The film was released on March 1, 1985 to critical acclaim. It won the BAFTA Award for Best Film, while Allen received several screenwriting nominations, including an Academy Award, a BAFTA Award and a Writers Guild of America Award. Allen has ranked it among his best films, along with Stardust Memories and Match Point.
Set in New Jersey during the Great Depression in 1935, the film tells the story of Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a clumsy waitress who goes to the movies to escape her bleak life and loveless, abusive marriage to Monk (Danny Aiello), whom she has attempted to leave on numerous occasions.
The latest film Cecilia sees is a fictitious RKO Radio Pictures film, The Purple Rose of Cairo. It is the story of a rich Manhattan playwright named Henry (Edward Herrmann) who goes on an exotic vacation to Egypt with companions Jason (John Wood) and Rita (Deborah Rush). While in Egypt, the three meet archaeologist Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels). Tom is brought back for a "madcap Manhattan weekend" where he falls head-over-heels for Kitty Haynes (Karen Akers), a chanteuse at the Copacabana.
After Cecilia sits through the film several times, Tom, noticing her, breaks the fourth wall, and emerges from the black-and-white screen into the colorful real world on the other side of the cinema's screen. He tells Cecilia that he is attracted to her after noticing her watching him so many times, and she takes him around her New Jersey town. Later, he takes her into the film and they have a great evening on the town within the film. The two fall in love. But the character's defection from the film has caused some problems. In other copies of the film, others have tried to exit the screen. The producer of the film learns that Tom has left the film, and he flies cross-country to New Jersey with actor Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels) (the "real life" actor playing the part of Tom in the movie). This sets up an unusual love triangle involving Tom, Gil, and Cecilia. Cecilia must choose between them and she decides to choose the real person of Gil rather than the fantasy figure of Tom. She gives up the chance to return with Tom to his world, choosing to stay with Gil and have a 'real' life. Then she breaks up with her husband.
But Gil's professions of love for Cecilia were false—he wooed her only to get Tom to return to the movie and thereby save his own Hollywood career. Gil abandons Cecilia and is seen quietly racked with guilt on his flight back to Hollywood. Having been left without a lover, job, or home, Cecilia ends up immersing herself in the frothy escapism of Hollywood once again, sitting in a theater watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to "Cheek-to-Cheek" in the film Top Hat, forgetting her dire situation and losing herself in the film.Mia Farrow as Cecilia
Jeff Daniels as Tom Baxter/Gil Shepherd
Danny Aiello as Monk
Edward Herrmann as Henry
John Wood as Jason
Deborah Rush as Rita
Zoe Caldwell as The Countess
Van Johnson as Larry Wilde
Karen Akers as Kitty Haynes
Milo O'Shea as Father Donnelly
Dianne Wiest as Emma
Michael Tucker as Gil's agent
Glenne Headly as hooker in bordello
George Martin as member of movie audience
Loretta Tupper as music shop owner
Michael Keaton was originally cast as Tom Baxter/Gil Shepherd, as Allen was a fan of his work. Allen later felt that Keaton, who took a pay cut to work with the director, was too contemporary and hard to accept in the period role. The two amicably parted ways after ten days of filming and Daniels replaced Keaton in the role.
Several scenes featuring Tom and Cecilia are set at the Bertrand Island Amusement Park, which closed just prior to the film's production. Many of the outside scenes were filmed in Piermont, NY, a tiny village on the Hudson River about 15 miles north of the George Washington Bridge. Store fronts had false facades reflecting the depression-era setting. It was also filmed at the Raritan Diner in South Amboy, New Jersey. Woody Allen shut down the Kent Theater on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, the neighborhood he grew up in, to film there.
In a rare public appearance at the National Film Theatre in 2001, Woody Allen listed The Purple Rose of Cairo as one of only a few of his films that ended up being "fairly close to what I wanted to do" when he set out to write it. Allen provided more detail about the film's origins in a comment he made a year earlier, during a press junket for Small Time Crooks:
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. But the whole thing was manufactured.
The Purple Rose of Cairo opened in North America on March 1, 1985 in 3 theaters, where it grossed an exceptional $114,095 ($38,031 per screen) in its opening weekend. Box office settled down upon further expansions, and its total US gross of $10,631,333 was in line with most Allen films of the period.
The Purple Rose of Cairo received critical acclaim, and currently holds a 91% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 33 reviews, with an average score of 7.8/10, with the site's critical consensus reading, "Lighthearted and sweet, The Purple Rose of Cairo stands as one of Woody Allen's more inventive -- and enchantingly whimsical -- pictures." The film also holds a score of 75 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on seven critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars, writing "The Purple Rose of Cairo is audacious and witty and has a lot of good laughs in it, but the best thing about the movie is the way Woody Allen uses it to toy with the very essence of reality and fantasy". Time Out also gave the film favorable appraisal, saying "the star-struck couple, Farrow and Daniels work wonders with fantastic emotions, while Allen's direction invests enough care, wit and warmth to make it genuinely moving". Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote some of the most glowing contemporary praise, saying, "My admiration for Mr. Allen extends to everyone connected with The Purple Rose of Cairo - all of the actors, including Mr. Daniels, Mr. Aiello, Dianne Wiest and the players within the film within; Stuart Wurtzel, the production designer, and particularly Gordon Willis, the director of photography, who has great fun imitating the look of the movie Cecilia falls in love with, as well as in creating a style fitting to the depressed times that frame the interior film." Canby concluded, stating "I'll go out on a limb: I can't believe the year will bring forth anything to equal The Purple Rose of Cairo. At 84 minutes, it's short but nearly every one of those minutes is blissful".
The film was recognized as one of the "ALL-TIME 100 best films" by Time magazine.American Film Institute Lists
AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – Nominated
AFI's 10 Top 10 – Nominated Fantasy Film