Reel on Real: Escapism and Reality in THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO
15 September 2013
In short, Woody Allen‘s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) is the story of a woman whose life is so depressing she depends on the magic of the movies to escape it. Cecelia (Mia Farrow), a woman who lives a rather miserable life during the Great Depression-ridden 1930s, is a part-time waitress and full-time film fanatic, frequenting The Jewel, her town’s local movie house. But then, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, and just at the moment when her miserable life hits a new low, a character from the movie The Purple Rose of Cairo, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), walks right off the screen and into Cecilia’s life. As the people of New Jersey and Hollywood panic over Tom’s escape, and the remaining movie characters grumble over their inability to complete the pictures without him, Cecelia’s world is transformed by romance and adventure, the likes of which she has only ever watched on the big screen. Adding even more drama, Gil Shepherd (also, Jeff Daniels), the actor who performed the character Tom, swoops into town hoping to persuade Tom back into the movie, but he, too, falls in love with Cecelia. With two identical men, but one real and one a film character, fighting for her love, Cecelia must pick between the two. In the end, she chooses reality, but, as Cecelia knows all too well, the real world can be bleak and punishing place.
Escapism is a central theme in The Purple Rose of Cairo, along with staple Allen’s topics, most notably identity: how we define ourselves and how that definition is challenged by people and the world around us. Yet, escapism is, perhaps, the most interesting, and certainly most apparent, theme. In The Purple Rose of Cairo, the anti-heroine, Cecelia, relies heavily on the movies to escape her life, but when her fantasy world becomes her reality, she realizes escape is impossible, as escaping only exists because of reality; without reality there would be no need to escape. Although miserable at times, reality is the only option and the escape into a fantasy world can never last.
Only people who are in unhappy circumstances or unsatisfied in some way desire an escape, and the audience immediately learns Cecelia’s life is miserable, validating her understandable need of such an escape. The opening shot is Cecelia gazing upon a film poster for the latest flick at The Jewel, The Purple Rose of Cairo. “Cheek to Cheek,” sung by Fred Astaire, nondiegetically plays over this shot, and the line clearly heard as Cecelia daydreams in front of this poster is, “Heaven, I’m in Heaven,” perfectly capturing her sentiments as she stares lovingly and excitedly. Then, without warning, a heavy, black metal letter from the theatre’s marquee drops right behind Cecelia; “Cheek to Cheek” abruptly stops, replaced by the diegetic sound of the street scene. Had Cecelia been any closer she would have been hit, and likely killed, by the plummeting metal. As a theatre worker bellows, “Cecelia, be careful,” Cecelia’s deep fantasy, sparked by The Purple Rose of Cairo poster is dashed, and she is dragged back to reality thanks to this near death experience.
This jarring opening sums up Cecelia’s life, as well as foreshadows the film’s ending. Cecelia spends her time fantasizing as an escape from the harsh reality of her world, but reality continues to pose the potential for difficult and unexpected misfortune. Moreover, evident from this opening, as much of an escape artist as Cecelia is, easily slipping out of reality into a reel world, reality always wins out over the escapist’s fantasy world.
The audience continues on with Cecelia only to learn her oppressive, low-life of a husband treats her badly and sleeps around on her; moreover, Cecelia is terrible at her job (waitressing). One of Cecelia’s biggest problems on the job is she cannot stop talking about movies and movie stars. A film fanatic, Cecelia pays little attention to her duties, including her customers or boss’ repeated warnings about her poor work. Instead, she rambles on about movies stars: who they date, what they star in, and why she absolutely loves every flick she mentions. Inevitably, Cecelia is fired from the job, a financial blow as well as a personal letdown.
How can Cecelia escape all the misery her life has in order? Simple, the movies. Cecelia escapes her life at The Jewel, which just so happens to be showing The Purple Rose of Cairo. Having already seen the film twice, Cecelia wanders back to the theatre after being fired; because she finds her life so devastating in this present moment, Cecelia must try escaping it through the movie. But, sitting in the movie theatre all day does more than offer Cecelia an escape. Tom Baxter, one of the film’s characters, takes notice of Cecelia, leaves the film, enters the real world, and completely blurs the line between reality and fantasy for Cecelia.
From the moment Tom enters Cecelia’s world she finds herself in adventures she had only ever witnessed in the movies. Not only is a dashing character now alive and smitten with her, but the actor who portrayed the character also turns up, and he too is smitten with Cecelia. The remaining characters in the film stop performing, halting The Purple Rose of Cairo, but Cecelia does not care; she does not need the movies to escape her reality anymore; her escape, unbelievably, became her reality.
However, when this balance between reality and escape is disturbed for Cecelia, things become unstable. Without a balance, Cecelia must eventually decide between reality and fantasy, between Gil and Tom.
Cecelia chooses reality, Gill, because that is the only option she has. Escapes are wonderful, but they exist because we live in reality. No one can exist in an escape. Thus, Cecelia selects Gill. Moreover, Gill jilts Cecelia in the end, which was inevitable. Cecelia may know everything about her escapist world— the movies and movie stars, their lives, dating habits, and performances–, but she is naïve to the real world. She cannot see Gill for who he really is; in fact, even Gill, the “real” man, is still not entirely real to Cecelia. He is more real than Tom, but she still holds on to the illusions of Gill that she has created in her head. He is, of course, not the chivalrous and caring man she wished. Because her creation of Gill is also not real, he leaves her, which is the most authentic outcome Allen can produce for the character who chooses reality over fantasy.
In the conclusion, Cecelia returns to The Jewel. The Purple Rose of Cairo is now closed and Top Hat (1935) is opening. This ending recuperates this film by bookending it. Like the opening, Cecelia stands underneath the marquee, once again vulnerable to reality, such as a falling metal letter, and she looks on at The Jewel trying, again, to escape her miserable reality through the movies. In the final scene, the audience, again, hears “Cheek to Cheek,” this time accompanying the film Top Hat, which Cecelia takes her seat to watch the movie. The ending brings the film full circle, allowing the audience to leave Cecelia exactly where they found her, and knowing her life will now continue as it always has, miserable, but with the possibility of escape at the movies.