meaning of life, screen

The Great Screenplay Writer in the Sky


I wrote this for the Decades Blogathon hosted by movie review pages: Three Rows Back & Digital Shortbread. The task was to pick a film released in the fifth year of any decade (1955, 1965, ’75, ’85 and so on). I chose 1985, and wrote about my man Woody.

The Purple Rose of Cairo is Woody Allen’s romantic comedy from 1985 about a bored movie character who falls in love with his biggest fan. Mia Farrow plays Cecilia, a dreamboat movie nut who is struggling to keep her head above water in depression-era 1930s New Jersey. 

Cecilia is unhappily married to an unemployed brute called Monk (Danny Aiello), who not only mistreats and sponges off her, but also drinks and is unfaithful.
Mia Farrow in Depression Era Diner as Waitress dreaming of the movies
to think I was once married to Frank Sinatra
Cecilia works at a diner as a short-order waitress. But she isn’t very good at her job. She is slow, drops things, and generally gets on the owner’s nerves. Cecilia’s mind is always away at the movies she adores, that she lives for, that represent a far more beguiling world than her dreary, helpless existence.
The film opens with Cecilia stood outside her local fleapit, gazing dreamily at a poster for the new attraction – a romantic comedy called ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’. Until a piece of metal lettering falls off the picture house marquee and almost lands on her head. Back to reality with a bang.
At work, Cecilia smashes a plate and is shouted at by her boss. Walking home, she seeks out her husband Monk and finds him pitching pennies with his rough pals round the back of an abandoned factory – as another day passes waiting ‘for the country to get back to work again.’
Monk is mean, grasping and indifferent. Cecilia wants to go to the first night of ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’. But he refuses to take her; sneering at her offer to ‘forget your troubles.’ 
Cecilia goes by herself. As she enters the auditorium, her eyes light up and her pallid complexion flushes in anticipation of escaping into fantasy. The lights dim and the titles run for ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’.
Film Poster for Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo

The film opens in a opulent New York penthouse, where glided Art Deco luxury abounds. A handsome, debonair man (Edward Herrmann) dressed in a lounge suit is sat at a grand piano with his cigarette fixed in a long, elegant holder – signally the epitome of urbane sophistication. He looks across to his friend (John Wood), who is busy mixing martinis behind a well-stocked bar, and announces that all this wealth and privilege is quite dissatisfying. ‘Jason, I’m bored,’ he declares. ‘Bored with cocktail parties, opening nights and days at the races.’

Jason has a plan to slay the old ennui, suggesting they take off tonight for a jaunt to Cairo, Morocco, Tangiers – ‘all the romantic, exotic, exciting places in the world’ – returning to Manhattan in time for the opening of Henry’s new play.

Away on their travels, they bump into an American explorer called Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) in an Egyptian tomb.

Actor Jeff Daniels in a pith hat in an ancient Egyptian tomb
on the verge of a madcap Manhattan weekend

Tom is researching an ancient Egyptian legend called the Purple Rose of Cairo. But, he instantly throws it all in when the socialites suggest he come to New York with them to go nightclubbing.

Next thing, Tom is sauntering into Henry’s penthouse suite, dazzled by the Deco glitz, as he prepares to head off for a night at The Copacabana club. ‘I still can’t get over the fact that 24 hours ago I was in an Egyptian tomb,’ says the game, wide-eyed Tom. ‘And here I am now, on the verge of a madcap Manhattan weekend.’

It is a line he will be seen uttering repeatedly during Cecilia’s many return viewings of the film. As her real life rapidly unravels – she loses her job and catches Monk cheating on her – Cecilia develops an escapist addiction to Tom Baxter and ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’. She sees the movie so often that after a time Baxter’s character looks out for her in the audience. Eventually, Tom becomes so preoccupied by Cecilia, that he abandons the film and comes down off the silver screen to speak with her.

Jeff Daniels steps down off the screen and into the cinema audience


This spectacular breaching of cinema’s ‘fourth wall’ is a post-modern moment for all the ages. The audience is stunned, popcorn is spluttered, a woman faints. Meanwhile, onscreen, the rest of the characters are aghast, telling tell Tom to come back this instant!

Chaos and mayhem breaks loose, but Cecilia rapidly adjusts to this unexpected turn of events and runs off with Tom – out the back of the cinema and off down the road.

The runaways go to ground at an out-of-season amusement park; where they catch their breath and swap life stories. The windblown fairground, with its sleeping dodge’ems and merry-go-round, is typical of the empty, desolate landscape of Cecilia’s world beyond the picture house, underscoring the fact that these are hard, bare-knuckle times. Allen’s depression-era pallete is muted and wintry, with lots of beige, dun and ochre. But at the picture house, the film ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’ glows in deep, luminous black and white, as celebrated cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather, Klute, Stardust Memories) paints the screen with platinum, silver and pearl.

Despite the child wind blowing, Tom still finds his new reality to be a pretty amazing thing. But he’s hungry. He left the film before the scene at the night club where he usually eats dinner. Cecilia donates her leftover popcorn and explains how the real world is currently down in the dumps; that no one has a job; that there are wars, and ‘people get old and sick and never find true love.’

But Tom refuses to be discouraged. He tells Cecilia that he’s in love with her. She rebuffs him, says ‘that’s movie talk’ and reminds him of the fact that he’s not real. And anyway, she already has a husband.

At a fairground, about to kiss
didn’t you used to be married to André Previn too

Tom persists, ‘How many times does a man walk off the screen to be with you because he’s so in love,’ and whisks her off for a luxury, slap-up dinner to celebrate.

But when the waiter at the posh restaurant rejects Tom’s fake movie money, the couple are forced to do a runner. Tom jumps in a nearby car and waits for it to drive away by itself, like automobiles normally do in his world. Later, when he kisses Cecilia, he’s puzzled that the romantic moment doesn’t conclude with a fade-out: ‘you mean, you make love without fading out?’

Back at the picture house, with Tom being the only one who can leave the movie, the rest of the onscreen cast are stranded in movie limbo. Incapable, in Tom’s absence, of moving forward, they quickly grow frustrated and confused, mistiming cues and tripping over their lines. The ground beneath their feet has fallen in. ‘I’m a dramatic character,’ bleats Henry, ‘I need action.’ Like the players in Pirandello’s absurdist theatre classic, Six Characters in Search of an Author, the beached protagonists interrogate their roles and begin to question the substance of their identity – as any fictional entity is likely to under such circumstances.

The actors watch the action off screen at the cinema
five characters in search of an actor

This is a kind of an idleness that the idle rich are not built to cope with. Losing all sense of purpose, the cast find themselves hectored by a ‘Bolshie’ political activist agitating for revolution. We’ve come a long way fast from madcap cocktails at the Copacabana.


It’s here in the dramatic and conceptual heart of the film, that Allen has the most play with assorted, connected, mind-bending ideas concerning fiction versus reality, existence, identity, and the nature of being. There’s also destiny, free will, and the silent hand of fate. (Or by ‘fate’, we may actually mean the Great Screenplay Writer in The Sky.)

The film buzzes with energy and ideas and an overflow of quips and paradoxes that Allen doesn’t really have the dramatic time or space to fully develop. But this is fine. This is Screwball redux. The droll, playful philosophical flightiness fits perfectly within the bounds of social comedy, as Allen channels the suave dizziness of the genre he also affectionately lampoons.

Meanwhile the film’s producers are furious at the chaos caused by Tom Baxter’s vanishing act. Their inclination is to simply switch off the projector. The onscreen cast are appalled at the thought – their fear of the big fade-to-black is the celluloid version of the death anxiety. ‘You’ve no idea what it is like to be turned off, to disappear, to be nothing, to be annihilated.’

Fearing lawsuits, and the beginnings of a possible red anarchist plot, the Hollywood honchos blow into town with actor Gil Shepherd – who plays the part of Tom Baxter. They warn Shepherd that if he can’t bring his creation back under control, they’ll pull the picture, burn the negative and kill his career.

Gil heads off to find Tom and fix him. He runs into Cecilia, who, naturally, is a big fan of his work. She lavishes him with praise and quickly Gil becomes smitten.

Meanwhile Tom has been lured away from the fairground by Emma, the stereotypical tart with a heart – played by the splendid Dianne Weist. Emma draws Tom into her brothel to fleece him. But soon finds that she and her co-workers are so charmed by his naivete, they offer him a poke on the house.

Jeff Daniels and Dianne Weist
how to get a rise during a depression

Tom’s rapid initiation into the way of reality has catapulted him up a steep learning curve. Having encountered examples of poverty, birth and religion, Tom has become gripped by the meaning of life – as all of Allen’s leads are contractually obliged to at some point. While the working girls prepare to take Tom to their boudoir, he’s mainlining profundity: ‘the meaning of everything,’ he bleats. ‘The point to existence… The finality of death. The miracle of life… The sense of wonderment at the very fabric of being.’

In passing, he observes that the ladies in their racy lingerie might be single for now, but it will surely only be a matter of time before they find husbands, given ‘the seductive way you all dress.’ At which point he declines their offer of a group freebie. He tells them he’s saving himself for another: that his heart is only for Cecilia: ‘every breathe she takes make my heart dance.’

And with that, Tom goes looking for his desideratum, who’s been playing the ukulele with Gil. Perhaps sensing for the first time a possible doubt over their future together, Tom puts a temporary halt to his exploration of reality, and encourages Cecilia to join him on the other side of the screen, taking her on a joyride through his fictional realm. 

For one night only, they get to live out Cecilia’s fantasy of carefree excellence – with cocktails and caviar at the Copa serving only as a prelude to a dazzling tour of the town. The screen becomes a riot of time-shifting effects: with dissolves, overlays and pulsing neon, as the names of numerous exotic night clubs and floating Champagne glasses circle around the delighted smiles of the two lovers.

‘My whole life I’ve wondered what it would be like to be on the silver screen,’ say Cecilia. Well, now she knows.

At the conclusion of a singular night of romance and hilarity, the happy lovers return to Henry’s empty penthouse, to find Gil skulking at the back of the picture house, jealously watching them on the screen. He quickly coaxes Cecilia back down. He says that he is in love with her. ‘Just like in the movies’. Only this is for real. 

But is Gil for real, or is he just pretending, so to outflank Tom? And if so, will the the realism of his acting be enough to trick Cecilia into rejecting Tom’s fantasy?

This nesting of riddle within riddle is cinematic Russian dolls; and is part of the abiding charm of this comic masterpiece. As Roger Ebert wrote of Woody Allen on the cinematic release of the film: ‘He makes us laugh and he makes us think, and when you get right down to it… those are two of the most exciting things that could happen to anybody in a movie. The more you think about The Purple Rose of Cairo, and about the movies, and about why you go to the movies, the deeper the damned thing gets.’

Gil’s declaration of love puts Cecilia on the spot. She is torn between three lovers. Will it be Tom or Gil; or will she tough it out with husband Monk? ‘I’m confused. I’m married. I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional – but you can’t have everything.’

This is one dilemma Cecilia can’t dodge by going to the movies. As a minor character observes, ‘The most human of attributes is to choose’; it is what makes us who we are. So, who will she choose?*

Woody Allen talks to camera in Annie Hall
life is terrible, and such small portions

American cinema’s three lead film-makers of the 1970s were Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola. But each director’s career has long since run aground.

For the last 20 odd years, Scorsese has produced a long string of immaculate, airless ‘prestige’ movies that are quickly forgotten – films like The Aviator and Shutter Island fail to sear an imprint in the viewer’s mind equivalent to Raging Bull or Taxi Driver.

Francis Coppola has pretty much stopped making films; and regardless of his embrace of new digital technologies, the director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now remains an a old-school movie mogul adrift in a new world order.

Meanwhile, Woody Allen continues to release a new movie every twelve months – never a fallow year. But not everybody applauds such fecundity, as a lot of the recent titles have been disappointingly bland. In fact, many wish he’d stop making films altogether. At the very least perhaps he should make fewer. Would anyone really regret the non-existence of Melinda and Melinda, Small Time Crooks, or Scoop? In a sense, Woody Allen is the Prince of celluloid: in that, just like Minneapolis’s purple marvel, he just can’t stop churning out content – having mislaid his personal pause button somewhere around 1992.

There’s a compulsiveness in Allen’s prodigal turnover – a variation of the death anxiety perhaps – that makes him plough ever onwards. He seems uneasy, incapable of resting still, chasing perfection, as perfection disappears ever further over the horizon. Or is it simply that the neurotic energy which once propelled him to great things, has degraded with age, to become merely fuel with scant purpose?

The energy on view in Cairo, was back when Woody was running on the good juice. From a far-out realm of fictionality, he manages to make you believe in the human dilemmas faced by these clearly made-up frivolous characters. One is engaged and touched by their existential plight – even that of the bored playwright.

From the early 1970s to the mid 1990s, Woody Allen made great films with an incredible frequency – from Play it Again, Sam to Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, Husbands and Wives, and even, at a push, Deconstructing Harry. And then he stopped making great films. And soon came the duds. And though one may regret the many duds that were to follow, perhaps a kinder, better way of thinking, is that the failures serve to throw into even clearer relief, how very, very good the great Woody Allen films were. And not just the ‘early, funny ones‘.

That said, The Purple Rose of Cairo, aside from of its many other qualities, is also very funny.