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Alright, tell me what she didn’t say, word for word.

Cactus Flower
(1969)

(SPOILERS) The Academy has often recognised the cachet in populating its Best Supporting Actress category with attractive young starlets. Actually giving them the statuette has been less frequent, however, reaching its peak during the ’90s (Marisa Tomei, Mira Sorvino, Angelina Jolie). Nobody’s claiming those recipients were rewarded purely on the basis of skin-deep appraisals, of course, even if they’ve largely failed to make good on early promise. It’s much less easy to make the same assertion of Goldie in Cactus Flower, however. I can think of a number of movies where she’d have been rightly recognised for her effervescent talents – less so her plastic-fantastic current look – but this tired farce, complete with woeful “down with the kids” aging Hollywood hipsterism, isn’t one of them.

Exacerbating the problems inherent in the material is director Gene Saks; whatever The Odd Couple’s merits, you can’t put them down to his TV sitcom direction. Cactus Flower is nothing if not sluggish, a killer to a farce, and frequently seems to be playing at half speed. It’s said Wilder wanted to direct The Odd Couple – Robert Evans’ deal was nixed by Charlie Bludhorn – and I wonder if he was in the running for this one too, since his regular collaborator IAL Diamond adapted Abe Furrows’ 1965, Lauren Bacall-starring play. Certainly, it’s Diamond’s only work post-Some Like It Hot not to be directed by Wilder.

Whether such involvement would ultimately have helped is debatable, as Cactus Flower’s problems might simply have been compounded by a past-his-best director; both Diamond and Saks were knocking fifty, while Wilder was in his mid-sixties. The entire premise creaks and groans with old men sniffing around a youth scene and failing to get with it, baby (compare and contrast with the sparkling The President’s Analyst for a middle-aged commentary on the generational scene that works, and grooves).

This was by no means uncommon in Hollywood at this point – Skidoo, for example – on the cusp as it was of New Hollywood’s onrush. The elements of farce – never the most enlightened of modes, however well judged – and generational and gender divides square up awkwardly with each other. The play was a big hit, but it betrays its essential infirmity on film. It ought to be acknowledged, though, that the movie version was also popular – the ninth biggest of the year at the US box office – but it’s most definitely been made from the outside looking in. This is no Easy Rider. Saks doesn’t know what to do with such material, so he retreats to a safe distance.

Indeed, for all its attempts at a foot in the scene, there’s a reactionary air. The premise finds Walter Matthau’s dentist Julian Winston claiming he is married with three children in order to keep girlfriend Toni (Hawn, a quarter of a century his junior) at arm’s length. However, after she fails in a suicide attempt, he decides to propose, which engenders subterfuge to perpetuate his initial lie; thus, he engages prim-and-proper dental assistant Stephanie (Ingrid Bergman) to pose as his wife, engaged in divorcing him by mutual consent. Then Julian’s pal Harvey (Jack Weston) is needed to pose as Stephanie’s new partner. And so it goes on, in not-quite-classical-farce style. Naturally, the more age-appropriate Stephanie, now letting her hair down, and Julian are destined to end up together, while Toni – by omission or design – will fall into the arms of her writer neighbour Igor Sullivan (Rick Lenz).

Julian’s ruse isn’t so very different to Cary Grant’s in Indiscreet, also starring Bergman, so the only fresh coat of paint comes via the nominal ’60s trappings, addressed with a faintly embarrassing air. Julian’s way with the ladies – very young ladies – takes some believing. Even more so, Harvey’s apparent success: the men, barring Igor, who’s just plain annoying (you’re waiting for Julian to smack him) are heels, but insufficiently heelish that they don’t still do the right thing. It makes very little sense for Julian to fall in line with Toni the way he does, and even less for Matthau to be straightjacketed by such a character; he’s only occasionally able to call on his facility for withering wit (“Will you give Tarzan here his electric razor?” he requests in reference to Igor, prone to coming through Toni’s window in a bath towel).

Meanwhile, the “kids” fail to come across as kids either. For all that he’s supposedly wise to the beat, Igor comes across as a hopelessly square next-door neighbour of the kind that, a few years later, might show up in an episode of Rising Damp. When he’s “wooing” Stephanie – “You’re a very sexy lady. Let’s run away and live off your social security” – it’s Bergman who emerges with more credibility (which is saying something).

By rights, someone needed to drop acid at some point. Alas, it’s merely referenced. Goldie, late of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, is less than persuasive as a hippy chick, or much of anything. Toni has no real character; she’s functionally composed to present complications escalating Justin’s deceit. Which makes her, at best, a deranged busybody absolutely no one in their right mind would want to be with, excepting that that she looks adorable (she appears to have even less idea about dancing than Bergman, however, biting her lower lip in concentration as if she’s anticipating a Studio 54 cocaine hurricane). Notably, Hawn would again indulge the hippy midlife crisis vibe with Peter Sellers in the following year’s There’s a Girl in my Soup.

Georgia: If you work for the CIA, how come you’re hanging around with dentists?
Harvey: He’s installing a miniature radio transmitter in my wisdom tooth.

Occasionally, usually when Weston is in a scene, Cactus Flower raises a smile. His interplay with Bergman is particularly amusing, surprised at how she has spruced up – “In the office, you sort of look like a large Band-Aid” – and trying to excuse himself his wandering hands (“I’m only human”; “Barely” Stephanie replies). Mostly, though, Saks kills any potential with his complete ignorance of pace and timing. Farce needs to be light on its feet. To quote Julian, Cactus Flower is “like waltzing in wet cement”.

This is also an odd movie for Bergman’s return to Hollywood; she was in her mid-fifties by this point, and while she’s looking good for it, nothing about the cinematography, costuming or situation (comedy) is exactly flattering. And yet, she still emerges with more dignity and displaying better comic timing than most of her co-stars.

While there’s some location work, the movie nurses a largely stage-bound vibe, and the extent of the hipness is encapsulated by an easy-listening version of I’m a Believer (then a decrepit three years old). Quincy Jones furnished the soundtrack, but this is no The Italian Job as far as dazzling musical feats go. Cactus Flower was remade as Just Go With It a few years back, starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston; reviews suggested it wasn’t a patch on the original. It must be night-on unwatchable, in that case.


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