd fall in love with Cecilia. It's a nice little comment on the nature of love, that who we fall in love with is something that's decided at the core of who we are. Because that's what Baxter and Shepherd share and both are smitten with her. Eventually, Cecilia must make a choice, and Shepherd points out to her that he has the advantage of being real. But to someone like Cecilia, does he? His lifestyle makes about as much sense to her as traipsing around the film with Baxter, so in essence she must choose between three levels of reality: Baxter, Shepherd, and her louse of a husband.

The Purple Rose of Cairo may not be the genre-defining masterpieces that are Annie Hall (1977) or Manhattan (1979), but it is as expertly-crafted a film as you'll find. Every shot, every subtle joke, every note feels perfectly placed. The film has no grand ambitions, yet it is made so simply and perfectly that it achieves them anyway. Along the way, Allen takes time to comment on the relationship between films and their audiences, as the characters start insulting audience members who are sitting there merely to observe how the characters spend their time waiting for Baxter's return. Or, as one woman complains to the manager, "I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week; otherwise, what's life all about anyway?" So short-sighted, but yet so true.

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[1] Even after Baxter professes his love for her, she's still faithful to her louse of a husband.

[2] Being the Great Depression.

[3] Nominated for a Golden Globe, even.

[4] That would be The Squid and the Whale (2005). There are others, I know, but none that vaulted Daniels into this level of critical acclaim.

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