August 29 marks the 105th birthday of Ingrid Bergman. It is also the 38th anniversary of Ingrid’s passing. Miss Bergman’s life came full circle with her birth in Sweden and her death in London at the age of 67 from breast cancer.
Ingrid is best known for her career in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Of course, she will always be remembered as Ilsa Lund, the woman who broke Humphrey Bogart’s heart in Casablanca. But Ingrid appeared in so many other classic films: Gaslight (Which won Ingrid the first of 3 Oscars), Notorious, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Anastasia (Her second Oscar win), Joan of Arc, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Intermezzo, Spellbound, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
However, one of my favorite roles of hers occurs well after the Golden Age, in an era where her peers were appearing in horror films or had segued to television. In the 1960s and 1970s, Ingrid was still scoring quality parts in quality film productions. She won her third Oscar in 1975 for Murder on the Orient Express. My favorite part of hers during this period however, is her co-starring part as Stephanie Dickinson in Cactus Flower (1969).
Cactus Flower today is primarily known as the film that won Goldie Hawn her Oscar. However, it is my opinion that her storyline and even star Walter Matthau’s storyline is very much on the peripheral of the main focus of Cactus Flower. Ingrid’s Stephanie undergoes a metamorphosis from Matthau’s stuffy, prickly nurse to a vivacious free spirit. Her transformation is represented by the bloom on the cactus that rests on her desk.
In Cactus Flower, Matthau plays Dr. Julian Winston, a dentist in New York City. His nurse, Stephanie Dickinson is Swedish and very serious with no room for nonsense. Dr. Winston and Stephanie, despite having an employer to employee relationship, act very much like an old married couple. From the way that Stephanie feeds Dr. Winston and takes care of him, it is obvious that she cares about him and her job very much.
Stephanie has many great moments trading barbs with one of Dr. Winston’s patients, Harvey Greenfield (Jack Weston), whose constant come-ons are tiresome to Stephanie (I don’t blame her, yuck!). He seems to think because she’s Swedish that she would be somehow be susceptible to his lame pick-up lines and gross attempts to flirt with her.
HARVEY: I was reading the other day, a dentist in New Jersey has topless nurses.
STEPHANIE: I didn’t know you were interested in reading.
(Trying to pretend that he’s got a girl he’ll be spending the night with, thus can’t have an early morning dentist appointment)
HARVEY: We’re both asleep at 7am. I’m sorry I hope I haven’t shocked you.
STEPHANIE: No, but it must be a terrible shock for her.
The beginning conflict is that Dr. Winston is carrying on an affair with a woman at least half his age (if not more), 21-year old Toni Simmons (Goldie Hawn). At the start of the film, she is trying to commit suicide via gas inhalation, but she is saved by her neighbor (and someone closer to her own age), writer Igor Sullivan (Rick Lenz). Igor resuscitates her via mouth-to-mouth and his rescue evolves into a makeout session when Toni regains consciousness. This is foreshadowing that perhaps Toni is better suited for a partner closer to her own age.
It turns out that Toni was trying to commit suicide because she was stood up by her lover, Dr. Winston. Dr. Winston has lied to Toni the entire time, saying that he had a wife and three children. He is actually single. Toni despises lying. Knowing this, and flattered that she’d commit suicide over him, Dr. Winston proposes to Toni. Toni accepts, but on the condition that she is able to meet Dr. Winston’s wife and confirm that she is okay with the divorce.
Obviously, Dr. Winston is in a spot. He asks Stephanie to pretend to be his wife. Understandably, she is reluctant to go along with such a farce, but ultimately agrees. It is here where we get the sense that Stephanie may have a “thing” for Dr. Winston and it is also at the point in the film when we finally get to Stephanie’s story–the main story, in my opinion. Dr. Winston’s relationship with Toni and Toni’s budding relationship with Igor is very much in the background. It is really inconsequential compared to Stephanie’s story.
While participating in Dr. Winston’s ridiculous charade posing as his wife, Stephanie discovers a new found confidence, that she didn’t have before. She buys a beautiful aquamarine crystal-encrusted gown and accepts an invitation from one of Dr. Winston’s patients, Senor Sanchez, to attend a ball with him. Later, she invites Senor Sanchez to the same club she attended prior. Toni, Dr. Winston, and Igor all happen to be at the club as well.
Igor and Stephanie hit it off and have a fun evening dancing with one another. Toni and Dr. Winston are seething and very jealous. Both are jealous of Igor’s attentiveness to Stephanie. Igor and Stephanie end up spending the entire evening partying till dawn, knocking back Mexican Missiles (which she says is a gin and tonic, with tequila subbed for the tonic, blech!) with one another and another group of people (not seen).
It is at this point when Dr. Winston and Toni’s relationship is at a crossroads. Stephanie is no longer content to sit back as Dr. Winston’s assistant and devote her life to being a caretaker to her nephews. She has a newfound life, confidence and vivaciousness not seen prior. Dr. Winston sees Stephanie in an entirely different light. Suddenly, 21-year old Toni and her generation gap and immaturity suddenly doesn’t look so hot.
Ingrid Bergman is absolutely fantastic in this role and her evolution is remarkable and believable. It was fun to see her in a comedy, especially a 1960s comedy. She always seems to play such serious roles and it is fun to see her in something light hearted. Ingrid was in her 50s in this film and she looks gorgeous. Her blue ball gown is amazing and looks fantastic on her. And who can forget her patented dance move, “The Dentist” ?