Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Before I saw 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 who popped up occasionally on her mother’s variety TV 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 Liza Minnelli, the 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 presented 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, who either misinterprets Jerry's passive malleability as interest or willfully disregards what is more apt to be amused indifference, insists that the two have instantly bonded and 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 that 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 is often forged from 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 begins to grow into himself just as Pookie’s love-starved neediness starts to reveal itself to be part of larger, more deeply rooted emotional problems.
Tim McIntire plays Jerry's roommate Charles Schumacher (or Shoonover...the film can't seem to make up its mind), a typically macho, hard-drinkin' fratboy given to an excess of sexual braggadocio. 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 to which I could both relate 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 and 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 with whom she can share 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, all the while emotionally draining them with demands for all the love she needs. Jerry lacks confidence as well, but as his insecurity is neither fear-based nor self-defensive, he's capable of recognizing that most everyone is a little afraid to reach out to others, and that what matters is that one make 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."

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 in 1969. 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 time 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
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 sympathetic (pathetic?) 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 the nervous hyperactivity of Minnelli’s character (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, Burton appeared 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 1980s.

Earlier I mentioned how The Sterile Cuckoo marked my introduction to Liza Minnelli, the screen persona. By this I mean that for all intents and purposes, one can find the genesis of the entirety of Liza Minnelli's adapted screen persona in The Sterile Cuckoo’s Pookie Adams. Nowhere is this more obvious than in its similarities to 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 Sterile Cuckoo is one of those forgotten movies in need of rediscovery. It’s more character-based than story-driven, so 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 considerable emotional insight. Beautifully shot and an authentic-feeling record of the late '60s, The Sterile Cuckoo has standout 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 echoed at the end, we have a better understanding of the pattern of Pookie's life and a sense that this has been-- and will continue to be--a scenario she'll play out again and again.

Mark, at Random Ramblings, Thoughts & Fiction and a few Internet friends have all shared with me tales of having had encounters with a 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 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'd once thought.

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 -2013


  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.

  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.

  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!

    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.

  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.

    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?)

    2. The vocal group singing "Come Saturday Morning" is The Sandpipers, not The Lettermen, though I can see how you might make that mistake. Similar style.

    3. Thanks so much for or correcting that, musicdoc. Indeed, I always get them mixed up. The sound of The Lettermen and The Sandpipers calls to mind the phrase "distinction without a difference."

    4. You're welcome. I noticed later that Peter Lappin had named the correct group years ago in a comment just below.

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

    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.

  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?


    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.

  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.

    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!

    2. In his review of the film in the New York Times on 23 October 1969, Vincent Canby had a great line about the intrusive and syrupy soundtrack elements, saying that Jerry, though not immediately won over, was eventually seduced by Pookie's desperation, humor, gifts to him, "and also, I assume, by the relentlessly sentimental background music that fills the soundtrack every time they wander through a meadow."


      Although "Come Saturday Morning" is certainly pervasive in the film, it's not actually the only music in the soundtrack. Other music in the soundtrack:

      unidentified rock songs at the two loud parties

      "Hey Liley, Liley Lo" -- sung by the boys in the jeep who stop to pick up Jerry at the mailboxes

      "Greensleeves" - played and sung by a student at the small house party near the end of the film

      "The House of the Rising Sun" - according to IMDb

    3. That's a great Canby line!
      Yes, I used to have the soundtrack LP back in the 70s when the song was a big favorite of mine. I haven't seen the film in a while, but I think any and all other music that isn't COME SATURDAY MORNING are from diegetic sources. If I remember correctly the all theme music, atmosphere music, and incidental music are variations on and different arrangements of COME SATURDAY MORNING. I think that's what makes it feel so oppressive; if you don't get the vocal version you get endless variations on the same musical theme throughout.

    4. You're correct regarding diegetic vs. non. I noticed that when I went back to listen more carefully to the soundtrack. Yes, it's amazing that different arrangements of "Come Saturday Morning" is all they've got for the non-diegetic music. I think that some of the tracks on the soundtrack that go under different titles are actually arrangements of that song, e.g. "Montage" and "End Walk."

    5. I meant tracks on the "soundtrack album."

    6. Roger Ebert's 18 November 1969 review is also disparaging of the intrusive use of the theme song, especially it's being employed multiple times in what he calls the "Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude," which he found to be a disturbing trend at the time, saying:

      Every other movie sticks in one of those syrupy Salem ads with the lovers floating over the countryside with the hit single on the sound track..."Sterile Cuckoo" has not one, nor even two, but no less than three of these insufferable scenes.

    7. Indeed! It was hard not to find a mainstream romance film in the late 60s-early '70s that didn't have a lyrical montage. Like it's hard nowadays to find a self-aware pastiche film that doesn't overdo the ironically nostalgic music soundtrack ("Bad Times at the El Royale")

  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.

    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!

    2. I hadn't heard that about screen tests with the telephone scene, but even though I saw the film 50 years ago, I haven't really read much of anything about it until a couple of days ago when I decided to do a page on it on my site. Now I'm wondering if that was actually her screen test.

    3. I love reading about this movie and there isn't much out there, so I'll be checking out your site if your name links to it.
      And I got the book on Alan J Pakula from the library, so I can't check if I'm remembering it correctly about actresses auditioning for the role of Pookie being asked to do the phone scene. It certainly sticks in my mind as such.

  9. Michael Harrison CarlinJune 2, 2017 at 12:26 PM

    Very insightful and interesting comments about the film's characters and yourself.

    1. Thank you. And I'm very pleased you enjoyed the post and took the time to so generously comment. Much appreciated!

  10. just saw the film last night. VERY insightful, spot on.

  11. Hi Ken,

    Thanks for this wonderful, insightful review.

    I should have said I was working on a page on the song, though I've included a little about the film as well. Here's my page: Come Saturday Morning (

    There's an article you might like in the Fall-Winter 2009 issue of the Hamilton Alumni Review titled "When Hollywood Came to the Hill," written by Donald Challenger and Allison Eck. It's a look back at the six weeks of film shooting at and around Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, beginning on 11 September 1968. Additional shooting was later done in California. There's a link to the article among the other links at the bottom of my page.

    Despite the fact that I've focused on the song in my tribute, I agree with what you and others have said here regarding the overuse and clumsy intrusiveness of the song in the film. I hadn't seen The Sterile Cuckoo in decades and so when I watched it a couple of nights ago I was startled when the song, including the vocals, was inserted at both the first and second romantic peaks, and again hinted at while Jerry and Charlie are sledding. I enjoyed the film, especially Liza Minnelli's strong performance, except for that element and some of the unresolved questions left dangling, among these being the following:

    1.) Did Pookie have an abortion? She says merely, "It went away." Does she mean the signs of pregnancy, or the fetus?

    2.) Was Charlie Schumacher gay or just a virgin pretending to be a playboy? If Charlie was gay, did he merely make a pass at Jerry, or did they have a little fling during the Christmas break, the latter possibility suggested by Pookie's outburst at him at the end of the part scene? Did Jerry tell her about Charlie's confession?

    1. Ken,

      I thought I'd submitted the above post as a reply to your post February 16, 2019 at 2:06 AM in the thread started by Charles Mirkovich. Meant to anyway.

    2. Hi Musicdoc
      I'm kinda glad your comment is here on its own and not lost in a bunch of replies to another post. I think readers might enjoy (as did I) your terrific post and all those covers of COME SATURDAY MORNING. What a find. The internet needs more of that stuff.It's great for research or just film enthusiasts.
      Thanks for the tip on the article about the filming on Hamilton College. Wonderful behind the scenes stuff of the sort I live for.
      Glad to hear you checked the film out again after so many years. As for the questions you're left with , I was tempted to answer them, but realized the responses would just be my interpretation of events. I think when things are left in the air in movies--provided they're not simply missed or misunderstood by the viewer--they're open to personal interpretation and the specific impression a viewer is left with. The book is very good if you're interested enough to check it out. It also clarifies a few things left unexplained in the film.
      Thanks for contributing your links and thoughts to the comments section of this essay.

    3. Okay. Thanks, Ken. Btw, I've expanded my page since it was published. I think I'll add a list of recordings to the top. The page now includes 28 recordings, and I've got 17 others in store so far which I've omitted for various reasons.

      In addition to the Hamilton Alumni Review article I also recommend the Vincent Canby review that I mentioned above. I agree with him that the film's attempts to tell a dark, potentially honest story that "documents the breakdown of a desperate personality" are frequently undercut by "conventional cinematic slickness," the soundtrack issues being one of the more glaring examples.

  12. Canby also says "I've not read Nichols's novel, but I'm told that it, too, was a character vehicle that finally went no-where." I haven't read the book either, but it's true that the central character isn't developed through the film. Unlike Jerry, Pookie experiences no growth. There is no resolution of her psychological issues that become increasingly revealed as the film goes along.

    In a June 2018 review titled "Neglected Gem: The Sterile Cuckoo (1969)," published at, Steve Vineburg, though recognizing the power and depth of Minnelli's performance, says: "Pookie isn’t the protagonist of The Sterile Cuckoo; Jerry is. It’s his coming-of-age story." That's not Minnelli's fault.

    1. Nice! Those are two insightful observations. It reminds me how some English classes teach "The Great Gatsby" as a book about Nick Carraway because he's the only character in the film that grows from the experience.

  13. Liz Peyton MitchellMay 16, 2022 at 8:00 AM

    I, too, got the impression that Pookie might have had an abortion, because she seemed to be emotionally ruined by it. It seemed to be the turning point of the film, in fact. In that light, it almost seems that The Sterile Cuckoo is a statement against abortion and womens' right to choose, particularly when considering the film's title.

    1. Interesting observation you bring up.
      I think the intentional ambiguity of Pookie's pregnancy is a good narrative device calling on the viewer to analyze their impression of Pookie and what we’ve seen of her thus far. We know she’s an unreliable narrator of her own life, capable of lying on a dime (the mailman, the landlady, the nuns), clueless about how others perceive her, and emotionally needy to an almost desperate degree.
      We also see she asserts her will on others (popping up at Jerry's campus, scaring her roommates away) and is not above using whatever method she can to secure what she's afraid of losing (her desperate plea to be with Jerry when he insists he has studying to do).
      I know there are lots of ways to look at the film, but when I’m presented with an accomplished fantasist who adapted to the trauma of a lonely childhood by making things up, in the narrative language of cinema, I think the director is dropping MANY clues that maybe we should think twice before believing Pookie out of hand. Especially given the timing of her birth announcement (when she’s feeling abandoned by Jerry is seeking independence through friendship with others) and the timing of her pregnancy’s s dissolution (she couldn't have been very far along, she doesn't see a doctor, and in the time of Jerry's vacation, that’s taking in a lot. Even a miscarriage is possible under such circumstances).

      But even with an interpretation that takes Pookie's pregnancy as real and that her abortion is an emotionally traumatic event for her, that would seem to me to make the movie aggressively pro-choice and pro-abortion. The fact that abortion is an option for Pookie is narratively merciful and therefore comes across as a positive. The depiction of it as a difficult choice for a woman to make flies in the face of the myth that those who seek abortions take them lightly.
      I sincerely don't think “The Sterile Cuckoo” contains an anti-or-pro abortion subtext one way or another, but the ultimate incompatibility of Pookie and Jerry suggests that NOT having a baby together was a very good idea. Pro-choice, all the way.
      Thank you very much for reading this post and for taking the time to comment!

  14. I first saw this movie when I was 12 years old and I thought then that Pookie was just an eccentric person. I watched the movie again last night and a mere 55 years later I have a new appreciation for this movie! I have two questions for everyone. First, I have read that people say that Pookie smiles at the end of the movie. Is this the last scene of her on the bus as she is going in and out of the shadows right before the closing scene the where Jerry is standing in front of the bench on the grass?

    The second question is about the two scenes where Jerry is looking at the house through the window of his door room, and seeing the lights on at night. The first time he sees that there is no car in front of the house. The second time after his roommate, climbs onto the top bunk and drops his beer can, the car definitely there. Once Jerry goes and talks to Pookie in the room, she says that the car broke down and it wouldn’t run anymore. Then she says I came here. If I have that sequence of events, correct, I wouldn’t think the car could be there. Any thoughts?

    1. Hi Dave - I took a quick look at the film and the two sequences you reference. I hadn't really noticed it before, but Pookie does indeed break into a small, barely discernable smile when she's riding away in the bus at the end. What makes it so difficult to see are the glare and shadows that reflect off the window she's looking through. I'm not sure if it weren't for Blu-ray HD I'd even notice.

      And my own personal take on the last sequences is that you caught an error. Whether it's an error of narrative continuity or a technical one is debatable.
      The shot inside the dorm room where Jerry is on the bed and sees the light in the house across the way is far too deep focus for it to be a real shot of the house through a window.
      I suspect it was impossible (or difficult) to actually find an interior angle that featured the house seen clearly through the window. It's likely the two places are not even within eyelines of one another.
      The image in the window looks to me like a photo blowup of a frame of footage of the house (the angle and lighting identical to the external shot used to show Jerry walking to the door).
      Why Pookie's car is in front of the house is a mystery, but one likely linked to unused footage. As I said, the image through Jerry's window is too still to be real (and too well lit) and I think the precision with which his beer can is placed to obscure the brief view of the red car is a purposeful act of blotting out an object that shoulfn't be there.
      In the pre-VHS, DVD days, it's highly unlikey any one seeing the film just once even took notice of it, causing no one to ask about Pookie's later statement that she has no car (And she hasn't, hence the bus departure).
      I think you noticed the kind of error only possible withHD and close up rewatching.
      I think the car is not meant to be there, it simply happened to be in the frame chosen for that Hitchcockian fake window view effect. I don't think "we" the audience were supposed to notice Jerry cagily blocking the car with his Olympia beer can.

      That's just my take.
      Just as likely is that the original script had no mention of Pookie saying her car had conked out and she had driven herself there, but Pakula had a brainstorm that the film would have a "full circle" feeling if it ended the way it started...Pookie sitting wordlessly waiting for a bus with another person whom she's just too much for.
      Under this theory, a rewrite explaining that she has no car failed to take into account that they already had footage of the car. But who would notice a thing like that?
      Little did they know...

      I wonder if any other readers have any theories of their own?
      In any event, Dave, glad you revisited this movie after so many years, and you posed two very observant, very interesting questions about one of my favorite films. So I thank you for the contribution to this post!

    2. Now that I am older and understand the world slightly better than I did when I was 12, it is clear that Pookie has mental health issues. But with age comes a certain amount of sentimentality and here are my thoughts on that smile. I think that because of the kind of person that Jerry is, Pookie believes that she will see him again. It doesn’t seem like Jerry would cut bait and run so Pookie and I think that he will come back and find her in the future or that she will go and find him.

      Another thing about the film that struck me, because of our present culture, is when Pookie says to Jerry that you’re going to send me back home. It is such a submissive statement but possibly because of her mental state and/or her relationship with her father, she allows Jerry to send her without objection.

    3. I like your sentimental take on the ending. In fact, it's less like sentiment and more like wisdom.
      Not every film we see when we're young delivers more as we age, but THE STERILE CUCKOO has so little of its characters' emotional through-lines spelled out, that it's a marvelous film to revisit after one has lived a few years.
      Over the years we've developed the emotional vocabulary to fill in some of the blanks.
      Your interpretation of the sequences detailed certainly reveals that to be so. Thank you sharing them, Dave.