Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Fourteen

#14 — The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985)
I noted at the start of this traipse through a decade of movies that these are the films that were arguably most formative for me. These were the films that I grew up with, evolving from a fidgety kid who found bawdy comedies to be the height of the form to a slightly less fidgety young adult who was beginning to see the deeper artistry that could be achieved when the right personnel was positioned on both sides of the camera. Given that, it should be no surprise that an effort which celebrates the elusive magic of the movies themselves ranks this high on the list.

The Purple Rose of Cairo begins with a keen understanding of the power of movies as a form of escape. Set during the Great Depression, the film stars Mia Farrow as a mediocre waitress stuck in a miserable, abusive marriage. She gets her meager doses of happiness by going to the local movie house, where she repeatedly watches a silly little romantic comedy about an archaeologist sporting a safari hat who’s brought to Manhattan from Africa by socialites and then winds up falling in love during a dizzying weekend of big city glamor. The woman’s mundane life takes a turn for the fantastical when the strapping hero of the picture, inspired by her devotion to the film, breaks the fourth wall by looking across the screen and talking to her. Then he does the seemingly impossible and steps off the screen altogether to take her hand and race off into the night.

Writer-director Woody Allen may be letting his imagination zip of in fanciful directions, but he’s not making some sweet, simple lark. The Purple Rose of Cairo is infused with the same sprightly mix of inspired humor and sullen cynicism that’s the hallmark of all his very best work. He also thinks through his conceit, dramatizes the logical consequences of a highly illogical situation. With the leading man suddenly absent, the other characters onscreen have no way to move the plot forward, leaving them to bicker with the dumbfounded audience and play cards on the penthouse suite set. It also creates a unique dilemma for the Hollywood studio bosses, since a movie that can’t end is also a movie that can’t sell fresh tickets. To fix the situation, the dispatch the actor who played the wandering character to the dismal New Jersey town in question, and one of the oddest love triangles in cinema history is the result.

Allen’s film has tinges of affection for the sweet diversions of old Hollywood movies–and he concocts one here with a master satirist’s accuracy–but the prevailing thesis of Purple Rose is a deconstruction of the false promises inherent in cinematic fiction. Movies promise happy endings that, in Allen’s estimation, simply aren’t available in the real world. Much of the film’s bite comes from watching all the subtle ways that the tender hopes of Farrow’s character are dashed. This film probably contain’s Farrow’s very best performance for her then partner and chief collaborator, representing the pinnacle instance in which her natural overwhelming vulnerability comes across as gentle and moving. She’s matched by a wonderful performance by Jeff Daniels as both the reality-hopping movie character and the actor who plays him. Without relying on bold, showy tricks and signifiers, Daniels artfully plays a tricky dual role. Both characters are elusive, uncertain, primarily defined by their lack of definition. Identity is a slippery thing. Both the actor and the acted, it seems, can shift as easily as going from one reel to another.

Allen was on a remarkable run at this point in his career, the eternally prolific auteur signing his name to an enviable number of spectacularly successful artistic achievements that began with a mid-nineteen-seventies transformation from a comedian playing around in movies to a director of astoundingly casual inventiveness. For a time, it seemed he could work pure magic with movies, so it only stands to reason that one of his best offerings was centered on the unlikely, if deceptive magic that movies could work.