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Cactus Flower (1969), the film version of a Broadway romantic farce, was a personal triumph for its three stars: comic veteran Walter Matthau; dramatic star Ingrid Bergman in a rare comic turn; and television star Goldie Hawn, in her film debut, holding her own with her seasoned co-stars, and winning an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. The "cactus flower" of the title is Bergman, as Stephanie, a mousy dental assistant secretly in love with her boss, Matthau, a womanizing bachelor. When the dentist enlists her help to get rid of his much-younger girlfriend, Hawn, by pretending to be his wife, the prickly Stephanie blooms like the proverbial title plant.
Lauren Bacall had played Stephanie in the 1965 Broadway version of Cactus Flower, earning the kind of critical raves she'd rarely had for her film roles. When the film rights were sold to producer Mike Frankovich, Bacall was confident she'd get the role unless Frankovich wanted someone younger (the character was in her mid-thirties; Bacall was a decade older). Instead, Frankovich offered the part to Ingrid Bergman, who was 54. Bacall was furious, and was very vocal about her disappointment, saying of Bergman, "I hate that woman!"
Bergman had been living in Europe since the late 1940s, when her scandalous affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini and the birth of their son out of wedlock ended her Hollywood career. She had made a successful comeback, and won an Oscar® for Anastasia (1956), which was American-produced but made abroad. Since then, Bergman had made several more American-financed films in Europe, and starred onstage in Paris and London. She was divorced from Rossellini, and married to Swedish theatrical producer Lars Schmidt. Bergman had earlier been offered the role of Stephanie in the London stage production of Cactus Flower, but she did not want to be separated from Schmidt. When Frankovich offered her the role in the film, she demurred, feeling she was too old. But Frankovich flew to Paris, looked at her closely, and told her not to worry, she looked fine. Cactus Flower would be her first film made in Hollywood in more than 20 years.
Even a seasoned pro like Walter Matthau was in awe of Bergman. According to Frankovich, Matthau was worried about whether she'd like him, and how they'd get along. But both Matthau and Goldie Hawn were quickly won over by Bergman's warmth and graciousness. Hawn said in an interview at the time, "I thought I'd be awfully intimidated by her, so intimidated I wouldn't be able to function. It wasn't that way at all. I didn't feel I had to compete. I just felt privileged to be in the same picture with her. She has a regal quality. It's too bad she isn't the queen of some country or something."
Hawn, who had been playing a ditsy blonde in a bikini in the television comedy show Laugh-In, proved she had plenty of brains and talent behind the dumb-blonde facade. Cactus Flower director Gene Saks was pleasantly surprised at her aplomb. "Never has a girl, in her first film, been so professional." Hawn shrewdly realized that the best way to win over the cantankerous Matthau was by enduring his needling. Hawn always claimed that the Oscar® win was a complete surprise. "I felt you had to work for years and years to win an Academy Award, and I didn't," she said later.
Hawn's win was no surprise to the critics, who had loved her performance. In New York magazine, Judith Crist called Hawn "an intelligent and sensitive performer." Howard Barnes of the New York Times wrote, "It is the emerging sweetness and perception of this girl's character as an inquisitive Greenwich Village kook, that give the picture its persuasive luster and substance." And Time magazine had praise for all three stars: "Cactus Flower succeeds on the screen thanks to two old masters - and a shiny new one - who have learned that actors get known by the comedy they keep."
As for Lauren Bacall, she soon got over her disappointment in losing the role of Stephanie by going on to an even bigger stage success in the musical, Applause, which won her a Tony Award. Bergman went to see the play, and afterwards went backstage and knocked on Bacall's dressing room door. When asked by Bacall's assistant who it was, Bergman said, "Tell her the woman she hates more than anyone else in the world wants to see her." According to Bergman, Bacall smiled and greeted her warmly, and "we've been great friends ever since." Both were in the all-star cast of Murder on the Orient Express (1974), which won Bergman another Oscar® as Best Supporting Actress.
Director: Gene Saks
Producer: M.J. Frankovich
Screenplay: I.A.L. Diamond, based on the play by Abe Burrows, adapted from the French play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy
Cinematography: Charles E. Lang
Editor: Maury Winetrobe
Costume Design: Moss Mabry
Art Direction: Robert Clatworthy
Music: Quincy Jones
Principal Cast: Walter Matthau (Julian Winston), Ingrid Bergman (Stephanie Dickinson), Goldie Hawn (Toni Simmons), Jack Weston (Harvey Greenfield), Rick Lenz (Igor Sullivan), Vito Scotti (Senor Sanchez), Irene Hervey (Mrs. Durant).
by Margarita Landazuri