The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)



If you cut off the last two minutes of Broadway Danny Rose, it would feel a bit like the end of The Purple Rose of Cairo.  This might be one of the saddest endings of a Woody Allen film.  It’s similar to Manhattan, but Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is so easy to root for that when she’s left alone at the end of the story, we feel alone as well.  That’s when you realize you’re just watching a movie (possibly by yourself) just as she is.

So this story takes place in New Jersey in 1935, deep into the Great Depression.  Cecilia is a small-town waitress with a disappointing husband.  She dreams about the movies, always aware of what’s coming through town next, and she sees each picture many, many times.  It’s a perfect representation of movie escapism in the Depression Era.

So she becomes enraptured by The Purple Rose of Cairo and then one evening, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) jumps off screen and tells her how beautiful she is.  They quickly fall in love, but his departure from the movie screen brings about a few problems.

The film within the film stops.  The actors begin interacting with the audience, and the audience only complains that there’s no plot.  The movie studio begins to panic, and they all worry about what Tom’s intentions are.  They think he might start attacking people but really he just loves Cecilia and wants to experience real life.

Gil is the actor who played Tom Baxter, and when he learns of Tom’s escape, he begins to fret about the damage this could do to his career.  He flies to the small town in New Jersey, and runs into Cecilia who mistakes him for Tom, understandably.

Cecilia falls for Gil, and he falls for her but mostly because she showers him with praise and inflates his ego.  At the same time she is conflicted, feeling loyalty to Tom, so she returns to the man from the movie screen.

Tom has trouble in the real world despite the wonder he feels as he walks past soup kitchens, stumbles into brothels and learns what pregnancy is.  He has no real world money, and his solution is to take Cecilia into the movie world, thus fulfilling a dream she’s had since we met her.

Everything is going nicely, but then Gil finds them when he wanders into the theater.  The thing about being in the movie, as Tom and Cecilia are, is they are constantly being filmed so they can never hide.  So Cecilia must make a decision, and she does.  She chooses to be with Gil because he’s real.  She tells Tom that everything will work out for him since everything in movies has a way of working out.

Cecilia goes home to pack and leave her husband, despite his please for her to stay.  She returns to the movie theater as they are removing the title letters from the marquee and learns that Gil has left town, content that his career is safe.

With all her possessions in hand, Cecilia goes to the theater to watch the new film by herself.

So it’s a sad ending, and it seems to break down the barrier between movie and reality.  As Cecilia indicates, everything works out in the movies, but they don’t in this movie, and that’s reflective of the Depression era in which they live.

“After this film was previewed, word got back to Woody Allen that if he just changed his ending, he could have a big hit. Allen declined, saying that the ending is one of the reasons he made the film.”

He has also stated that this is one of his favorite films that he’s made.

One of the reasons I love Woody Allen’s films, apparently, is that they feel very layered and textured with meaning and sometimes nonsense.  In this film, he tackles the idea of escapism, reality vs. fantasy and existentialism, naturally.  He also plays once more with image and perception.

Cecilia is swept up with Tom because he’s idyllic.  He never gets hurt, and his hair is never not perfect.  He was created with purpose.  In his world, the world onscreen, there is most definitely a God.  Whether it’s the writer, the director or the actors themselves, it doesn’t matter, but there is a purpose.  When Tom leaves the screen, the actors lose their minds because they don’t know what they’re supposed to do.  The theater manager wonders out loud whether he should turn off the projection and one of the characters panics, implying that turning off the projection is akin to death.

Throughout the film we cut back to see how these characters are coping because they’ve just discovered that God is dead.  It’s a very existential… situation.  It’s not a dilemma because there’s nothing they can do until Tom returns.  When he ultimately does return, they simply go back to the storyline like nothing happened.  It’s like if God revealed himself to us, and everyone is in agreement that “yes, that is God,” but then God appeared to die so we all freak out.  After a few minutes he shows up again like a parent playing peek a boo and we all exhale, then go back to delivering the mail or filing paperwork because that’s what we do.

Tom, in the heat of passion for life, tells Cecilia that life is too short to spend talking about life.  He just wants to live it.  This is what so many of Woody Allen’s films discuss or at least touch on, like it’s a cameo in each of his films, you know, like how Alfred Hitchcock walks past the screen and you’re all like “there he is!”  It’s like that, but with a discussion about the meaning of life.  You’re watching Woody Allen’s next film, and there’s a park bench with two unnamed characters and the camera moves by them and all you hear is “…there is no purpose, but the problem is that we’ve become aware of it…” and then as the audience we’re like “THERE IT IS!”

So anyways, where was I?  Well, I don’t know, but I loved this movie.  I used to love movies with downer endings, but my body was going through a lot of changes at that time, so the further away I am from puberty, the more disdain I have for sad endings that are unearned.  It’s easy to make a sad ending if you just abandon the story and don’t write a real ending.  But this is earned, it makes sense.

See, I don’t think Gil is that different from Tom, his onscreen counterpart.  Tom lives in Hollywood during the Depression, so he and Cecilia come from completely different worlds.  Gil isn’t even his real name, it’s Herman or something.  Just as Tom isn’t real, neither is Gil, he’s a self-constructed image.

So it makes sense that Gil wouldn’t stick around New Jersey to be with poor ‘ol Cecilia.

The other thing I really liked is the idea of characters dying once the projection stops.  So Tom died, you guys.  He’s dead.  That’s horrible, but it’s the way it is.

I touched upon this topic in a previous film, possibly Stardust Memories because Woody Allen’s character Sandy appeared to be killed in that film.  We learned that he simply hallucinated his own death, but it was also part of a larger fascination with character deaths shown in Woody’s movies.  He wanted his character Virgil to die in a barrage of bullets in Take the Money and Run, but he was cautioned against it.

So the film dies but reality lives on, and we must deal with it.  Really we need to cope, that’s what Cecilia does at the end in the theater, and that’s what the other movie characters do while they wait for Tom to return.

We all want to get out of our own worlds, whether it’s our own neurotic headspace or the physical space we occupy, but life is life and we’re stuck with it, for better or for worse.

Up Next: Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Radio Days (1987), The Magnificent Seven (2016)

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