Toni Simmons believes that the only reason her married lover won't leave his wife is because of the children. In truth, her lover, dentist Julian Winston, doesn't have any children. In fact, Julian doesn't even have a wife - he just tells women he does to avoid getting involved. When Julian does decide to take the plunge with Toni she insists on meeting the first wife and Julian enlists the aid of his long-time nurse/receptionist Stephanie Dickinson to play the part.
Walter Matthau ... Dr. Julian Winston
Ingrid Bergman ... Stephanie Dickinson
Goldie Hawn ... Toni Simmons
Jack Weston ... Harvey Greenfield
Rick Lenz ... Igor Sullivan
Vito Scotti ... Señor Arturo Sánchez
Irene Hervey ... Mrs. Durant
Eve Bruce ... Georgia
Irwin Charone ... Record Store Manager
Matthew Saks ... Nephew
Starting on or around 1965 American movies took a turn for the shocking and the iconoclastic which was great for the times -- sort of the seeds that would pave the way for grittier, daring dramas. However, because the very decade that gave birth to these films was so ruled by its own convictions, most all of the films released at this period have dated. CACTUS FLOWER is no exception. Its very title suggests a "sunny" romantic comedy with occasional lapses into the risqué. This is not to say that it's a bad thing: quite the contrary, films about risqué subject matter have to begin somewhere and America being a culture rooted in specific traditions, themselves laced in deep hypocrisies, shocks itself for the sake of it when seeing an indirect reflection of the mores of the time. Meanwhile, European films address these same situations, walk off looking like a million bucks, and have a longer shelf-life because what we consider scandalous, they shrug off, say "Next," and move on.
Toni Simmons (Goldie Hawn in her breakout role), a young, very sixties bright young thing, is carrying on with a much-older dentist named Julian Winston (Walter Matthau), who has commitment issues. He can'r marry her: he's already married. Toni decides instead of wilting away she actually wants to meet his wife and "set things straight." Into the picture comes his assistant, Stephanie Dickinson (a luminous Ingrid Bergman, returning to American cinema after a twenty-year absence), a woman closer to his age who acts as if she and he had the perfect marriage and household. There is a reason for this: she has harbored quiet emotions for Julian, emotions he is unaware of, even when he asks her to play his wife to ward Toni off from wanting to step their relationship further. And then he steps it up a notch when Toni's blissfully innocent actions veer the action off into the unexpected and he introduces Harvey Greenfield (Jack Weston) as Stephanie's "lover". By the way, Harvey is also an older gent who is having an affair with a much younger woman (Eve Bruce) whom he also lies to in one very funny scene.
It's funny how the person whom we're looking for is the one who's always been there. What could have been a thankless role for Rick Lenz who plays Igor Sullivan, Toni's next door neighbor, turns into the man who not only sees the true beauty in fellow outcast Stephanie but the one who saves Toni at the start from killing herself. (Not the stuff of comedy, suicide. Then again, this is not your average comedy.) And needless to say is Ingrid Bergman's subtle, poignant portrayal of a woman who's somehow missed her chances at love, who's become prickly, who due to a lie said to another she becomes the real person she was always meant to be. I can't imagine anyone else in this quiet but deep role.
Movies like these can be enjoyed at face-value and seen as escapist fun -- a product of its times -- or be viewed for the deep symbolism that, like its title, it carries deep within. It's a tricky film, the same way Hawn's and Bergman's performance are equally tricky because in seeming so simple, devoid of flourish and pose, neither come out and proclaim what they are about. Their acting becomes "not really acting" but playing real people, warts and all. CACTUS FLOWER is a story that never appears to take itself too seriously, but reveals itself to be deep and very human after all.
This film has not exactly remained fresh in the minds of film buffs, and it's a crying shame. Its witty screenplay adaptation should have netted Oscar nominations for the great screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond's adaptation, and Ingrid Bergman's flawless performance. It must have been an honor for Goldie Hawn at such a young age to work with Bergman, looking more than a decade younger than her 54 years--fifty four! When she's on the screen, it positively twinkles.
This is a film which may appear dated at first, but it actually made me wish I was around during the swingin' 'sixties. Hawn's fashions are as tacky as Bergman's are chic. (That's one minor flaw--isn't her character a little too soignée for a gal who still lives with her sister? But then again, would we have Ingrid any other way?) And who wouldn't want to hang out at a nightclub called The Slipped Disc?
The best compliments I can pay to this film is that it somehow made me nostalgic for a decade that I never saw, and that it left me wanting more. Speaking of wanting more, I wonder what ever became of sexy supporting actor Rick Lenz? (He resembles Griffin Dunne in this film.) This was his film debut, and I don't see any other major roles in his filmography. As for Goldie Hawn, she's done so much since then it's easy to not be impressed, but I can't imagine any other actor in the role, either.
Since the movie is based on a play, the line delivery may seem a bit stage-y, but it did not inhibit my enjoyment at all. In fact, I am amazed at how funny it still is after over thirty-five years. Because this film represents a bygone era, it has unjustly slipped from the consciousness of film buffs. It is more linked to the era films that came before it than the ones that followed. But don't let that stop you from savoring the delights it has to offer.
Cactus Flower is what I call a "pizza movie" -A personal favorite that never fails to satisfy. Perfect for an evening at home with a pizza. Knowing all the lines (and what lines!) by heart only enhances the enjoyment.
Since so many others here have retold the plot, I'll simply add the correction that Bergman's character, Miss Dickinson, was a nurse-receptionist, meaning she was a skilled nurse -and therefore an educated person -not "just" a receptionist.
Bergman's performance in this film -and the film itself- was largely dismissed at the time, but today's audiences will marvel at her range; not just the impeccable comic timing, but the ability to make us believe her character is unaware of her own feelings while revealing them so clearly to Toni and to us. While the general plot stretches credibility, Bergman's performance is compelling: honest and utterly believable.
Also a standout is Jack Weston's performance as the Matthau's old friend and co-conspirator, Harvey. No one could deliver a zinger like Weston, and I.A.L. Diamond's script gives him plenty. For example: "That's such a big, dirty, rotten lie it has class." Weston excelled at slightly seedy characters because he exuded a warmth that allowed you to forgive his characters' flaws.
The film is a fairly straight adaptation of the Abe Burrows play (which was itself adapted from a French play by Barillet and Gredy). On Broadway Matthau's role was played by Barry Nelson. Bergman's by Lauren Bacall, and Hawn's by Brenda Vaccaro. It ran for 1,234 performances (three years) and was nominated for two Tony Awards (Vaccaro and Burt Brinckerhoff, who played Igor).
For me, the film's score, written and adapted by the legendary Quincy Jones is another highlight. The main theme (A Time For Love Is Anytime) is performed by Sarah Vaughn over the opening and closing credits. It is also insinuated in different arrangements throughout the film, most notably as the romantic piano music underscoring Berman's speech to Hawn in the record store. Jones also created covers of popular songs from the period (To Sir With Love, I'm A Believer) for the night club scenes. As with all of the film's elements, there is a tremendous amount of talent, taste, and professionalism evident.
In my opinion, few modern romantic comedies can hold a candle to this classic. It's great to finally have it available on DVD. Time to call for a pizza...