Sunday, February 12, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.10: Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Grade: 96 (A)
The Purple Rose of Cairo is as wonderful as any film Woody Allen ever made. It is the peak of his nostalgia-driven works of the 80s (including the also strong Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, and Radio Days). It is the single warmest, sweetest film of his career, without ever being too sentimental. It is filled with melancholy without being overbearing. It is his most passionate love letter to the power of the movies (and it significantly takes place in 1935, the year of his birth). It features the finest role Allen ever wrote for his then-muse and girlfriend Mia Farrow. It is also Allen’s personal favorite of his films, the one he truly felt came closest to what he set out to accomplish. What an accomplishment it is.
1935, New Jersey: America is in the midst of a Depression. Cecilia (Mia Farrow) works a crummy day job as a waitress, which she’s not particularly good at, and her husband Monk (Danny Aiello), is an out-of-work factory laborer who gambles, drinks, fools around, refuses to find work, and hits Cecilia whenever she displeases him. The only thing that brings up Cecilia’s spirits is her frequent outings to the movies, where she briefly takes solace from her hard life. One film that transfixes her is the fictional The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which a group of Manhattanites take a vacation in Cairo, where they meet the adventurous archeologist Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels); they bring him back for a weekend in Manhattan, where he falls in love with a nightclub singer. Tom is only a supporting character, but Cecilia loves him above all the others.

Tom notices. After Cecilia sees the film a fifth time, Tom stops in the middle of the action, appreciates how much the movies mean to her, and steps outside the screen to meet Cecilia. The two explore New York and fall in love, but the other moviegoers and characters of the film are displeased, as the story can’t continue without him. The executives of RKO Pictures aren’t too happy either, and they force Gil Shepherd, the actor who plays Tom in the film, to go to New York and straighten it out.
Here, Allen abandons his Fellini-esque grotesques and Bergman drama. There’s some light flirtation with some of Allen’s heavier themes: Cecilia brings Tom to a church, something he has never seen (why would he? It’s not in the movie). Cecilia refers to a creator, and Tom thinks she’s talking about The Purple Rose of Cairo’s screenwriters. Cecilia explains that it’s an answer to everything that gives purpose to the world, and that without him, life would be a movie without a point or a happy ending. Allen’s previous films poked fun at religion, but here Allen’s disbelief takes a slightly more melancholy tone. Cecilia’s life is an unhappy one, and she’s unlikely to have a happy ending. The film also has hilarious political jokes- everyone thinks that Tom’s situation is the work of anarchists, or Reds, and a character in the film-within-a-film comments that the characters do all the work while the fat-cat Hollywood executives collect the checks.
 Mostly, however, the film is a tribute to early cinema. The break in the fourth-wall between the silver screen and the audience comes straight out of Buster Keaton’s marvelous comedy Sherlock, Jr. (although much of the rest of the action involving the fictional characters is inspired by Luigi Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author). The depiction of down-on-their-luck Americans searching for escape is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. The film-within-a-film The Purple Rose of Cairo is a near-perfect replication of bubbly, enjoyable  1930s era studio comedies. Best of all is the film’s bookends: the sound of Fred Astaire singing “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” from the classic movie musical Top Hat. It’s all a loving tribute to how wonderful the movies can truly be, particularly during hard times.
As Cecilia, Farrow is the ultimate dreamer in those hard times. Farrow’s comedic gifts were well utilized in Broadway Danny Rose, and Roman Polanski had previously used her wide-eyed, expressive face to good use in Rosemary’s Baby. Here, Allen combines those gifts and brings out the best performance in his muse’s career, Farrow’s very own Annie Hall. She brings an infectious optimism to every scene as someone who knows how bad things are around her- she’s got a terrible job, a terrible husband, and things don’t look to get any better anytime soon- but who finds some brief respite in the wonders of the movies. Cecilia’s passion for those loveable, lightweight comedies gives her something to look forward to everyday, and that’s all that she needs.
Jeff Daniels, one of the most underrated actors of his time, is just as perfectly cast as Tom Baxter, whose “gee golly” optimism reflects the carefree attitude of the movies. When he sees someone as wonderful and as sad as Cecilia, he can’t help but fall for her- there’s no one quite like her in his world, and her love for the movies is inspiring. Much credit has to be given to Allen for the scene in which Tom slightly alters a line we’ve seen several times before, only to break from the script completely and reach out to Cecilia; it cannot be stressed enough, however, how perfectly Daniels plays the scene. Better still are the scenes in which Tom’s gee-whiz hero interacts with the real-world folk: Monk, Cecilia’s bastard of a husband, who fights with Tom, loses, and when Tom extends his hand in friendship, gets the upper-hand by fighting dirty (Tom’s an old movie hero, though, so he isn’t seriously harmed). When Tom meets a prostitute (Dianne Wiest), she takes him back to her brothel, where she and her friends try to entice him with innuendoes that he has no grasp of. He’s too sweet, and they decide to make love to him for free. He turns them down, as Cecilia is the only girl for him, which only warms their hearts more. As Cecilia says, “I’ve met the perfect man. He’s not real, but you can’t have everything.”
Reality meets fantasy, however, when Gil comes in to convince Tom to go back into the film. Gil isn’t the only self-centered character in the film (everyone in the film-within-a-film believes that they are the main character), but his single-minded focus on his career contrasts perfectly with Tom’s good-hearted soul. Cecilia meets Gil and tells him how talented she thinks he is (“you should play Lindbergh!”), and he’s deeply flattered. He spends the day with her, and they bond over a wonderful sequence in which he sings and she plays the ukulele. He’s falling for her, just like Tom.
It comes to a scene where Cecilia has to choose between the two. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Tom has taken her into his movie, where she spends time on top of the world, living like the people in the movies do. Gil confronts the two in the theatre, and Cecilia has to weigh her options: Tom is warm, loving, and absolutely perfect; Gil is real. Tom has nothing but his love to give her. Gil wants to take Cecilia back to Hollywood.  Cecilia chooses Gil, and Tom is utterly crushed. She needs reality, and with a heavy heart, he accepts it and returns to the film (which, it has been learned, will be burned). Cecilia goes home to pack her things and leaves Monk for good. She returns to the theatre…only to find that Gil went back to Hollywood. He looked as charming and sweet-natured as Tom, but it turns out that he’s just a pretty terrific actor (and a cynical human being). Crushed, Cecilia sits in the theatre, where the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie Top Hat plays. Fred sings “Dancing Cheek to Cheek”, saying that he’d rather dance with his true love than go on any adventure; nothing thrills him more. Cecilia smiles and briefly forgets her troubles. Life is tough, says Woody Allen, but the movies never let us down.

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