The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) – Woody Allen’s delightful ode to cinema


Having a central protagonist that is feverishly obsessed with movies is a good enough reason to watch Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo for any cinema lover out there. Mia Farrow plays Cecilia, a pale-looking, frail, 20s something waitress working at a New Jersey restaurant. She is in a seemingly loveless marriage and she is not doing very well as a waitress either. The customers aren’t getting what they have ordered, she forgets to hand them their bills and she is being at her clumsiest best. Unsurprisingly, she gets fired. Her husband (Danny Aeillo) is jobless and wastes his time with his friends shooting craps and ogling at other women. Cecilia doesn’t like all this at all and complains about it constantly. She loves the movies but he doesn’t.

So she goes to the theater alone every day watching the same movies over and over again. The current attraction at the local theater is a delightful little adventure film called The Purple Rose of Cairo. Now, this is a fictitious black-and-white movie made by Allen for this film. The lead character is Tom Baxter, an Indiana Jones-type explorer who meets a bunch of socialites doing a tour of an Egyptian tomb. Baxter is invited to spend some time with them in New York. When she goes to watch the movie for the fifth time, Baxter notices this and leaps off the screen, literally. The movie becomes chaotic after that. The characters in it are wondering what’s happening and they find it impossible to proceed with the story without Baxter.


Calls are being made left and right. Where is the movie’s lead character? Is he robbing a bank? Raping women? Or indulged in any other unspeakable activity? The customers of the theater are demanding their money back. One woman complains that there is no action and that she didn’t come to see a bunch of people talking. The theater owner makes a phone call to the producer Raoul Hirsch. He and his cronies can’t believe what they are hearing. Meanwhile, the actor playing Baxter, Gil Shepherd (played by Jeff Daniels), is informed about this “incident” as well and he can’t believe his ears either. His agent tells him, “Anything can happen in New Jersey.” It’s one of the best lines in the film. While everyone is desperately looking around for Baxter, he and Cecilia are having the time of their lives and Baxter initiates a romance. “I am married”, she tells him. “Happily?”, he asks her.

Here is a romance between a real-life character who wanted to escape from her dreary existence and a fictional character who wants to escape from his dull monochrome existence. Complication after complication ensue when Gil Shepherd finds out about Cecilia and he too falls in love with her. The film is one of Woody Allen’s most entertaining films and is a must-watch for anyone who is a true cinema freak. The stunning cinematography by Gordon Wills (who worked on The Godfather films as well as on some of Allen’s other films), the rich production design all transported me back to an era that I always wish I could back to, if there is a real time-travel machine around. The Purple Rose of Cairo is Allen’s tribute to the the one thing that keeps out sanity intact: Cinema.


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