Cactus Flower (1969) is mostly comprised of components of romantic comedies I usually despise. I can’t stop myself from desiring to turn in the opposite direction the second love becomes trivial, a game for both the characters and the audiences to partake in. Yet I couldn’t help myself from doing anything besides love this movie, though I suspect that most of that love comes from the appeal of its trio of leading actors, all of whom sell this material so well we hardly bother thinking about the more questionable attributes of its screenplay.
The film’s shenanigans are focused on Dr. Julian Winston (Walter Matthau), a 50-ish dentist taken with his own perennial bachelorhood, Stephanie Dickinson (Ingrid Bergman), his faithful, middle-aged assistant who’s secretly been in love with her boss for years, and Toni Simmons (Goldie Hawn, in her film debut), his googly-eyed, 21-year-old mistress.
In the first few moments of the film, though, Simmons has decided to kill herself. Tired of Winston treating her like a toy to be played with when he finds it most convenient, her frustrations mount after being stood up by the man for the umpteenth time.
Unceremoniously, we watch as she shuts her windows, turns out the lights, flips on the stove, and lays down in her bed, awaiting death. How a man can inspire a woman to enact such a thing ensures that Simmons be reprehensible before we even meet him. Fortunately, Simmons is saved by a neighbor we’re set on believing is a better romantic interest than Winston ever could be.
Because when we do meet Winston, we see a snide, Don Adams-voiced narcissist. He’s witty and he lives a luxurious life, but we notice a bachelor so self-involved he’d be better off disassociating from Simmons and letting her live her life to the fullest.
But he has her wrapped around his finger, going so far as lying to her and saying he’s married with three kids just to make sure he can be dodgy when need be. We roll our eyes. And so does Dickinson, who has descended prematurely into the life of an old maid probably because she dreams of someday being with the guy.
After hearing the news that Simmons has tried to end her life because of him, however, Winston figures that maybe he does want to get married to the girl. The more he thinks about living without her, the more pangs of hopelessness wash over him. Trouble is is he can’t simply propose marriage — Simmons has gotten too used to being the other woman. She wants to meet the nonexistent Mrs. Winston and do away with any bad blood that might be stewing between them.
This, rightfully so, freaks Winston out. So in a fit of desperation he convinces Dickinson to pose as his wife, to help ease the process of his and Simmons’ engagement. Issues arise, of course — Simmons ends up liking the fake Mrs. Winston much more than she’s supposed to, and as a result begins thinking that maybe her beau and his original love should try to work things out.
All is frivolous and morally deplorable. Winston is a misogynistic dick, Dickinson shouldn’t let a man define her sense of self, and Simmons shouldn’t go about trying to kill herself for the sake of getting the apple of her eye’s attention. Turning love into a spectator sport leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.
But we don’t think about any of those setbacks throughout the entirety of Cactus Flower. We instead see Winston as a dryly humorous cad who’s lucky he doesn’t end up alone at the end of the movie. Dickinson as the lovable human embodiment of the titular plant, introducing herself as stiff and prickly but ending up blossoming into her own. Simmons as the insanely charismatic sweetheart who’s not nearly as insipid as we might originally think. The comic misunderstandings which balloon are effortlessly funny, sometimes even exhilarating.
Such is the magic of the film. It’s an adaptation of the wildly popular Abe Burrows play, which lit up Broadway for a total of 1,234 performances before cementing its status with the film. Frequent Billy Wilder collaborator I.A.L. Diamond takes over writing duties, and what we’re left with is a pristine romp just broad enough and just warm enough to thoroughly delight rather than shallowly amuse. The ensemble, predictably, is outstanding. Hawn, who won her sole Oscar for her breakout role, especially shines, making what might otherwise be a rote, caricature of a part turn into a three-dimensional portrait of young womanhood and the confusions that can come with trying to be a grown-up.
It’s a perfect romantic comedy, a shining example of the wonders which come with a great cast, a great script, and a great director who can handle farcicality without losing sight of the beating heart at the cinematic center. I love this movie — and I suspect anyone with a propensity for these actors and this genre will love Cactus Flower too. A-