Friday Flicks: The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Director: Woody Allen. With Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello, Dianne Wiest, Van Johnson, Edward Herrmann.

Mia Farrow is Cecilia, a Depression-era waitress with an abusive husband and a movie fixation.

After losing her job and walking in on her husband (Danny Aiello) with another woman, Cecilia has a minor meltdown and spends all day in the theatre, watching a movie called The Purple Rose of Cairo time after time.

Halfway through the fifth time she’s watching it, Tom Baxter, a character in the film (played by a very young Jeff Daniels), stops in the middle of a line, looks straight at her and tells her she’s beautiful. He then steps through the screen and, leaving the rest of the cast yelling that he must return, runs out of the theater with Cecilia.

The fourth wall stays broken throughout the movie—the cast on the screen in the theater house are unable to continue with the plot and instead, to the complaints of the theater audience, they  just “sit around and talk, and no action? Nothing happens?” (The laugh track preempts the inevitable Woody Allen joke).

While Tom explores the real world with Cecilia, his actor—Gil Shepard—and the other Hollywood types panic and descend en masse on the little New Jersey town. Gil Shepard, the actor who played the defecting character (also Jeff Daniels) is the most worried: his agent and the studio bosses have threatened that he is both responsible for the actions of his character in the real world and likely to lose future work if he gets a reputation as being “difficult.”

After Cecilia confuses Gil (the actor) with Tom (the character), Gil convinces her to take him to see Tom. As Gil and Tom fight over which of them gets to decide Tom’s fate, they also argue over the rights of the creator over his creation, the place of fiction in the real world and, ultimately, the purpose of life. (In trying to explain religion: “is God like a film director? Since God gives meaning to everything, without him, life would be like a movie without a plot. And no happy ending!”)

Their argument is given added weight by each man’s wish that Cecilia stay with him: Tom takes her to visit the celluloid New York, while Gil promises to take her back with him to Hollywood. The distinctions between reality and fiction aren’t really clear cut—Tom’s emotions are real, Gil woos her with lines from a movie—but Cecilia’s choice is essentially the deciding factor.

Bring the Kleenex. And I suggest turning on the subtitles—the dialogue is often quick, and you definitely don’t want to miss it.

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