Liza Minnelli The Sterile Cuckoo

2019 AFI Fest

After a decade producing movies, including To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Alan J. Pakula’s directorial debut was The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) adapted by Alvin Sargent from John Nichols’ novel. It screens at the 2019 AFI Fest along with the Pakula directed Klute (1971) and Sophie’s Choice (1982) and the premiere of the feature documentary Alan Pakula: Going for Truth (2019). In The Sterile Cuckoo, Liza Minnelli stars as a “lovable kook” with the quintessentially kookie name, Pookie.

As the film opens, college student Jerry Payne (Wendell Burton) takes the bus to his East Coast men’s college. The Oscar nominated “Come Saturday Morning” by Fred Karlin and Dory Previn plays on the soundtrack. It’s the late 1960s when shaggy-haired student radicals protested the Viet Nam war. A shy academic, clean-cut Jerry sports the preppie style of white chinos and a button down shirt.

In a November 18, 1969 review, Roger Ebert wasn’t buying Jerry’s act and writes:

He’s the kind of kid who stays on campus over Easter vacation, claiming he has to study — and really does. Pookie fastens herself to him for neurotic reasons of her own, but she chooses the wrong guy. Jerry is offensively passive, lifeless, colorless, undistinguished. He’ll grow up into the kind of guy who claims he only works here.

Ebert wasn’t any keener on Minnelli’s character.

Liza Minnelli plays Pookie as an appealing eccentric who gradually cracks up as her hang-ups surface. Pookie is basically interested only in herself — boringly so, at times. But at least she cares enough to make an effort to reach someone else.

In his blog Dreams Are What Le Cinema is For, Ken Anderson is a bit more charitable:

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.

Liza fans beware. No singing. No dancing. No glamour or razzmatazz. Cabaret (1972) it ain’t. Still, The Sterile Cuckoo has its virtues. We’ve seen other needy female characters in the years since, but Liza’s Pookie is one of the best examples. The picturesque college town shot by cinematographer Milton R. Krassner seems calming and peaceful contrasting with the inner turmoil of the characters.

Fans of American Hot Wax (1978) should look for Tim McIntire as Charley, Jerry’s obnoxious roommate.