Cactus Flower

Familiar and charming
Gene Saks
Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, Goldie Hawn, Jack Weston, Rick Lenz
The Setup: 
Genial sitcom set against the backdrop of the late 60s.

This was my friend’s choice for movie night, because they didn’t have Spellbound in. My friend often shows me older movies that aren’t really the interest of this site, so they often end up not being reviewed, because I have nothing to say about them. This one is a little like that, being essentially just a movie sitcom, but it ended up having enough to recommend it that I thought I’d toss it on.

This is adapted from a Broadway play, based on a French play, directed here by Gene Saks, of The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park, and the Lucille Ball Mame, with music by Quincy Jones. We open with Goldie Hawn as Toni going downstairs to mail a letter in her tiny pink nightie with matching fuzzy pink slippers. She returns to her apartment, turns her gas stove on and lays down to die. She gets rescued by Rick Lenz as Igor, the struggling playwright next door, and they begin a friendship. She is killing herself over Walter Matthau as Julian, because he’ll never divorce his wife and three kids to be with her.

We next meet Julian, a dentist, with Ingrid Bergman as Stephanie as his receptionist. She has worked for him for over ten years, and is described as a wife who organizes everything for him, makes him lunch, and caters to him all day then goes home at night. Julian tells a patient that he has a girl—that’s Toni—but has lied and told her he is married with three kids so she won’t get too attached. When he learns that she attempted suicide, he tells her he will divorce his wife and marry her. Toni is extremely wide-eyed and naïve with a big moral streak, and hates lies, feels awful about breaking up Julian’s marriage, and wants to meet Julian’s wife to assure herself that everything is on the up-and-up.

Already you might be shaking your head in wonderment that in some world Walter Matthau as a dentist might be a playboy who needs to adopt a lie in order to handle all his hot ladyfriends. Also, that a hot babe like Goldie Hawn, less than half his age, would be into him to the point of suicide, and that we’re supposed to believe in this marriage that is obviously based on nothing but her good looks. I have recently been watching season one of Mad Men [and am soon going to give it up], but this movie gave me that Mad Men feeling of “Wow, women truly were considered nothing but their looks and bodies and the idea that they might have lives and thoughts of their own was truly alien.” These thought will continue to occur throughout the film.

Along these lines, we are to accept that since Stephanie is unmarried and over the age of 30, she is a terminally-lost old maid. Julian asks her to pose as his wife and meet Toni, which, after much hugger-mugger, she does. This occurs in a record store that offers us lots of old album covers in the background to look at. By the way, the movie has also offered a small but very potent amount of late 60s Manhattan footage, including some great East Village street scenes. Anyway, Stephanie meets Toni, who thinks that she is a wonderful woman who is still in love with Julian.

As you can imagine, complications ensue. Julian’s small lie spirals into many others and requires the involvement of several additional characters, often at this swingin’ 60s nightclub which becomes a character in itself, especially looking back from the present. It is brightly lit, has stained glass windows, plays funky 60s music, including an instrumental version of the Monkees “I’m a Believer”—twice. Regardless, these scenes are filled with a bunch of people in crazy late 60s getups and doing late 60s dances, and it’s really something to see.

The plot is not something that will shock anyone—I could tell who would end up with whom from the first ten minutes—but it’s done well and is charming. Everyone is good—Hawn won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this role—but it’s noticeable how Bergman outclasses everyone when she’s onscreen. She just has a presence and elegance that the others don’t. So if you’re in the mood for a genial 60s sitcom that plays on swinging and sexism and has decent writing and good performances as well as 60s nightclub and footage of Manhattan in the late 60s, well here you go.

Should you watch it: 

It can’t hurt. An interest in the moods and mores of the late 60s won’t hurt.