Purple Rose of Cairo, The (1985): Woody Allen’s Oscar Nominated Magical Fable

The premise of Woody Allen’s charming fable The Purple Rose of Cairo is similar to that of Buster Keaton’s great silent film, Sherlock Jr. (1924), in which Keaton plays a projectionist who walks into the movie he is showing to an audience and gets caught in its workings.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

he Purple Rose of Cairo

Theatrical release poster

In this bittersweet comedy, set during the height of the Depression, Mia Farrow (Allen’s real-life companion at the time) plays Cecilia, a mousy New Jersey housewife, who survives her harsh life and abuse of her brutish husband (Danny Aiello) by escaping into the world of movies, falling for the charming Jeff Daniels, who plays two parts, a swashbuckling hero cast in an adventure and the insecure actor who embodies that screen image.  Needless to say, Cecilia, like Daniels, is confused by the two men, though really falls hard for one of them.

The feminist scholar, Mary Ann Doane (The Desire to Desire), has suggested that in the last scene, Cecilia is shown “in spectatorial ecstasy, enraptured by the image, her face glowing.”  What this shot signifies for Doane the “peculiar susceptibility” to the image attributed to women in dominant culture.  She elaborates: “There is a certain naivete assigned to women in relation to systems of signification, a tendency to deny the process of representation, to collapse the opposition between the sign (the image) and the real.”


Allen’s fantasy fable on the magic and illusion of Hollywood movies was cited by Fipresci (Federation of International Film Critics), when it played at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival.

Woody Allen: One of My Best Films

Woody Allen considers his 1985 feature, The Purple Rose of Cairo, as one of his few films that is “fairly close to what I wanted to do” when he set out to write it.

As for the film’s origins: The Purple Rose was a film that I just locked myself in a room to write. I wrote it and halfway through, it didn’t go anywhere and I put it aside. I didn’t know what to do. I toyed around with other ideas. Only when the idea hit me, a long time later, that the real actor comes to town and she has to choose between the screen actor and the real actor and she chooses the real actor and he dumps her, that was the time it became a real movie. Before that it wasn’t.”

Despite critical acclaim, the movie was a box-office disappointment, failing to recoup its budget of $15 million.


Orion (Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe)

Oscar nominations: 1 

Screenplay (Original): Woody Allen

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Original Screenplay Oscar was Peter Weir’s Witness, penned by William Kelley, Pamela Wallace, and Earl W. Wallace.

The other finalists in this category were Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown for “Brazil,” Luis Puenzo and Aida Bortnik for the Argentinean drama “”The Official Story,” and Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale for “Back to the Future.”



Cecilia (Mia Farrow)

Tom Baxter/Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels)

Monk (Danny Aiello)

Emma (Dianne Wiest)

Larry (Van Johnson)

The Countess (Zoe Caldwell)

Jason (John Wood)

Donnelly (Milo O’Shea)

Rita (Deborah Rush)

Theater Manager (Irving Metzman)


Directed by Woody Allen
Produced by Robert Greenhut
Written by Woody Allen
Music by Dick Hyman
Cinematography Gordon Willis
Edited by Susan E. Morse
Distributed by Orion Pictures

Release date: March 1, 1985

Running time: 82 minutes
Budget $15 million
Box office $10,631,333