Cactus Flower made my TCM Top Twelve back in June and boy did I wait too long to watch it. I thoroughly enjoyed this story of mistaken identity, gender studies, and a delightful Goldie Hawn as a confused girl simply looking for love. The film does provide easy outs as the film comes to its conclusion, dampening the strong twists and turns of the romantic comedy but the performances, particularly from Ingrid Bergmanmake it worth seeking out and enjoying!
Julian Winston (Walter Matthau) is a womanizing dentist who tells his girlfriends he’s married as to avoid any long-term commitments. When one of his mistresses, a record store clerk named Toni (Goldie Hawn) tries to commit suicide over him Julian decides its time to take the plunge and marry Toni. The problem is she believe he’s married! He decides to enlist his long-suffering receptionist Stefanie Dickinson (Ingrid Bergman) to pretend to be his soon-to-be ex-wife.
You might vaguely remember a film borrowing this premise last year in the Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston comedy Just Go With It. Having seen both that film loosely borrows this story but pushes aside the romantic love triangle in favor of a hackneyed plot with Nicole Kidman. I can’t say I hated Just Go With It, it’s probably the one decent (and I use that term loosely) Adam Sandler film I’ve seen in years but now having watched Cactus Flower the remake looks like a dung heap.
This film’s claim to fame was nabbing Goldie Hawn her first Oscar as Toni and I was pretty surprised to read that. I love Goldie Hawn, she was inducted into my Hall of Fame, but this role isn’t any different from her role on Laugh-In complete with pixie haircut and tiny skirts. She does provide some emotion and continues to exhibit amazing comedic timing that she would hone over the years but I don’t see it as an award worthy performance, especially considering she’s “introduced” to audiences with this film. The Oscar should have gone to Ingrid Bergman as Stefanie. I’ll go into acting a bit later but boy did she surprise me. You ever seen Ingrid Bergman let her hair down? Well see this movie and you will! It also boasts Bergman’s return to American films since the 1940s after her unofficial exile in light of her relationship with director Roberto Rossellini. Something to envision whilst reading this review: Lauren Bacall played Stefanie during this film’s original run on the stage. While I can see where Bacall would shine; Ms. Dickinson is a tough as nails woman with a vulnerable side, I just found Bergman to be compelling since it was so out-of-character for her.
Cactus Flower has talent both on-screen and off starting with a screenplay by I.A.L. Diamond whose name you might know in conjunction with director Billy Wilder. The script is fantastic and if you didn’t know it, you’d think Wilder was helming this as the film opens with an attempted suicide (a trope used in another Wilder film, Sabrina). Toni tries to kill herself after Julian stands her up. Unfortunately the suicide doesn’t take due to her second-hand stove, “It was a second-hand stove, there were no directions.” The humor works to defuse the dark situation and really the film never gets darker than its opening scene. The script also hearkens back to the film’s stage origins in the character of Igor (Rick Lenz) who mentions being a writer of plays where “people keep their clothes on.” Might this be a reference to Oh, Calcutta? I think that’s the stage play where everyone was naked right? That or Hair. Regardless, the joke is on-point.
I mentioned Hawn as recycling her Laugh-In persona and that’s true to a point. Hawn has always excelled at portraying slightly stupid women with good hearts; Toni is no different (although she starts the trend of Hawn wearing teeny dresses that would continue for several films). She could have been written as a character who doesn’t care that she’s cheating with a married man (mind you he’s not really married but she doesn’t know). Once he decides to truly commit her need to make sure she’s not a home wrecker takes over, although it never truly makes sense why it bothers her now. Either way Toni isn’t an idiot and when she meets Stefanie, pretending to be Julian’s wife, she’s expecting a fight or a screaming match. When Stefanie proves to be classy about the whole thing Toni is desperate to make sure “Mrs. Winston” is going to be all right. Toni isn’t a home wrecker, she’s just a girl put in a bad situation but that’s no reason for her to stop caring about people. If anything you come to hate Julian more for putting these two women through such a stupid ordeal.
Let’s look at the other woman in this equation. Have I mentioned how much I adore Ingrid Bergman in this film? I don’t want to say it as I might contradict myself in the future but I think this is her best role! She truly leaves that fragile, polished Ilsa-like character and proves she can roll with the times. Her character, who starts out the first half of the film being known as Ms. Dickinson, is introduced as all-business. Continuing the theme of off-color jokes, one of Julian’s patients gets irritated that Ms. Dickinson isn’t all sex, stating that he’s heard “Swedish broads” were supposed to be sexy. It’s not that Stefanie isn’t, she’s just not throwing it out there for everyone to see! She’s got class and dignity, just the right blend for Julian to already consider her wife-like (and continuing to show the stereotype that men need a classy lady in the home and a stripper in the bedroom). One would go so far as to say that Stefanie is akin to Julian’s mother considering she presses his shirts and actually makes his lunch! In these early scenes of Julian and Stefanie you see true acting genius in the ways Stefanie subtly shows the audience her love for Julian. When Julian first asks her to be his wife her elbow slips off the table. It’s a testament to Bergman’s acting because it feels like she’s really surprised or it’s a blooper. You don’t see subtle stage business like that anymore. It is hard to see exactly why a wonderful woman like Stefanie would want a cad like Julian but that doesn’t matter since Bergman is so fantastic in the role.
In a way Cactus Flower isn’t even about Julian or whether he’ll end up with one of these women. The audience is free to have fun with these two females discovering their worth. Both women are holding back and unable to make it in the world, whether it’s Toni’s inability to let go of Julian who obviously doesn’t truly appreciate her, or Stefanie popping her staid bubble and living her life and through this farce find their individuality. The women look at each other and see something they wish they had. Toni yearns for Stefanie’s class while Stefanie sees innocence, youth and (sadly) trust when she looks at Toni. By the end Julian has become incidental and you honestly don’t care what happens to him. You really wish both women would discover he’s a jerk and kick him to the curb!
Matthau is good here but again, he’s incidental to the plot and I really could have pictured anyone in the role. Then again, I never saw Walter Mattheu as some type of sex god to begin with so it is a tiny bit hard to believe Bergman or Hawn would like him in the first place. His logic with these women is simple; he believe he won’t feel the same type of love for Toni if she were to be his wife. Considering my background as a child of divorce where cheating is involved I’ve always believed this excuse was bull and I don’t believe it here. Julian is just a man-child who wants his cake and eats it too. Despite being a total jerk Matthau works the comedy. Case in point, a brilliant bit of rapid-fire exchange between him and Toni. Toni asks him about getting a divorce, “What about your wife?” Julian: “I’ll divorce ’em.” Toni: “What about your children?” Julian: “I’ll divorce them too!” He finds these lies so simple to say because we all know the wife and kids don’t exist! In fact when Stefanie goes to see Toni as the fake wife, she brings her nephews along. Well of course Toni believes the children are Julian’s and starts questioning Julian and asking questions about the fake back story he’s invented. Julian’s back story on his life is intricate complete with names and ages for his fake kids, the work of a professional liar and you really want him to get caught. No matter how hard the film tries to make you believe he’s the one to root for you never do. The film goes so far as to employ an echo when Julian tells Toni she can meet his wife to make you feel the weight of his decision but really you just want to see him squirm.
It’s fairly obvious where the plot goes from there. Stefanie and Julian have played the married couple their whole lives so it’s no surprise that they decide to take the plunge together (although I can’t for the life of me figure out why). Toni ends up with Igor, a character blander than Julian who I kept forgetting was part of the cast (let’s just say Rick Lenz wasn’t the best actor in this film). Cactus Flower is a film of miscommunication, mistaken identity, and aches for the ability to trust in those you love to hilarious effect. And of course it has Ingrid Bergman dancing…in 1969. It’s freaking hilarious and I’ve included it above as the perfect way to close out this review. The dancing starts around the 1:44 mark.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.