Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A 'Cactus Flower' in Full Bloom

Stephanie (Ingrid Bergman): Mr. Greenfield, please don't handle the instruments.

Harvey (Jack Weston): I was reading the other day, a dentist in New Jersey has topless nurses.

Stephanie: I didn't know you were interested in reading.

It was simply impossible to not like Goldie Hawn's character in "Cactus Flower," which premiered on this date in 1969.

She was so sweetly earnest, almost naive. There wasn't a deceitful bone in her body — which is probably why her relationship with Walter Matthau, playing a deceitful dentist, became so distasteful for her. That wasn't clear at first. Hawn and Matthau were having an affair. Hawn was led to believe Matthau was married with children. Turned out, though, that he was a bachelor; he just told women he had a family to avoid becoming too involved with them.

But Hawn's character had a strong sense of ethics. She wanted to be married, but she would not take another woman's man and she would not stand between a man and his children. If the relationship with Matthau continued, she would eventually violate those ethics so Matthau had to go.

But it was Hawn who apparently was on the way out when the movie began. She tried to kill herself, but a neighbor intervened — and it was when Matthau learned of the aborted suicide attempt that he realized how much he really cared for Hawn.

To save the relationship, Matthau needed a temporary wife so he turned to his dental assistant, played by Ingrid Bergman, who, as it turned out, had been nursing an infatuation with her boss for quite some time. Matthau told her he needed someone to pose as his wife and assure Hawn that the relationship was over and had been for awhile. Bergman resisted at first but eventually agreed to do it.

Bergman brought two little boys with her (I think they were her nephews in the story) to her meeting with Hawn and did everything she could to sell the idea that her "marriage" to Matthau was over, but Hawn was a tough interrogator. She had to see Bergman with the boyfriend she claimed to have — he was played by Jack Weston, one of Matthau's patients — before she was convinced.

You know, even though Bergman was in her 50s when she made "Cactus Flower," it seems ironic that someone as beautiful as Bergman was a few decades earlier — in "Casablanca" and "Gaslight" and "Joan of Arc" — and was still beautiful when she made "Cactus Flower" ended up portraying a presumably plain dental assistant. But she did it well.

Perhaps so well that she was inspired to insist, five years later, that she play possibly the plainest character in "Murder on the Orient Express" — for which she was rewarded with an Oscar.

Hawn did win an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress) for her performance in "Cactus Flower" — which, as I recall, surprised some people. Perhaps not so much because of the caliber of her competition — as always, the nominees were good but none seemed to strike observers as particularly inevitable — but because the public memory knew Hawn as the ditzy blonde on TV's Laugh–In.

Stereotypes can be powerful things, and sometimes they distract from the truth — in this case, that Hawn deserved the Oscar she received. Fortunately, the Academy's voters weren't distracted from the truth.

And the truth — as it so often is — was complicated.

Hawn has never been the greatest actress who walked the earth. But she was convincing — and she was not nominated for Best Actress Who Ever Lived. She was so convincing that observers struggled to differentiate between Goldie Hawn the person and the airhead she played on Laugh–In. Like Suzanne Somers a decade later, she was much smarter than the characters she played.

"Cactus Flower" was filled with unexpected surprises — not unlike the cactus that Bergman kept on her desk.

One infrequently sees a flowering cactus, but it does happen, even in the most inhospitable of environments. The cactus that Bergman's character kept on her desk didn't bloom often, but, when it did, it was a sight to see.