' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Cactus Flower

Friday, February 03, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: Cactus Flower

Despite appearing to possess less than enthusiastic reverence for the "hippie" revolution, "Cactus Flower" (1969) is a comedic farce, based on a play by Abe Burrows and written for the screen by frequent Billy Wilder collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, in which debonair dentist Julian Winston (Walter Matthau) is currently in a relationship with the much younger Toni (Goldie Hawn), except to avoid any sort of real commitment he has claimed to be married with three children. Alas, Julian begins to fall for Toni for real and yearns to walk down the aisle with her and, thus, advises his "mistress" that his wife has demanded a divorce and the kids. Toni is simultaneously ecstatic and crestfallen. What if she's the one responsible for being a home-wrecker?! She can't live like that! She demands to meet Mrs. Winston to ensure everything is okay. Uh oh. Frazzled but not down and out, Julian enlists his prudish, slightly-militant Swedish secretary Miss Dickinson (her majesty Ingrid Bergman) to pose has wife. And, as they must, hijinks ensue.

Consider, for example, the scene far along in the ruse when the majority of all our main characters meet up unwittingly at a discotheque, which sort of welds together the end of The Sixties and the start of The Seventies, all come into contact, and which eventually leads to Toni teaching Miss Dickinson some new-fashioned dance moves which leads to Miss Dickinson teaching Toni a dance move she invents right on the spot called - you guessed it! - "The Dentist." Me oh my. Her majesty Ingrid Bergman cutting a rug at the discotheque with Goldie Hawn. What's strange is that you don't necessarily think about the strangeness of this moment, you merely think, "Damn, any place, any era, that Ingrid Bergman can act, yo."

Yes, she could. The film is mostly shenanigans, rapid-fire and fairly witty repartee, bits of physical business successfully transitioned from stage to screen by director Gene Saks so as not to look too out of place, and, of course, the varying, revolving characters kind of falling in and out of love with one another. Hawn, in her very first screen appearance, would earn an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and she does fine work, a sort-of wide-eyed winsomeness projecting her as an innocent angel so that you can never get too upset when she opens the film by pitifully trying to commit suicide or when stopping to consider that even though she's not really cheating on a married man she darn well thinks she's cheating on a married man and that the end of the film also suggests she's entirely dependent on others.

Bergman, on the other hand, manages to ground everything she does in a thinly veiled sadness, acquired from a very early divorce and now living in a small apartment with her sister, her husband and their kids. In the first sequence in which she masquerades as Mrs. Winston we first see her escorting her niece and nephew down the street and she looks like such an old lady which makes the transition from her hair tucked up under her fussy nurse's hat to being let down over the fabulous blue dress at the discotheque so fantastic. And Bergman plays this for all its worth, not for laughs, but actual emotional resonance. To pull this off in an adapted Broadway farce after being out of the acting game (which she had been) for nearly 13 years is yet another testament to her legend.

And this is what makes the conclusion so unsatisfactory. Matthau plays the all-important Man In The Middle to fine effect but, seriously, Miss Dickinson has worked in that office for 10 years. She knows this guy. He pretended to have a wife and kids to refrain from commitment with a girl and then cheated on that girl with other girls. He associates with vulgar blowhards (Joel Weston, in a nice supporting work). He crassly and routinely insults the "hippie" living next door to Toni, the same one that saved Toni's life at the start. Bergman sculpts Miss Dickinson into a woman coming into her own late in life. There is a nice moment early on when she speaks of the vacation she takes once a year to Cape Cod and wears jeans all the time and takes her paint brush with her everywhere and paints whatever she wants anywhere she wants and, well, wouldn't that have been a fine ending for her? To see her back up at Cape Cod and perhaps Meeting Cute with a local man who plays her "Factory Girl" by The Rolling Stones?

Nope. Instead she gives in to the supposed charms of Julian. Please. She deserves so much better than this putz.


Andrew K. said...

I agree, but I find Matthau disdainful (now, Jack Lemmon on the other hand). Still, the movie's sweet, if with something of a bitter after taste, and Goldie is lovely.

Do you take requests? A Touch of Class. I just feel like hearing someone write about it.

Nick Prigge said...

Sure! Yes! I'll take a request. I'm not familiar with A Touch Of Class but I'll give it a watch.

Just fair warning, though, I've got several of these posts are already locked and ready to go and my DVR is stacked with TMC movies but I will get to it eventually.