“The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985) may very well be the best Woody Allen film in which he has not acted. However, despite his absence, I believe the Woody character is very much there, this time as a female, in the character of Cecilia, and Mia Farrow’s wonderful performance keeps reminding us of Woody himself. She is clumsy, and tentative, and unhappily married. She is in love with the movies and she is struggling with dilemmas about romance and infidelity. She is a simple, nice girl, who manages to evoke humour and pathos at the same time in the hearts of the audience. I was missing Woody Allen badly during the first few minutes of the film, but soon Cecilia took over. And soon we get to see the incredible event that changes the course of the movie and Cecilia’s life.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Cecilia is watching a movie called “The Purple Rose of Cairo” in a local theater for the nth time, when a character from the movie, called Tom Baxter, ‘spots’ her sitting in the audience and emerges out of the screen to meet her. This kick-starts a series of incredible events – the movie on the screen going off-track with other characters not knowing what to do without Tom, the audience and the theater-owner perplexed and irritated at this, the producers struggling to find a solution to it, and Tom Baxter secretly hiding from everyone else, except Cecilia, with whom he has fallen in love. He knows he is a character from a movie, and that he is not real, but he wants to enjoy his sudden freedom and wants to spend his life with Cecilia. The matter gets further complicated when, on hearing the news, the real actor playing the Tom Baxter character comes to town. What happens next is for you to see. Here I’m sharing the scene where Cecilia brings Gil Shepherd (the Actor) to meet Tom Baxter (the character).
INT. SECRET HIDING PLACE
CECILIA (entering): Tom!
CHARACTER: Cecila, I dreamed of us in Cairo…
CECILIA: I brought…
ACTOR (entering behind Cecilia): Gil Shepherd. I play you in the movie.
CHARACTER: You do?
ACTOR: How dare you run away?
CHARACTER: This is disconcerting.
ACTOR (charging at him): I’ll show you the meaning of disconcerting! (grabs the Character by his collar) I’m trying to build a career.
CHARACTER: I don’t want to be in the film anymore! I’m in love with Cecilia! (manages to free himself)
ACTOR: You can’t do this to me. It’s my best role. I’ve been critically acclaimed for this!
CHARACTER: Because of the way I do it.
ACTOR: No, because of the way I do it. I’m doing it, not you!
CHARACTER: Then how do you explain that here I am?
ACTOR: I took you from the printed page and made you live.
CHARACTER: So I’m living.
ACTOR: For the screen only!
CHARACTER: I want my freedom.
ACTOR: I don’t want another one of me running around the world. I can just imagine how he’s…
CHARACTER (interrupting): Are you afraid I’ll embarrass you?
ACTOR: Frankly, I’m afraid…
CHARACTER (interrupting again): But you created me!
ACTOR: Look, be reasonable here. I’m starting to build a career. Is life up on the screen so terrible
CHARACTER: I want to be with Cecilia. I’m in love with her.
ACTOR (rushing towards Cecilia): Will you tell him to go back? Tell him you don’t love him. Tell him you can’t love him. He’s fictional. Do you want to waste your time with a fictional character? You’re a sweet girl. You deserve an actual human.
CECILIA: But Tom is perfect.
ACTOR: But he is not real. What good is perfect when the man’s not real?
CHARACTER: I can learn to be real. It’s easy. There’s nothing to it. Being real comes very naturally to me.
ACTOR: You can’t learn to be real. It’s like being a midget. It’s not a thing you can learn. Some of us are real, some are not.
CHARACTER: I say I can do it.
ACTOR: I’m not staying here to argue with you. I’m going back to town and call my attorney, the actors’ union. I won’t take this lying down. Nor will Roul Hirsch (the Producer). Nor the police, nor the FBI.
END OF SCENE.
Despite the humor, the predicament of the actor here is very reasonable. An actor actually takes the character from the script and makes it alive, literally adding flesh and blood and face and voice to it. Good acting, they say, is not about trying to play a character different from you, but to find the similarities between yourself and the character, and substituting your own life experiences into the life of the character, trying to understand the character’s psychology from your own perspective and turning it into behavior. But the truth is, despite putting in so much of effort and creating the character with love and empathy, finally the actor needs to detach from the character and his conflicts. He cannot let the ghost of his creation haunt him forever. So, what if some day the character you created as an actor comes alive and confronts you as your alter ego? Isn’t it an exciting premise? Trust Woody Allen for such wonderful moments. He is one true genius, and an inseparable part of cinema consciousness. The eager wait for “To Rome with Love” has begun!