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Cactus Flower (1969) - it's all about Bergman dancing

Nearing the conclusion of our Ingrid Bergman celebration, it comes to me, Manuel, to talk about a film that’s perhaps best remembered now for being Goldie Hawn’s Oscar-winning silver screen debut. But I want us instead to think about it as the preeminent film about Bergman dancing.

You see, Cactus Flower, which was the seventh highest grossing film of 1970, is a comedy I very much enjoyed up until the point when I started thinking about it. As if retooling (if not reworking) The Apartment, though of course not really since it’s an adaptation of Broadway play by the same name, I. A. Diamond -- a co-writer for that Oscar-winning film and the writer of Cactus Flower -- opens this 1969 film with a suicide attempt. Dentist Julian Winston (Walter Matthau, here a leading man who women find utterly irresistible despite an almost unsavory but plot-required sense of obliviousness to the women around him) has a "girl" on the side (Goldie Hawn's Toni) whom he has tricked into thinking he's married. Thinking he’s finally chosen to say with his wife rather than go out with her (he’s actually set up a date with another woman), Toni tries to kill herself only to be saved by her neighbor, oft-shirtless Igor.

After Toni tries to kill herself, Dr. Winston decides to marry her only to have to conjure up a wife Toni can meet so as to keep his earlier lie intact. Enter Miss Dickinson (Bergman), Dr. Winston's assistant nurse who has harbored a secret crush on her boss for years and whose role-playing only makes her ache for him even more. You can probably detect where the various plot strands are headed (spoilers in the shots that follow) but that's rarely why we enjoy watching comedies like these.

Miss Dickinson at the start of the film.Miss Dickinson in the film's last scene.

Screwball comedy lives and dies on its performances and thankfully Hawn and Bergman make Diamond's comedy of errors come alive, both imbuing their respective types with a sense of humanity that makes one forgive them the necessary blindspots the plot requires. A trifle of a film with a preposterous setup that somehow sells its female characters short even as it seemingly empowers them, Cactus Flower is worth watching solely for its female performances. Hawn may be best in show (she really does have smart ditz down-pat, those gorgeous giant expressive eyes doing some amazing heavy-lifting) but I urge us to marvel at Bergman who turns her prickly nurse into blooming romantic lead (pun intended) in an amazing dance sequence.

Drunk with adoration (and yes, some alcohol) Miss Dickinson takes over the dance-floor after partying with Señor Arturo Sánchez, and eventually finds herself in the arms of Toni’s Igor, with whom she spends the rest of the night, making both Dr. Winston and Toni jealous. It’s an amazing moment that speaks to the physicality of Bergman’s performance making the word “unwind” feel quite literal:

I mean. Need I say more?

Have you caught Cactus Flower? Can you picture Lauren Bacall or Jennifer Aniston in the role? The former played Miss Dickinson in the Broadway play, the latter in the ill-fated 2010 remake, Just Go With It. 

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Reader Comments (27)

Absolutely on point that the two actresses make the film worth seeing. I've always liked Walter Matthau but the idea that two such intelligent, beautiful women would go all swoony over a hangdog lout such as he is beyond a stretch.

Goldie is adorable and bursting with star quality, although I don't think she deserved the Oscar over Susannah York's soul baring work in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, but I think Ingrid's is the performance with more range. Both are delightful and despite the datedness of the material make the movie fresh viewing these many years later.

August 27, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Manuel, perfect write-up for this film, "Cactus Flower" is a 'meringue' of a film, relying very much on how much we like the performances. And of course we are meant to fall in love with Goldie Hawn, perfectly cast here. But Ingrid Bergman's wonderful turn as the nurse is what I love best. The dance scene is great, and much as I loved Lauren Bacall, I think Bergman gives this wallflower so much soul. Check this out if you haven't seen it yet.

August 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

To the question of seeing Betty Bacall in the role, I absolutely could. She would have been a bit more bristling than Ingrid which would work well in the early going where she's in starchy nurse mode but she also could melt into that relaxed sexiness needed in the second part. Actually I can even envision her rocking that blue satin gown that Ingrid does wonders for as well.

As far as imagining Jennifer Aniston in the part I don't have to, I say the woebegone Just Go with It. Was she awful? Not really but the whole thing was a pale shadow of the first movie and Jen is no Lauren nor Ingrid.

August 27, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I agree in some sense Matthau is miscast...but when you think about one plays the smarmy jerk better than he did,,,,,,,think Fortune Cookie.
This was the perfect role for Goldie Hawn.....she pays the dingy girl from Laugh In with a lot more behind her than just those eyelashes.
Susannah York did deserve the Oscar for "They Shoot Horses" but the Academy was unpredictable that year with John Wayne winning for True Grit and Midnight Cowboy winning Best Picture ( still the only x rated movie ever to win that honor)

And then there is Miss Bergman. Who should have done more comedy .

Lady Edith has the perfect adjective for the film, it is a meringue.

August 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

Much as this was Goldie's breakout role, Ingrid was the one who steals the show!! transforming fr a frigid starchy long suffering secretary to a desirable, gorgeous lady who learn to let her hair down (Can u believe she' was 54 in the above gif!!!)

Ingrid was so delightful here, that its a shame she din get an Oscar nom! (She was nom at the Golden Globe) Sigh, I wish she wld do more comedy.

August 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

I don't much care for Walter as an actor in anything (I've seen a lot of his work and I object to him in everything) so it was hard to get into the film but once what really makes it work is Hawn and Bergman. Both are such talents that they make this material work when it has little right too.

August 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEoin Daly

I've always felt sorry for Bergman in this movie. Her character's mooning over Matthau's bugs me, because he's such a creep and she really should know better. Hawn's Toni gets a pass because of her youth. Plus Hawn does a beautiful job with what she's dealt. Toni is charmingly daffy, but also the true moral force of the movie. When Toni gets hurt, you feel it as a great wrong. Hawn and shirtless Igor are to me the most valuable players here.

August 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLiz S.

The only thing I don't like about this post is finding out that my favorite moment of this movie isn't as obscure as I assumed it was. At the start of this film I wasn't totally sold on Bergman in the role, but by the end she's undeniable.

August 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

Ahh, Cactus Flower forever tainted by being remade as Adam Sandler's Just Go With It.

August 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKacey

how was i not aware that JUST GO WITH IT was a cactus flower remake.

would that i could remain unaware.

August 28, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Love that poster

August 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I loved Cactus Flower when I saw it while focusing on the Oscars' Best Supporting Actress category as a teenager. At the time, I knew nothing about it except that Goldie Hawn won her Oscar for it, so I was pleasantly surprised to see Ingrid Bergman in a starring role. She once again impressed me for all the reasons you mentioned. I particularly enjoyed her dancing and going home with a younger man. It gave me hope that a young man like me could do the same (if only in my dreams).

I wouldn't say Cactus Flower is tainted by Just Got with It. Really it just makes the 46-year-old film a little more relevant, in the same way Mr. Deeds Goes to Town became relevant again in 2002. Fuck Adam Sandler though. He's the scuff on Gary Cooper's and Walter Matthau's shoes.

August 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSean Troutman

Now I'm trying to picture hypothetical Sandler remakes of other classic films. I guess he couldn't have made "The Truth About Charlie" much worse, right?

August 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.


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