random reviews, recollections & reminiscings

Sunday, October 14, 2007

REEL REVIEW: Cactus Flower (1969) ***


rated PG
1 hr. 44 min.

written by: I. A L Diamond, Abe Burrows (play "Cactus Flower"), Pierre Barillet & Jean-Pierre Gredy (play "Fleur de Cactus")
produced by: Mike Frankovich
directed by: Gene Saks

I happened upon this one the other night on television and was pleasantly surprised. I was fooling around with the free movies on my cable's free On Demand feature. I don't really go there that much for movies but on this particular Friday night, the selections were pretty dry. Not as dry as a cactus mind you (heh, sorry). Well, I saw that it was released in 1969 and it had Walter Matthew, an actor I just love and who's filmography I've been meaning to bone up on. I knew nothing about the film. The Turner Classic Movies guy came on before the film started and said something about how this was Goldie Hawn's debut feature film. Hmph. I hoped that her performance here was better than the majority of her work in the last coupla decades. I would see something fresh from her. I didn't even know about Ingrid Bergman was in it until I saw her name as the movie began. So, I was intrigued by this late night find from the start and found myself solidly entertained by this silly, well-written comedy.

Julian Winston (Matthau), is an easy-going, middle-aged bachelor dentist whose delicately balanced scheme crumbles under some unexpected circumstances. He's stringing along his dizzy blonde mistress, Toni Simmons (Hawn), by telling her he has a wife and children. When he learns that Toni has tried to commit suicide over him, however, he promises to marry her. Of course, he thinks that will resolve everything but it just snowballs more unforeseen drama, in typical fashion. Refusing to be a home-wrecker, toni is distraught and insists on meeting Winston's wife. He convinces his loyal and lovelorn nurse Stephanie Dickinson (Bergman) to help him get outta this dilemma by posing as his wife.

Stephanie refuses at first but once she follows through we not only see hilarity but also her character revealed. There plenty of typical twists, surprises and confusion for these three but it's Bergman who really carries the film. On Stephanie's unplanned journey out of her no-nonsense cocoon, Bergman simply glows with sweetness and confidence. At first, it seemed so odd seeing her in a late 1960's New York romp with Hawn and Matthau but then again I respected her all the more for it. It's clear that she is enjoying herself immensely, and it's infectious: as a viewer, it's impossible not to get drawn into the cheerful pandemonium of the movie. I regret to admit that his is only the second film I have seen Bergman in (I know. I know), the first being "Casablanca". Bergman is the type of actress who just got better as she aged. Not only is she beautiful but her talented range is apparent in the sheer variety of roles she took. I'm definitely going to work my through her filmography as well.
There are, of course, some other character s that get caught up in Julian's lies. He tries to hook Stephanie up with a boyfriend, using his actor-neighbor Harvey (Jack Weston) who is not just her total opposite but a buffoon. The other innocent bystanders is Toni's next-door neighbor, Igor Sullivan (Rick Lenz) a frustrated playwright and the only man closer to her age. Lenz is the other absolute joy to watch in this film. I never even heard of the guy and there he was with a delightful character. Looks like he did mostly television work after this which is too bad cuz he scenes really enliven the movie.

The film exudes a cheerful energy that might now be conceived as cornball but when you take it for the time it was made in, it's all for fun. It's evident that everybody (particularly Bergman) was having a good time making the film and that's always good to see. Nothing worse than seeing actors work in a movie where it look like just took a check. I found the film genuinely engaging from the very beginning where Toni is about to kill herself in her apartment to the setting up of a situation that we can't help but be interested in.
One gripe I have and it's something I absolutely detest of older movies is how the opening credits roll through everyone who worked on the film as the film has started. Nowadays, this is all done after the film and rightly so. Studios and directors have learned that it's distracted to the story and just plain off-putting. But that's really a minor gripe. Turns out I was right, the film was adapted from a Broadway production of the same name that starred Lauren Bacall as Stephanie. That play was actually inspired from the French play Fluer de Cactus. The film adaptation doesn't really lose the feeling that it could be a play, it has a low-key theatrical feeling to it that caters to the actors.

How was Hawn in her debut role? She was great! That's surprising to me cuz she generally annoys me. But here she makes Toni Simmons into a real person: perky, wide-eyed, innocent, and enthusiastic as a puppy, she brings an unassuming energy into all of her scenes. I couldn't believe that Hawn actually won a Best Supporting Oscar for the role! Wow. That shocked me even more than the film cuz it was equally Bergman who makes the movie. Most of Hawn's films from the 80's and on have come across to me as rather repetitious and somewhat annoying to me but it was great to see her fresh debut here.
The movie does sneak in a look at society's expectations of relationships. While it might have been something new to touch on May-December romances back in the late 60's, it seems kinda old news now. Still, it shows that the film is taking a modern outlook as it looks at and why it is usually acceptable for an older man to have a barely-21-year-old lover, but disgusting for an older woman to contemplate an affair with a younger man. Other terms like "old maid" and "eligible bachelor" are thrown around as well when we see Bergman caught in such stereotypical labeling. But a lesser actress delivering such pointed lines of social commentary surely would not have had the presence Bergman has as she gives substance and believability to a story's message. Like Bergman, the film has aged very well and I found it to be an enjoyable, funny, energetic, and well-made comedy.
A 1970 TV Spot for "Cactus Flower" is a
far cry from all they give away now.

The Skinny:
  • The film was the seventh highest grossing film of 1970.
  • The namesake of the film is a prickly cactus that Miss Dickinson keeps on her desk at the dentist's office. Similar to Miss Dickinson, the cactus is cold and inhospitable. However, by the end, both the cactus and Miss Dickinson have bloomed.
  • Besides her Oscar win, Hawn also won a Golden Globe and she also received a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress while Bergman was only nominated a Golden Globe for Best Actress.
  • Tuesday Weld turned down the role of Toni Simmons.
  • The three kids seen behind the GTO in the GM 5th Avenue showroom during Matthau and Hawn's NY walkabout are David and Jenny Matthau and I.A.L. Diamond's son Paul.

      Image:Cactus flower dvd cover.jpg

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