Wednesday, February 27, 2013

THE STERILE CUCKOO 1969

Before seeing The Sterile Cuckoo in 1969, I had only the vaguest impression of Liza Minnelli. I had a dim memory of her as this somewhat hyperactive, inauthentic personality that popped up occasionally on her mother’s variety show, and another as an over-earnest Red Riding Hood in a 1965 musical TV special titled, The Dangerous Christmas of Little Red Riding Hood. Having missed her film debut in the 1967 Albert Finney vehicle, Charlie Bubbles, The Sterile Cuckoo marked my first encounter with Liza Minnelli the actress, and, in the character of Pookie Adams, my first exposure to what eventually evolved into the Liza Minnelli screen persona.
Liza Minnelli as Mary Ann "Pookie" Adams
Wendell Burton as Jerry Payne
The Sterile Cuckoo, the first film effort by late director Alan J. Pakula (Klute, Starting Over) is a fairly straightforward, bittersweet tale of first love represented as a touching, coming-of-age character study. Soft-spoken biology major Jerry Payne (Wendell Burton) encounters bespectacled oddball, Pookie Adams (Liza Minnelli) as both are waiting for a bus to take them to their first semesters at neighboring colleges. The extroverted but socially awkward Pookie either misinterprets Jerry's passive malleability as interest or willfully disregards the possible indifference masked by his mostly silent countenance, and insists that the two share a mutual attraction ("We got along terrifically on the bus!" she asserts). Pookie, an outcast who aggressively overcompensates and guards her lonely vulnerability behind the labeling of others as “creeps,” “weirdos,” or “bad eggs,” is clearly drawn to the nice, button-down sweetness of the biology major, but one senses that she's a type who habitually latches onto strangers. For his part, the overwhelmed Jerry doesn't so much warm to Pookie’s charms as succumbs to the force of her persistent will.
Pookie worms her way into yet another heart
Yet in that strange way in which a relationship can be forged out of an individual of somewhat amorphous character being drawn / surrendering to the superficially dominant character of another, the very dissimilar Pookie and Jerry embark upon a swift but tenuous romance. Taking place over the course of one school year, The Sterile Cuckoo follows the couple’s evolution and eventual dissolution as Jerry shows signs of beginning to grow into himself just as Pookie’s love-starved neediness starts to reveal itself to be part of larger, more deep-rooted emotional problems.
Tim McIntire plays Jerry's roommate Charles Schumacher (or Shoonover...the film can't seem to make up its mind). A typical macho, sexual braggart, hard-drinkin' fratboy. On the surface. The reality of this ostensibly "popular" character's life underscore The Sterile Cuckoo's theme that all teens struggle to find their identities. Pookie's self-absorbed wallowing in her own problems blinds her to an  awareness of  the feelings of others. 
As a 12-year-old kid enamored of too-mature films I scarcely understood, The Sterile Cuckoo was one of the few movies I saw during this period that didn't feel like a two-hour excursion into the uncharted territory of mysterious adulthood. Although the characters are supposed to be 18 or 19, the issues plaguing Pookie and Jerry (friendships, identity, loneliness, peer group acceptance) were, for the most part, things I could both relate to and recognize within myself. I identified with Jerry’s timidity and deliberate, watchful approach to others. Likewise, as a gay youth, I empathized both with Pookie’s perception of herself as an outsider, as well as her reject-them-before-they-reject-you, knee-jerk defense mechanisms.
The painful paradox of finding yourself snubbed by the very group you profess to have no interest in being a part of is brought to almost excruciating life by Minnelli in this scene at a campus hangout. Hoping to have found someone to share in her outcast isolation, Pookie is unnerved to discover that Jerry, by all appearances a quiet loner, is actually rather socially poised and liked by others.
But what I think I responded to most was the film’s insight into the dynamics of a relationship between two loner personalities drawn together in their isolation. Both Pookie and Jerry are insecure, but each responds to their circumstances differently. Pookie’s insecurity causes her to alienate all others except the one person she selects to smother with all the love she has, and emotionally drain with all the love she needs. Jerry lacks confidence as well, but as his insecurity is neither fear-based nor self-protecting,  he's capable of recognizing that everyone is a little afraid to reach out to others and that it matters if one makes a little effort.
Unlike the offensive message behind the beloved 1978 musical, Grease, whose moral is to encourage teenage girls to change everything about themselves in order to gain peer acceptance, The Sterile Cuckoo is not a film about the need to conform... it's about the inevitability of growing up.
"Pookie, maybe they aren't all so bad. Maybe everybody's just a little cautious of everybody."
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Always a sucker for movies about vulnerable characters (and movies that make me cry), I fell in love with The Sterile Cuckoo and saw it about six times back in1969. It sold me on Liza Minnelli as a genuinely talented actress and inspired me to read the surprisingly different-in-tone John Nichols novel. For the longest I harbored a memory of The Sterile Cuckoo as just a sad/funny look at first love, and perhaps that’s all it's intended to be. But seeing the film today, in light of all we've come to learn about mental illness (coupled with our culture’s obsession with medicating all idiosyncrasies out of the human personality), I’m struck by how seriously disturbed Pookie seems to me now. That certainly wasn't the case when I was young. She starts out as some kind of early exemplar of the Manic Pixie Girl cliché, but what with her self-delusions, pathological lying, death-obsession, mood swings, and crippling persecution complex, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Pookie is considerably more than just a wounded misfit in search of someone to love her.
Death-fixated Pookie likes to hang out in cemeteries
PERFORMANCES:
Liza Minnelli deservedly won an Oscar nomination for her intense and deeply committed performance in The Sterile Cuckoo. Cynics and the industry savvy might take issue and label such an ostentatiously underdog role as Pookie Adams (significantly altered and made more pathetic/sympathetic than in the novel) to be just the sort of calculated Oscar-bait to attract Academy attention. But given that a similar gambit didn't work for Shirley MacLaine that same year for what many consider to be an equally manipulative and maudlin turn in Sweet Charity; I think it’s fair to say that Minnelli put this one over in spite of Pakula’s and screenwriter Alvin Sargent’s (Paper Moon, Ordinary People) determination to stack the emotional deck so heavily in her favor.
The character of Pookie Adams was conceived for the screen as one far more tragic than depicted in the novel.  
It’s popular to dismiss the less-showy work of newcomer Wendell Burton in the reactive, relatively thankless role of Jerry Payne, but I think his low-key naturalism and likability provide the perfect contrast to Minnelli’s character’s hyperactivity (it’s impossible to watch her Pookie Adams and not think of Anne Hathaway's legendary eagerness to please). His character’s subtle growth is very well played, and to Burton’s credit, he’s never wiped off the screen by Minnelli (no easy feat, that). At the time of The Sterile Cuckoo's release, Wendell seemed poised for stardom. But after next appearing in an almost identical role as a soft-spoken prison inmate in Fortune & Men’s Eyes (1971) he worked primarily in TV before retiring from acting in the late 80s.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Earlier in this post I mentioned how The Sterile Cuckoo marked my introduction to the Liza Minnelli screen persona. By that I mean that in The Sterile Cuckoo’s Pookie Adams, there lies the genesis of the entirety of Liza Minnelli's screen image. Nowhere is this more obvious than in her Oscar-winning role in Bob Fosse's Cabaret (1971). Fans of that film are apt to recognize in Pookie Adams a nascent version of Sally Bowles.
Pookie & Sally: A Comparison
1. Both sport waifish, gamine bobs.
2. Both mask their inherent insecurity behind displays of delusional self-confidence. 
3. Both win over reluctant, passive men through the sheer force of their personalities.
4. Both suffer from neglectful fathers.
5. Each has a big emotional breakdown scene that virtually screams, “Give that girl an Oscar!”
6. Both have pregnancy scares.
7. Both have gaydar issues. Pookie thinks (perhaps correctly) that Jerry’s roommate is gay, while Sally fails to detect that her boyfriend and her lover are bisexual.
8. Both wind up scaring off their lovers.
Come-on: Would you like to peel a tomato?
Come-on: "Doesn't my body drive you wild with desire?"
The Sterile Cuckoo (top) and Cabaret (bottom) share scenes of Liza Minnelli as the sexual aggressor. Here she attempts to seduce lookalike males with her supine figure.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
The Sterile Cuckoo is one of those forgotten movies that need rediscovering. It’s not heavy on plot, Pookie’s character can prove more annoying than poignant to some, and if you take a dislike to the film’s Oscar-nominated theme song, “Come Saturday Morning,” you’re likely to be sent screaming into the streets, for it comprises the totality of the film’s soundtrack. But to me it’s a perfectly wonderful film of humor, sensitivity, and great emotional insight. Beautifully shot and an authentic-feeling record of the late 60s, The Sterile Cuckoo has terrific performances throughout (Minnelli is at times phenomenal in this) and I think the conveyance of the brief romance is beautifully handled...both its beginning and its painful end. Definitely worth a look.
Oh, and as to the significance of the title? Nowhere to be found in the film (allegedly cut), but referenced in the novel as a poem Pookie writes about herself.
At the start of the film, we don't understand the silence between the two characters sitting on a bench waiting for the arrival of a bus. When this image is duplicated at the end, we have a better understanding of the pattern of Pookie's life and sense that this has been and will be a scenario played out again and again.
Mark, at Random Ramblings, Thoughts & Fiction and a few internet friends have all shared tales with me of having had their encounters with real-life Pookie Adams', so I figured I should share my own. My particular Pookie was a bit of an outcast, wore glasses, and was ragingly funny. She was keenly perceptive and cutting when it came to the shortcomings of others, yet oblivious to her own. She was a deeply loyal friend, but somewhat suffocating in that if you were her friend, you had to be only HER friend. There was no room for anybody else. She was happiest in having the two of us share all of our time together sitting apart from others and putting them down. In my own insecurity, this felt for a time like a kind of strength to me too, but it wasn't long before I recognized what a self-defeating, one-way street this attitude was. We were an insulated, impregnable world of two, but it was a world of  cowards. As much as I enjoyed her company, the ultimately toxic nature of her mean-spirited humor (it was so obvious that she was in such pain and so afraid of others) drove us apart.  I see in The Sterile Cuckoo and Liza Minnelli's excellent performance an exacting depiction of a certain kind of wounded personality. One I'm learning is not as unique as I once thought.
Copyright © Ken Anderson

14 comments:

  1. Another great review Ken.
    I saw this for the first time just last year, I think, and it immediately made an impact solely because Pookie reminded me so much of an ex of mine, my longest r'ship in fact. We even met in a similar kind of way! She was similarly kooky, similarly elfin and similarly hiding a lot of deep seated problems. My ex was bipolar and self harmed and though the film never reaches those distressing points or truths for Pookie, I can't help thinking they're potentially bubbling under all the same.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks very much, Mark!
    That's fascinating what you say about that ex of yours and the similarities between her and Minnelli's character. I can't imagine anyone seeing this film today and thinking (as I did back when it was released) that Pookie is merely an awkward teen seeking love. I was, after all just 12. It seems clear she is a very unbalanced character. I've read several reviews of the film and I think it's interesting that the ambiguity of the ending (some see it as hopeful, as she is briefly seen smiling. Others see it as tragic and that Pookie will never recover)leaves it open for each viewer to imagine what the characters futures will or will not be.I love that about those 60s movies.

    ReplyDelete
  3. hi ken, i just want to say that i love your blog. i've been following it ever since your post about tommy (my favourite movie ever). you have impecable taste! keep up the good work!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Will
      Wow! Since "Tommy"? That's a very big commitment there. I'm flattered and very pleased you have enjoyed my blog and like my taste in movies. Some think my taste is lousy (or at the outside, odd) but here I'm going to defer to you. I never argue with a reader! :-)
      Much appreciated and nice hearing from you.

      Delete
  4. Excellent post, Ken. Love the way you are turning a spotlight on forgotten late 1960s pictures like this one and "Last Summer." (You've got to check out "If..."!)
    I started college when this movie came out and it's a very accurate time capsule of non-radical campus life in the late 1960s (not everyone was wearing bell-bottoms and flowers in their hair!) The picture was criticized by Pauline Kael and others for not reflecting the activist spirit but many of us were on similarly isolated campuses that took a while to get into the protesting spirit of the times.
    My affection for Minnelli in this picture got in the way of my initial enjoyment of "Cabaret" three years later because her Sally Bowles felt like a reprise of Pookie. I didn't really warm up to her work in the musical until I saw the movie a few more times and began to appreciate the way she fit into Fosse's brilliant vision of the piece.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Joe!
      You're about the only other person who has "when it was released" experience of any of the films I write about!

      The point you make about this particular view of the late 60s is a good one. Simultaneous to the long-haired vision of the 60s most are familiar with I recall (my sister was college age) lots of guys going around looking like Tom Smothers or Paul Simon (Ivy League clothes and short hair) and women dressed more like "That Girl"s Ann Marie than Janis Joplin (Seventeen magazine types). Folk singers were popular and looked very buttoned down and square...much like the singing group, The Lettermen, who sang this film's theme song (and, less famously, the theme to "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls"!).
      I find it interesting that you so liked Minnelli in this that her character in "Cabaret" seemed like the copy. that was my experience too. But a few friends I've turned onto this film, in having an over-familiarity with "Cabaret", have the reverse reaction. They are less impressed by "The Sterile Cuckoo" because they see her Pookie as a de-glamorized Sally Bowles. She is great in both, but I'm glad I saw this film first. It's a great characterization.
      And, on the strength of your recommendation, I have put Malcolm McDowall's "If..." on my Netflix list. He was such a presence in the movies when I was growing up, I don't know how I missed it! Thanks again, Joe. I don't know how you find the time in all you do to read this blog, but I'm very flattered! Even though I don't always comment, I'm addicted to your entertainment writing (when do you sleep?)

      Delete
  5. Without giving away too much, Ken, is there a reason why "Liza with a Z" communicates her advances via flashcards?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha! I can't imagine what comes to mind looking at that image out of context. In the context of the story, Jerry is failing his subjects and has to study over the holidays. However, the ever-needy Pookie doesn't want to spend the holidays alone. Knowing that he will never get a lick of work done with Pookie's incessant talking and attention-seeking, he makes her promise to remain silent during "study hours." Instead of leaving him in peace, the resourceful Pookie resorts to flash cards.

      Delete
  6. I had seen this maybe 10 years ago and really liked it though I hardly remembered the story. Just watched it again tonight after reading your post and I too was struck by how truly disturbed Pookie is. And yet...

    In a different genre -- a screwball comedy -- would the early Pookie be all that different from, for example, Barbara Stanwyck's character in "The Lady Eve" -- who is also someone who aggressively manipulates and connives her way into a somewhat blundering, naive man's heart (think that famous early scene in her stateroom where she asks him to put her shoe on). There are real similarities, only "The Lady Eve" is a comedy and Sterile Cuckoo is drama.

    I also was reminded of the weirdly wacky, fascinating-yet-scary later interviews of Judy Garland, where you can tell the interviewer (Dick Cavett, for example) is wondering, "Is this woman out of her mind?" And she was! I wonder how much Liza based Pookie on her mother -- the paranoia and sense of persecution, fear of abandonment, emotional volatility, combined with playfulness, energy, and a hilarious sense of the absurd.

    Liza Minnelli is truly a revelation in this movie and it made me sad to think how few good movies she has made, and how rarely she got to play a real person (or someone who seemed real). I too have known people who were a bit Pookie-like. I wonder what the filmmakers wanted audiences to make of Pookie. Were we supposed to recognize that she was pathological? I don't think so.

    One great thing about the film is that, in the end, Pookie survives. Will she change? Maybe, maybe not. But the film never lets things get too maudlin or histrionic. The ending is ambiguous -- a good thing.

    Finally, I just loved the late Sixties preppiness. Everybody looks so clean cut and well turned out. Clearly they attend private colleges and yet there's never a sense that the main characters are particularly affluent; they take buses everywhere, after all. Wouldn't it be interesting to re-visit these characters and find out what they did with their lives?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies

    1. Hi Peter
      Very interesting points! First off, I’m very pleased that you were inspired to revisit this film after reading this post.
      I think you’re on track in noting that Pookie’s character would be perceived very differently in a comedy (The Lady Eve is a great example). And indeed, even in the novel it is not really clear if our sense of Pookie as a disturbed individual is something the writer actually intended.

      As you say, Minnelli is really excellent here, and as such a young actress with such a publicly off-kilter lineage, it’s hard not to think she drew perhaps on things in her own life. Superstardom can be such a killer of acting talent. Once Minnelli became an icon, “regular person” roles just seemed to dry up. She can be so good sometimes (saw her on a Law & Order a few years back and she blew me away).

      The ambiguity you spoke of (is Pookie fine at the end? Is she really disturbed or just an eccentric?) is for me a bit part of why the film still works after all these years. Not having everything spelled out always makes me feel more engaged in my own experience of the film. I’m reacting to it more than just merely watching it.
      Lastly, the preppy look of the film is great! My older sister fell in love with Pookie’s wardrobe, and all the other students looked like they stepped out of a late 60s “Seventeen” magazine.

      Delete
  7. Forgot to mention: if there was ever a movie that did not need a theme song -- let alone one sung by The Sandpipers -- it's this one! All the underscored montage scenes -- running on the beach! flying a kite! necking in the bug! -- seemed cliche to me, but maybe they were fresh in 1969. Oh, and I thought Wendell Burton does a great job here in a really difficult role: he never seems less than caring.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha! The Sandpipers...THAT was the name of the singing group! I got them mixed up with that other sound-alike group, The Letterman. Romantic musical montages were really quite the rage in late 60s/early 70s films it seems. Something having to do with youth audiences, pop music, and album sales, I suppose we can thank Burt Bacharach (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)and Simon & Garfunkel (The Graduate)for its proliferation.
      When I was young I really liked this film's theme song, nowadays I'm just surprised by how it's the ONLY music in the film. It's repeated more often than a theme in an Andrew Lloyd Webber show.
      And I so agree with you about Wendell Burton.
      Thanks, Peter. I'm enjoying learning what an engaged movie-watcher you are!

      Delete
  8. I just stumbled upon this site while looking for information about this movie. What a lucky find! You really get this movie, and then some. One of my favorite parts of the film is the telephone scene. It shows what a great actress Liza Minelli already was by that time. The scene has no edits - it's just one long take, over 5 minutes. Does anyone even do that anymore? And with so many emotions on display at once? Anyway, thanks Ken. I look forward to reading more of your reviews.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Charles
      I'm the lucky one for you stumbling upon this site! I'm glad you like the post.
      The telephone scene is really something, isn't it? One of Minnelli's finest screen moments, I think. And indeed, what director today would trust to just keep the camera still and let us watch a character in the throes of a breakdown.
      Maybe someone can correct me, but I think I read somewhere (perhaps in that 2005 bio of the director) that this was the scene Pakula used to screen test actresses he was interested in casting as Pookie. Minnelli obviously knocked it out of the box.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment, and please stop back again!

      Delete