Wednesday, November 28, 2012

CACTUS FLOWER 1969

Thinking back to that time in the late '60s when Old Hollywood (all overlit studio sets, name stars, and conventional genres) gave way to New Hollywood (auteurism, non-linear storytelling, and emphasis on youth), it’s easy for me to forget how gradual and awkward a transitional period it was. Film history can make it sound like Hollywood was churning out The Sound of Music on a Monday, then by Friday it released Bonnie and Clyde. But closer to the truth is that the old guard was very slow in passing the torch to the younger generation, and the strain frequently showed.
Some Flowers Blossom Late But They're The Kind That Last the Longest
Ingrid Bergman admires her metaphor

During what I call the movie industry’s “Last Gasp” phasea period wedged awkwardly between the studio system excesses of the late-60s and the emergence of the American New Wave in the early-'70sHollywood released a glut of wheezily old-fashioned films it attempted to pass off as “with it” and “now” entertainments which sought to reach out to the young. These woefully middle-class, middle-aged films strove to reflect a youthful perspective but were at a loss for what that actually meant beyond the token insertion of self-consciously “hip” templates like rock music (which, to the septuagenarian ears running the studios meant muzak-type stabs at the contemporary sound by veterans like John Williams and Henry Mancini); a smattering of profanity; aggressively mod costuming and art direction; and at least one cast member under the age of 40.
The Kids Are Alright
Bergman gets in touch with her inner MILF

The worst examples: 1969s The Big Cube starring lana Turner, or the has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed Angel, Angel, Down We Go  featuring an adrift Jennifer Jones, alienated young and old alike by thrusting past-their-prime and obviously uncomprehending members of Hollywood Royalty smack into the center of psychedelic, youth-pandering tales of drugs, sex, and depravity. But most were just forced and artificial overtures to the youth market which, when serious, could only look at the young through the eyes of struggling-to-adapt adults (The Arrangement and The Happy Ending ); or when comedic, settled into the kind of sitcomy smuttiness of those twin examples of smirking sleaze released in 1968: Prudence and the Pill and The Impossible Years.

One of the better films to emerge from this cross-generational limbo is Cactus Flower; a farcical bedroom comedy that in less capable hands could have come off exactly like an expanded episode of the TV progaram Love, American Style (whose brightly-lit look it shares), but avoids that fate chiefly through the efforts of its appealing and talented cast. Truly, this film is a shining example of how resourceful actors can turn run-of-the-mill dross into gold.
Walter Matthau as Julian Winston
Ingrid Bergman as Stephanie Dickinson
Goldie Hawn as Toni Simmons
Jack Weston as Harvey Greenfield
Rick Lenz as Igor Sullivan
To keep from giving his much-younger girlfriend, Toni (Hawn), any matrimonial ideas, confirmed middle-aged bachelor Julian (Matthau) pretends to be the married father of three. When a suicide attempt (always good for a laugh) prompts the Park Avenue dentist to propose, Julian asks his devoted nurse Stephanie (Bergman) to pose as his wife and reassure Toni she is not a home-wrecker and that their divorce is mutually desired and amicable. Of course, this being a farce, nothing goes as planned and all manner of Neil Simon-esque comic complications arise before the not-unexpected happy fade-out.
Walter Matthau and Goldie Hawn are each so adorably asexual that their May/December romance (there's a 25-year age difference) never crosses over into gross-out territory. The rubber-faced Matthau is one of my all-time favorite actors and I just think he's hilarious in this film. The inherent likability of the actor goes a long way toward preventing his character from being as loathsome as written

Based on the 1965 stage hit which provided Lauren Bacall her Broadway debut, Cactus Flower is an artifact from the “tired businessman” era of theater when breezily escapist musicals and plays were concocted for the benefit of NYC businessmen seeking to avoid the rush hour crunch of the trains to the suburbs. Dating back as far as 1952's The Seven Year Itch, these shows offered mindless laughs and tame titillation by way of middle-aged wish-fulfillment fantasies envisioning a world populated by bland professional men on the prowl pursued by bevies of beautiful young women who live only to be wed. That marriage is presented as the end all and be all symbol of happy-ending bliss has always struck me as positively perverse given how prominently deception, serial adultery, and lying figure in the courtships of the characters in these so-called sexually sophisticated comedies.
To my way of thinking, America in the very repressed and sexist early-'60s had a particularly ugly concept of what constituted sexy and funny in motion pictures—Under the Yum Yum TreeThe Marriage-Go-RoundBoeing, BoeingAny Wednesday…ick! Is it some heterosexual coping mechanism that, even to this day, makes it necessary to perpetuate an image of romantic courtship as an intricacy of calculated lies and tricks leading to the altar, only to be followed by a state of matrimony wherein the “domesticated” male can’t wait to stray, and the clinging female is an emasculating killjoy? Every time I hear that pathetic “sanctity of marriage” argument in today’s same-sex marriage battle, my mind goes to all those comedies and sitcoms that came out of this “simpler, more innocent time.” All of which treated adultery like some kind of frolicsome lark.
So she got herself all dolled up in her satins and furs, and she got herself a husband...but he wasn't hers
Very-married diplomat Arturo Sanchez (veteran character actor Vito Scotti) romances dental assistant Stephanie Dickinson, whose last big love affair was with a married man. What with Toni's year-long involvement with a man she thinks is married, Cactus Flower is like one long, pro-adultery infomercial.

Having so far lodged a case as to why Cactus Flower should be at the top of my list of most reviled films; I state here and now that no one is more surprised than I that this film ranks among my favorite comedies of the '60s. It’s a sweet-natured, laugh-out-loud, absolute delight… almost in spite of itself.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Say what one will about old Hollywood, when it was at the top of its game, no one was better at turning out these types of frothy, intricate farces. Cactus Flower has the undistinguished yet delectable visual gloss of a Doris Day movie; a sardonically funny screenplay (adapted from Abe Burrows' play) by Some Like it Hot’s I. A. L. Diamond; snappy, keep-the-action-moving direction by Gene Saks; and, most advantageously, a cast of newcomers and veterans whao all know their way around a punchline.
The premise of Cactus Flower is silly in the extreme, but it’s inconceivable to me that anyone could ever devise a journey that I wouldn't want to be taken on by Goldie Hawn, Walter Matthau, Jack Weston, and Ingrid Bergman. What an absolutely amazing cast! Just the fact that they're all in the same film should qualify Cactus Flower for classic status, but watching their sublime comic sparring is like taking a master class in chemistry and charisma. Their scenes fairly crackle with inspired bits of acting magic. Each is so deft and gifted a performer that together they infuse Cactus Flower with spark and wit. Maybe even more than it deserves.
Another Cactus Flower odd couple is Jack Weston and statuesque Eve Bruce (she played the Amazonian streetwalker in The Love Machine), both of whom add hilarious support to the increasingly complicated proceedings

PERFORMANCES
As Goldie Hawn’s nomination and win for Cactus Flower is the only Oscar recognition the film received, it’s a fact worth mentioning, but as an indication of merit...I'm not so sure. In considering her win over Susannah York in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Dyan Cannon in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and Catherine Burns in Last Summer; one has to keep in mind we’re talking the Academy Awards here: an organization that first weighs in on sentiment, politics, publicity and popularity before it ever gets around to considering excellence.
Hawn was the blonde "It Girl" of the moment, and the public's affection for the bubble-head she portrayed on Laugh-In facored heavilyin her win. Still, in this, her first major film role (in 1968 she appeared in Disney’s creaky musical, The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band in a giggly blond role E.J. Peaker probably turned down for Hello, Dolly!), Hawn radiates real star quality and holds her own against veterans Matthau and Bergman (the publicty surrounding Hawn's debut somwhat stole the thunder of Bergman's return to American screens after a 20-year absence).
Old Hollywood meets New Hollywood
With her enormous eyes and Betty Boop voice, it is difficult not to watch Hawn every second. She's so excitingly kinetic a presence she single-handedly blows the cobwebs off of Cactus Flower's rather stale bedroom humor. I think she does a marvelous job with a deceptively difficult role. She has to make Toni sweet and waiflike enough to care about, but strong and resilient enough so that Julian doesn't come off as a total jerk.
The talent and chemistry of Oscar winners Ingrid Bergman and Walter Matthau elevate Cactus Flower to high-style farce
















THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Goldie Hawn's character is a clerk in a Greenwich Village record store, and the scenes that take place amongst the shelves of albums (featuring artists like Lou Rawls, The Beatles, Buck Owens, and Petula Clark) and walls of psychedelic blacklight posters feel as distant and of another time as any episode of Downton Abbey. They make me feel so nostalgic...and so old. (Bam! Right in the childhood!)

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Because there’s so little about Cactus Flower that actually reflects the year in which it was made, I think it plays better now than it did in 1969. In the year of Woodstock, the Stonewall Riots, Charles Manson, and the Vietnam War, America could certainly use a few laughs, but Cactus Flower's mid-life comedy must have seemed a tad out of touch. Today, it's a film that fits snugly into the vague, pop-culture mashup that is the entire decade of the 1960s (on a double-bill, Cactus Flower would not look out-of-date with 1963's Move Over, Darling), and feels charmingly corny and just a tiny bit camp (what with references to “love beads” and those stodgy versions of songs by The Monkees and Boyce & Hart playing on the soundtrack). The dialog makes me laugh, the performances are great fun to watch, and if I don't dwell on the whole lying-your-way-to-love subtext, I have a wonderful time watching it. This is rom-com done right.
By the way, given my oft-voiced disdain for all things Adam Sandler, I don't recommend checking out the (loose) 2011 remake of Cactus Flower titled Just Go With It. I haven't seen it, but c'mon, it stars Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston...call the bomb squad.

THE AUTOGRAPH FILES
Inscription reads: "Ken, See how old and mean you get if you hang around long enough."
Back in 1995 I had the pleasure of being Walter Matthau's personal trainer (a fact which amused the legendary sloucher no end). I liked him a great deal and found him to be every bit as funny (he told the best dirty jokes!) and sweet as he appears on screen. With all the anecdotes he shared about working in Hollywood, I should have been paying him. He's very much missed.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

14 comments:

  1. I enjoy all your reviews, Ken, but this is one of my favorites: you capture that confused late-Sixties/early-Seventies Hollywood era so well -- plus, I love (and own a copy of) "The Big Cube." (I'm assuming you've seen the giggle-worthy Charles Busch send-up, "Die, Mommie, Die.")

    And thank you for turning me on to "The Last Picture Show"! I missed that one the first time around.

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    1. Hi Peter
      Before I thank you for your very kind comments, I'd like to take the opportunity to tell you how much I love your blog: Male Pattern Boldness (malepatternboldness.blogspot.com).

      You are just brilliant at what you do and your posts convey such a passion for sewing and fashion that even someone like me, who (quoting “Showgirls” can't thread a needle, has a blast looking over your humorous posts. My partner is a costume designer and huge fan of clever plays on words (He flipped over your blog's name!) so I've alerted him to your site. It's just great.

      Now, as for "Cactus Flower", I'm so happy you liked the post! Having lived through that period when movies morphed from studio system assembly-line product to the American New Wave, I have a fondness for some of those awkward transitional films that were neither fish nor fowl.

      I have only seen "The Big Cube" once (thanks, TCM!) but should own that one myself, and yes, I'm familiar with the campy "Die, Mommie Die." if you haven't seen the Jennifer Jones film (on Netflix instant watch as Cult of the Damned) you would get a huge kick out of it. It's a big fave.

      Always nice to hear from you, and if I'm responsible for alerting you to a beaut like "The Last Picture Show"...well, that pleases me no end. Thanks, Peter!

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  2. You are so right about the cast hoisting this one over the top. Ingrid Bergman is pure charm here and it's fun to see her hand the baton to the new Hollywood generation in the form of Goldie Hawn.
    Walter Matthau has always seemed criminally underrated to me, despite his Oscar win and great popularity. Just watched 'Taking of Pelham One Two Three' recently and the combination of his humor and physical power blew me away all over again (he also gives that film one of the greatest closing shots I've ever seen through nothing more than a perfectly timed facial expression).
    It's interesting to compare 'Cactus Flower' with the film of another Broadway hit by the same writers that came out a few years later - '40 Carats' - which was killed by the bizarre miscasting of Liv Ullmann in the lead.
    Thanks for another great post!

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    1. Hi Joe
      Yes, Ingrid Bergman is so good in this film. She's charming as hell, but I think I get the biggest kick out of how nasty she is in her scenes with Jack Weston character. Such timing!
      Short of Polanski's "Pirates" (what was that about?) I've liked Matthau in most everything. And I love that you mentioned that great parting shot of him in "Taking of Pelham..." Brilliant! You're so right that he was an appreciated but underrated, extremely versatile actor.
      Thanks, too, for bringing up "40 Carats"...it takes virtually the same ingredients as "Cactus Flower" and gives an abject lesson on how to mishandle them. Brilliant connection you made!
      Joe, you always say such nice things, but you also provide valuable nuggets of related film info that expands upon and adds to what I write. I really appreciate it. Thanks!

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  3. Thank you Ken for shining a spotlight on one of my all time favorite films. I never get tired of watching CACTUS FLOWER. It never gets old for me. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Nice performances by everyone involved.

    I have the soundtrack to this and I just love Sarah Vaughan's rendition of the theme song, "The Time For Love Is Anytime".

    Every time I walk down 8th Street in Greenwich Village I make it a point to walk by where the record store Toni worked in was.

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    1. Aw, thanks so much, CAL
      I like your description of how "Cactus Flower" makes you feel. I have to say that I feel the same way. It's an easy film to grow fond of...so many marvelous moments and that terrific cast.
      Thanks for mentioning the soundtrack and the great Quincy Jones song Sarah Vaughn sings. I was always under the impression that it had been nominated for an Oscar, but I was mistaken. I have the song on my ipod.
      Truthfully, I wasn't really sure if Hawn's record store was really in Greenwich Village, so I am so pleased that you indicated the street, and can't tell you how cool I think it is that you pay occasional homage to that long lost location. You've got great instincts, CAL!

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  4. Ken, you had so many insightful things to say about the film and especially of how it fit into what was happening in the American film industry at the time--wonderful analysis there, by the way--that I can't comment on it all. But I can tell you that I responded to everything you said, nodding in agreement the whole way through. I saw this just a few months ago myself and found it enjoyable but strange in its wholly old-fashioned sensibility masked (unconvincingly) as something hip and contemporary. You caught this in my favorite line in the post: "Because there’s so little about Cactus Flower that actually reflects the year in which it was made, I think it plays better now than it did in 1969." I felt guilty about enjoying the movie as much as I did because of this madly out-of-sync element.

    I've never been a big fan of Goldie Hawn, but she was very good, at least after the first few minutes. The thing I had most reservations about was Ingrid Bergman. This was a far better role than most actresses of her age, someone associated most strongly with the 1940s, managed to get in 1969. But I somehow felt she was too good for the part and that this kind of romantic comedy wasn't really her forte. I actually wish that Lauren Bacall could have played the part. I think the slightly prickly quality to her screen image would have served the character well. Anyway, great post.

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    1. Hi R.D.
      As with all of your comments, I really enjoyed reading your impression of “Cactus Flower”; especially our shared feelings about its old-fashioned sensibilities and your very interesting take on Ingrid Bergman. I adore Lauren Bacall and would have loved to have seen what she did with the part, but I think the well-taken point about Bergman being too good for the part might play a strong part in why she seems to convert the material to something considerably better than it is. Her 40s glamour seems to bump the film up a notch.

      You have a perceptive eye for performances, by the way. I think Hawn is excellent in the film, but as you note, in that first scene she seems to take some time to get your engine warmed up. She lays on the “laugh-In’ shtick pretty heavy, and you’re afraid she’s going to be like this for the whole film. She improves as the scene progresses.

      I bow in appreciation to your very kind compliments and thank you again for your unerringly well-considered observations. Thanks so much.

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  5. This is by far the best blog I've discovered this year. I could spend hours reading your reviews over and over again. I'm making it my goal to one day watch all the films mentioned that I haven't seen. As for Cactus Flower, it's one I've watched quite a bit from my childhood. I still cherish my VHS copy.

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    1. Wow! That's a terribly kind thing to say. I'm outrageously flattered and pleased that you find something of interest in my posts. It's really the nicest thing you could have said to someone who just loves movies and wanted to create a journal of experience of them as a fan.
      However, I caution you on endeavoring to see all the films I've written about...I can't vouch for the lasting effect it will have on your mind (or taste). :-)

      Still, it pleases me very much that we share similar tastes in films like "Cactus Flower" and that you find something worthwhile in revisiting this site, I feel very grateful that you've found the site. Thanks for a lovely comment!

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  6. What a great photo and comment from Walter Matthau - thanks for sharing! Matthau strikes me as one who would have made it as a great character actor in classic-era Hollywood, with his basset-hound features and dryly sardonic voice. One of the good things about the New Hollywood of the 70s was that it allowed Matthau to become a big star, even a sex symbol! (and the other comments are right, his last shot in 'Pelham' is priceless).

    I thought your points on sex-lies-and-adultery in farce were quite interesting - in such a straitlaced American culture, perhaps making a joke of infidelity was a way to let off steam in a culture with such high standards (the great 1937 comedy 'The Awful Truth' is all about who did/didn't commit adultery and whether or not it matters). It's also interesting that you mentioned 'The Seven-Year Itch' in connection with this, since it does seem to be a precursor to the kind of sit-com marital farce style of later movies like 'Cactus Flower' or 'Under the Yum Yum Tree' (which I also found distasteful, for its drawn-out prurience). BTW, when Billy Wilder made the film of 'Seven-Year Itch,' he originally wanted to cast a young Walter Matthau in the husband's role, done on stage by Tom Ewell. The studio balked, feeling that casting a (then) unknown was too risky, so Ewell repeated his stage role. Seeing Ewell on film, I think Matthau would have been MUCH more effective.

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  7. Hi GOM
    I had no idea about Matthau being considered for "Seven Year Itch"! I agree, I think he would have been marvelous.
    The observation you make about throwing infidelity to the humor forefront as a way of letting off sexual tension (socially speaking) may just be what lies at the core of that phenomenon. It makes perfect sense in our sexually repressed, pressure-cooker environment that the only way we could "deal" with the issue of infidelity was to make it titillating comedy fodder.
    By the way, that's a very nice point you make about how Matthau would be a terrific character actor in classic-era Hollywood and how the "anti-glamour" of the New Hollywood allowed for him to not only achieve leading-man stardom, but to be regarded as something of a sex symbol! For that I owe the 70s a big thanks!
    And you too, thanks for such an info filled comment!

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  8. Hi Ken,

    I liked your comparisons of the changing of film styles and the clashing of the two in the late 60's. It's so true looking back now it seems an overnight conversion.

    This is a movie that contains lots of charms chief among them for me is Ingrid Bergman's gradual evolution from bristling efficiency to breezy soubruette to joyous reawakened femininity. Even in her starchy whites she has it all over Goldie Hawn's bubblehead but cloaked in that stunning blue evening dress she's irresistible.

    Not that I didn't enjoy Goldie's performance, you're right she's bursting with star quality and presence, but her kookiness only goes so far against Ingrid's timeless elegance and intelligence. As delightful as Goldie is and even with the grace with which she navigates her role there is no way she should have won that Oscar against Susannah York's soul baring work in They Shoot Horses Don't They? I am not someone who thinks dramatic work should trump comedic in awards recognition, comedy is extremely difficult to do well, but in this case I feel Susannah's work was the best supporting work that year.

    You mentioned several films that represented the collision of the old and new styles that were leering and sexist and I would agree with most but I have to confess my affection for Any Wednesday, not for any intrinsic value of the film but because Jane Fonda, who I love in most anything, is at her fluttery bubbly early career best and Rosemary Murphy is a chic delight as well as marvelously droll, both do wonders with the material.

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    1. I know what you mean about Goldie Hawn's Oscar win. She's awfully good in this, but in my opinion, her competition was so much stronger.
      Maybe it had something to do with the large amount of elderly Academy voters at the time, and how they felt about such an old-fashioned film compared to some of the more challenging entries from the other nominees.
      That aside, all you say about Bergman and the overall breezy charm of the film is shared by me. And Fonda is worthwhile to watch in anything. Almost!
      Thanks again, Joel!

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