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.
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.