“Cactus Flower” (1969): An Unexpected Gem

Unexpected gem: “Cactus Flower,” directed by Gene Saks, viewed thanks to Turner Classic Movies. Saks, who also directed “Barefoot in the Park” (1967) and “The Odd Couple” (1968), worked a fair amount with writer/producer Neil Simon. More recently, he played Woody Allen’s father in “Deconstructing Harry” (1997).

Cactus Flower 1967
I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen Walter Matthau actually stand like that.

I thought it was starting off a bit awkwardly–a 24-year-old Goldie Hawn as Toni, only one year into her tenure at “Laugh-In,” in what looked like a hippiefied “The Apartment” (1960). Like Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik, Toni attempts to kill herself as the result of a love affair with an older, married man. Here, this crisis is merely the opening action. Her neighbor, Igor Sullivan (Rick Lenz), breaks in and enthusiastically gives her mouth-to-mouth.  And it was actually the script that seemed a bit awkward. But I was wrong—and how. The screenplay, adapted by I. A. L. Diamond, is a delight. And wouldncha know, he wrote “The Apartment,” as well, so maybe it is a technicolor dream version of that film. Diamond worked a fair amount with Billy Wilder.

Here, his screenplay is based on the very successful stage play (1965, starring Lauren Bacall and Brenda Vaccaro) by Abe Burrows, itself an adaptation of a French play, Fleur de cactus, natch, by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, which premiered in 1964. And it turns out, “Cactus Flower” is the original of the recent Adam Sandler-Jennifer Aniston vehicle, “Just Go With It” (2011). Good grief.

Post-War Screwball Comedy

But “Cactus Flower” isn’t just “Apartment” through kaleidoscopic love-in glasses; the plot is a post-War screwball comedy, the script full of screwballesque exchanges between men and women. I couldn’t find much at all on the French play, but surely Barillet and Grédy watched a lot of American films from the 30’s and 40s, absorbing the snappy dialogue. In fact, films like “His Girl Friday,” “The Philadelphia Story,” and my favorite, “The Awful Truth” were themselves adapted from plays–to say nothing of “Private Lives” (1931) and “The Women” (1939).

Julian: I must say, it’s grotesque. A woman your age, throwing yourself at a kid like that!

Stephanie: And what about that eh, father-daughter thing of yours, if you don’t think that’s ridiculous…

Julian: Well, it’s different for a man. If a man is with a younger woman it looks entirely appropriate, but when it’s the other way around, it’s disg…

Stephanie: Well, you go to your church and I’ll go to mine.

Here, Walter Matthau plays dentist Julian Winston, who pretends to be married to avoid having to actually marry his mistress, Toni, with professional Classy Broad Ingrid Bergman as the prevaricating dentist’s loyal assistant, Stephanie Dickinson, who pretends to be the wife he’s divorcing when he decides he really does want to marry Toni. As in any good screwball, the lies people tell or pretenses they create to avoid romantic entanglements finally land them in the arms of their true partner.

Walter Matthew and Ingrid Bergman
Walter and Ingrid take five.

What makes this film is the script and classy cast. Hawn won her only Oscar, for Supporting Actress, for “Cactus Flower.” (Her only other Oscar nomination was for Best Actress in “Private Benjamin,” eleven years later.) More trivia: Raquel Welch accepted Hawn’s Oscar for a role Tuesday Weld turned down. But it’s the amazing Bergman, in the first picture she filmed in America in about twenty years, who steals the show. Her performance here is a sort of loose relation to her Anna Kalman in 1958’s frothy “Indiscreet” (which was–you guessed it–adapted from a play). That film shares the bachelor-pretending-to-be-married premise.

The magic happens at about 2:25 in the clip. Ingrid Bergman learning to dance from Goldie Hawn. Priceless, with the best of connotations. The resolution leaves something to be desired; it looks like it was filmed from an LED set, thus making it look like a poor-quality live television show. (Reminded me a bit of “Three’s Company,” watching the clip.) I would never have thought of Bergman in a role like this—though “Indiscreet” is similar, she’s a highly-regarded actress living in what I remember as being a penthouse and dating a world-renowned economist, going to fancy parties and high-end restaurants. I thought Bergman was slumming a bit here (not in terms of company, but in material), but she is, of course, an excellent comedienne, and she pulls off the loosey-goosey late sixties silliness with her usual flair.

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