...Goldie Hawn in Cactus Flower (1969)
approximately 50 minutes and 33 seconds
roughly 49% of film's total running time
When we first meet Hawn's Toni, the young woman -- having been stood up by her sweetheart one too many times -- has determined that the only sensible solution is to commit suicide. Given that her kitchen stove is only a few feet from her daybed, it seems simple enough: blow out the pilot light, turn the gas way up, and recline in preparation for a tranquil departure from the mortal peril of heartbreak.
Toni's planned romantic tragedy is foiled when her neighbor, a supposedly bohemian playwright with the unlikely name of Igor Sullivan (Rick Lenz in an unremarkable performance), bursts into her apartment and rescues her with a kiss.
Hawn's Toni is not entirely pleased by this turn of events. And as she shares her dismay with Igor, we learn the basic contours of her romantic conundrum. Toni fell in love with Julian because she can't stand liars and Julian was so forthright with her about being married. What Toni doesn't know, and which subsequent scenes soon clarify, is that Julian isn't married at all and that his ruse of being married was designed explicitly to keep things simple between him and Toni. However, in the most familiar of farcical twists, Julian has begun to fall in love with Toni and now must find some way to dismantle his own duplicity without losing his pure-hearted beloved forever. Julian happens also to be completely unaware that his devoted nurse Stephanie (the legendary Ingrid Bergman, surprisingly adept in this light comic role) is completely in love with the dentist. From this scenario, much ostensibly comic deception ensues, with (natch) Bergman's Stephanie being pressed to pretend to be Julian's wife so that Julian might convince the sweet-hearted Toni that she's not a "house-breaker." Thus, Bergman's Stephanie arrives to visit Hawn's Toni at her workplace, where the nurse endeavors to convince the shopgirl that the wife has no qualms about divorcing the dentist.
Hawn's Toni discerns the truth embedded in Stephanie's deception (that the Bergman character is secretly in love with Matthau's). This truth moves the tender-hearted pixie to silent, gloopy tears. (The moment when Hawn licks the tears from her own upper lip is both adorable and strange, an extended intimate moment in which the camera seems utterly infatuated with both Hawn and her character.)
The comic conceit of Cactus Flower derives from the fact that Toni is a naif, an innocent enmeshed in the cynical machination of adult affairs. Moreover, her talent as a busybody ends up driving the action of the piece, with each instance of her empathetic meddling unveiling the essential truths concealed by the principal characters.
It's nearly entirely to Hawn's credit that this hoary, middle-brow sex comedy works as well as it does. The film is about as salacious and daring as a subplot on The Love Boat. (The one oblique reference to homosexuality conveys how utterly prudish this film actually is. When questioned by Julian about wearing hotpants to work, Hawn's Toni replies: "Nobody around here looks. Most of our customers are classical.")
Hawn anchors her characterization of Toni within the actress's own flirtatious, dingbatty charisma. In Hawn's performance, the fact of Toni's delusional conviction that she alone understands everything becomes a feature of the character's endearing appeal, not proof of her idiocy.
Even Ingrid Bergman (in a performance I found surprisingly pleasant) is subject to Hawn's curious charisma.
In the one scene that permits Hawn's Toni any possibility of adult consciousness -- when Bergman's Stephanie arrives to tell Hawn's Toni the truth behind all Julian's deceptions -- Bergman balks. For even Bergman's Stephanie, Hawn's Toni is an innocent to be protected, a precious savant whom no feeling person wants to hurt or to harm.
Yet the truth does come out and, befitting this unconventional comedy's utter conventionality, the couples realign in ways fitting the social propriety of age and social position (Toni dumps Julian for all his deception, thus permitting Stephanie and Julian to finally get together while also making it possible for some generationally-appropriate free love between the pixie and the playwright.)
Hawn's work in Cactus Flower is perfectly apt, a possibly ideal performance of this curious concoction of a character. Hawn conveys the dimensions of affect necessary for Toni -- uncommon charisma, emotional simplicity, infectious charm -- in ways that are beyond impressive for a screen "debut," and entirely separate from banal criteria like "depth" and "arc." (Indeed, the next time you hear someone say something to the effect of -- "they don't give Oscars for being cute" -- I would immediately offer this nomination/win as compelling evidence to the contrary.) The role asks simply that Hawn be impossibly yet believably cute, to embody an essence that the rest of the characters seek to preserve and protect and, on this count, Hawn's performance definitely nails it. I'm not sure it's "great work," but it is certainly a memorably vivid performance of a subtly difficult role.