Goldie Hawn became a star as part of the regular cast on the comedy series, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (1968-1973). On the show, she would break out into high-pitched giggles in the middle of a joke one moment, and then deliver a polished performance the next. Noted equally for her chipper attitude as for her bikini and painted body, Hawn was a 1960s version of an “It” girl.
Her Laugh-In persona was parlayed into three popular films in a row in late 1960s/early 1970s: Cactus Flower (1969), There’s A Girl In My Soup (1970), and Butterflies Are Free (1972), the sort of sparkling comedies that would soon fall out of favor. Hawn had already made her film debut in a tiny role as a giggling dancer in The One And Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968), billed as “Goldie Jeanne”, and which also featured Kurt Russell (they became a couple 35 years ago). Her first real role was in Cactus Flower, and she won an Academy Award for her performance as Walter Matthau‘s suicidal mistress.
The screenplay was adapted by I. A. L. Diamond from the Broadway play of the same name written by Abe Burrows, which in turn was based upon the French play Fleur De Cactus by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy. Burrows wrote, doctored, or directed such shows as Guys And Dolls, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Silk Stockings, and many, many others. With his collaborator Frank Loesser, Burrows won a Pulitzer Prize for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Diamond collaborated with the great Billy Wilder on Some Like It Hot (1959); The Apartment (1960) which won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay; and the Oscar-nominated The Fortune Cookie (1966). Cactus Flower was his first solo adaptation. So the pedigree is very good.
The film was the eighth highest-grossing film of 1969. It’s success is due to the three central performances by Matthau, Ingrid Bergman and Hawn. The trio are so engaging that we find ourselves, despite ourselves, involved in this rather slim story. Hawn and Matthau have that special screen chemistry happening in Cactus Flower, and Bergman moves between them with absolute serenity.
The story is familiar for the era. The play ran for three years with 1234 performances, closing at the end of 1968. The original cast included Lauren Bacall, Barry Nelson, and Brenda Vaccaro. The film was released less than a year later, directed by Gene Saks.
The plot is so of its era. It’s about a middle-aged dentist, his nurse, and his 21-year-old mistress. He tells the girl he’s married, because he doesn’t want to get involved. But then he does get involved and can’t figure out how to confess his deception. So, he gets the nurse to pretend to be his wife. But then the girl becomes sympathetic to the poor, abandoned wife, and then there’s the problem of a hairy young playwright who lives next door.
All of this is the basic stage farce stuff, like The Importance Of Being Earnest 105 years ago, or She Stoops To Conquer 220 years ago; the plot depends upon a romance that happens through mistaken identity. So, nobody was inventing anything new here.
Usually long-running Broadway comedies are adapted to film with a couple of big-name movie stars in the key roles, and then an expensive, expansive production is designed to support the comedy, the most fragile of art forms. By the time the film is released, nobody really cares. That’s exactly what happened with Cactus Flower, except this time, the film is better than the play.
Diamond’s screenplay successfully opens up the play, breaking it loose from the confines of the stage without seeming to. Broadway director Gene Saks (once Mr. Bea Arthur) did the film versions of the Neil Simon hits Barefoot In The Park (1967) and The Odd Couple (1968) which were both terribly tied to one set. By widening the background, Diamond and Sacks managed to make Cactus Flower take place in a real New York City. The performances seem real because they’re not stuck in phony sets. But really, it is Matthau, Bergman and the marvelously expressive, kooky Hawn who make Cactus Flower a sweet cocktail.
The film score was composed, arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones with sunshine pop covers of The Monkees‘ I’m A Believer, and Sarah Vaughan adds some gravitas with The Time For Love Is Anytime (Love Theme from Cactus Flower), and for some reason, there’s even a groovy version of To Sir, With Love.