The Sterile Cuckoo


1h 47m 1969

Brief Synopsis

An innocent college boy gets mixed up with a needy, neurotic young woman.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
PG
Genre
Romance
Adaptation
Comedy
Drama
Release Date
Jan 1969
Premiere Information
New York opening: 22 Oct 1969
Production Company
Boardwalk Productions
Distribution Company
Paramount Pictures
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel The Sterile Cuckoo by John Treadwell Nichols (New York, 1965).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 47m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Technicolor)

Synopsis

Pookie Adams and Jerry Payne meet while traveling by bus to their respective colleges in upstate New York. The outspoken behavior of Pookie overwhelms the reserved Jerry, and he is relieved when she departs. No sooner has Jerry settled down to sharing a dormitory room with the athletic, beer-drinking Charlie Shumacher, than Pookie arrives in a dilapidated old car and announces that she has come to visit him for the weekend. Shocked by her brashness, but unable to ask her to leave, Jerry finds Pookie accomodations at a boardinghouse and devotes all of his time to her. Before long, Jerry is visiting Pookie at her school 70 miles away; and, as friendship turns to romance, they awkwardly and nervously make love in a motel cabin. Trouble erupts when Jerry accepts Charlie's offer to spend Christmas skiing at his parents' mountain cabin. Offended by this, Pookie tells Jerry that she is pregnant. Alarmed at the news, Jerry asks Pookie to marry him, but she refuses. After Christmas, Pookie tells him that the baby "went away." When Jerry takes her to a college party, she gets drunk and insults all the students. Later, Jerry telephones Pookie, and she is contrite, but he announces that he will be staying at school over the Easter vacation to study. Tearfully pleading that she will be quiet if Jerry lets her stay with him, Pookie wins his consent. Their week together at Jerry's dorm is sometimes fun and loving, but mostly strained. As a result, Jerry decides that they should not see each other for a few weeks. When he finally calls her, he learns that she has left college. Some time later, Jerry finds Pookie, alone and subdued, staying at the boardinghouse. Jerry suggests to Pookie that she return home to visit her father. Reluctantly, Pookie says goodbye and leaves.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
PG
Genre
Romance
Adaptation
Comedy
Drama
Release Date
Jan 1969
Premiere Information
New York opening: 22 Oct 1969
Production Company
Boardwalk Productions
Distribution Company
Paramount Pictures
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel The Sterile Cuckoo by John Treadwell Nichols (New York, 1965).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 47m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Technicolor)

Award Nominations

Best Actress

1969
Liza Minnelli

Best Song

1969

Articles

The Sterile Cuckoo


A bittersweet story of first love between two misfit, mismatched college students, The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) was Liza Minnelli's second film, earned her the first of two Oscar® nominations, and made her a star. Minnelli plays Pookie Adams, whose mother died giving birth to her, and whose father rarely sees her. To cover her vulnerability, Pookie has adopted a brash, wisecracking manner and refers to most people as "weirdos." On the bus taking her to college in upstate New York, Pookie latches on to Jerry (Wendell Burton), a shy geek headed for a nearby college. Their romance plays out during the course of their freshman year.

Minnelli, the daughter of superstar Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, made her stage debut at the age of 17 in an off-Broadway revival of the musical Best Foot Forward (1963), and became the youngest person to win a musical Tony Award for Best Actress when she starred in Flora, the Red Menace two years later. Minnelli's only previous film appearance before The Sterile Cuckoo was in a small role in Charlie Bubbles (1967). Around the same time, director Alan J. Pakula had contacted her about playing Pookie, but she hadn't heard back from him. Meanwhile Burt Bacharach and Hal David offered Minnelli the lead in their Broadway show, Promises, Promises (1968), a musical version of the 1960 film The Apartment. At first she agreed, but as she told Tom Burke in a 1969 New York Times interview, she ultimately backed out. "I think I still had Pookie very much on my mind." When Pakula did contact Minnelli again and offered her the role in The Sterile Cuckoo, she was available.

To play Jerry, Pakula chose Wendell Burton, whom he had seen playing the title role in the San Francisco production of the musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. That had been Burton's stage debut, and The Sterile Cuckoo would be his film debut. Burton followed The Sterile Cuckoo with a grim prison drama, Fortune and Men's Eyes (1971), and he had a fairly successful career in television before giving up acting in the late 1980s and devoting himself to the Christian religion.

Although he had been a successful producer for more than a decade, Pakula had never directed before. In 1962, he had formed an independent production company with Robert Mulligan, who directed the films that Pakula produced such as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963). With The Sterile Cuckoo, Pakula, who had directed plays in college and always wanted to direct films, showed excellent instincts his first time out.

In the same New York Times interview, Minnelli noted that Pakula scheduled several weeks of intensive rehearsals before they went on location at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Most of that time was spent improvising, so that the actors could really explore their characters. Once on location, Pakula put Minnelli together with a group of actual college girls who were going to play her dorm-mates, and Pakula asked them to get to know each other by talking about their backgrounds and families. When her turn came, Minnelli, who had planned to talk about her showbiz upbringing, instead talked about Pookie's family because she had completely inhabited the character by that point. However, the scenes with the other girls never made it into the film. As Pakula recalled in a 1972 Sight and Sound interview, "I wanted to suggest...that Pookie Adams was a girl who belongs nowhere. In the script originally, there was a whole sequence on her campus, but now you never see her college. You see her in boarding-houses, in buses, in his college, always coming and going." But the improvisations helped the actors make their characters true and touching. Over the years, such attention to characterization earned Pakula a reputation as an actor's director, and he has guided eight actors to Oscar® nominations, including winners Jane Fonda for Klute (1971), Jason Robards, Jr. for All the President's Men (1976), and Meryl Streep for Sophie's Choice (1982).

Many critics disliked The Sterile Cuckoo's then de-rigueur "falling in love" montages of the lovers frolicking in golden-hued light, to the strains of a syrupy song, Come Saturday Morning. ("I suppose they are Lelouchy," Pakula admitted in the Sight and Sound interview, referring to Claude Lelouch, the director of the film that started the trend, 1966's A Man and a Woman.). But Come Saturday Morning earned an Oscar® nomination, and Fred Karlin's score was nominated for a Grammy.

Some critics also complained about the shifts in tone, from romantic comedy to poignant drama. Roger Ebert called Pakula's work "a schizo directing job. Pakula has a good story, and tells it, and then gums it up with the unnecessary scenes he probably felt obligated to include.... But parts of it are awfully good, and Miss Minnelli is one hell of an actress." On the latter there was general agreement. There were raves for both Minnelli's and Burton's performances, and the critical consensus was that Pakula had made an auspicious debut as a director.

Both Pakula and Minnelli would go on to greater glory. Pakula's next film was the superb Klute, and he earned Oscar® nominations for directing All the President's Men and for his adapted screenplay for Sophie's Choice. Minnelli won her Oscar® for Cabaret (1972), and while her film career has not lived up to her early promise, she has become a legendary stage performer. Pakula later recalled working on The Sterile Cuckoo as "One of the happiest times of my life....mostly because of Liza. I've never seen anybody get more joy out of working, and it's contagious."

Director: Alan J. Pakula
Producer: Alan J. Pakula
Screenplay: Alvin Sargent
Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner
Editor: Sam O'Steen, John W. Wheeler
Costume Design: Jennifer Parsons, John A. Anderson
Art Direction: Roland Anderson
Music: Fred Karlin
Principal Cast: Liza Minnelli (Pookie), Wendell Burton (Jerry), Tim McIntire (Charlie Schumacher), Elizabeth Harrower (Landlady), Austin Green (Pookie's Father), Sandy Faison (Nancy Putnam) Chris Bugbee (Roe), Jawn McKinley (Helen Upshaw).
C-107m. Letterboxed.

by Margarita Landazuri
The Sterile Cuckoo

The Sterile Cuckoo

A bittersweet story of first love between two misfit, mismatched college students, The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) was Liza Minnelli's second film, earned her the first of two Oscar® nominations, and made her a star. Minnelli plays Pookie Adams, whose mother died giving birth to her, and whose father rarely sees her. To cover her vulnerability, Pookie has adopted a brash, wisecracking manner and refers to most people as "weirdos." On the bus taking her to college in upstate New York, Pookie latches on to Jerry (Wendell Burton), a shy geek headed for a nearby college. Their romance plays out during the course of their freshman year. Minnelli, the daughter of superstar Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, made her stage debut at the age of 17 in an off-Broadway revival of the musical Best Foot Forward (1963), and became the youngest person to win a musical Tony Award for Best Actress when she starred in Flora, the Red Menace two years later. Minnelli's only previous film appearance before The Sterile Cuckoo was in a small role in Charlie Bubbles (1967). Around the same time, director Alan J. Pakula had contacted her about playing Pookie, but she hadn't heard back from him. Meanwhile Burt Bacharach and Hal David offered Minnelli the lead in their Broadway show, Promises, Promises (1968), a musical version of the 1960 film The Apartment. At first she agreed, but as she told Tom Burke in a 1969 New York Times interview, she ultimately backed out. "I think I still had Pookie very much on my mind." When Pakula did contact Minnelli again and offered her the role in The Sterile Cuckoo, she was available. To play Jerry, Pakula chose Wendell Burton, whom he had seen playing the title role in the San Francisco production of the musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. That had been Burton's stage debut, and The Sterile Cuckoo would be his film debut. Burton followed The Sterile Cuckoo with a grim prison drama, Fortune and Men's Eyes (1971), and he had a fairly successful career in television before giving up acting in the late 1980s and devoting himself to the Christian religion. Although he had been a successful producer for more than a decade, Pakula had never directed before. In 1962, he had formed an independent production company with Robert Mulligan, who directed the films that Pakula produced such as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963). With The Sterile Cuckoo, Pakula, who had directed plays in college and always wanted to direct films, showed excellent instincts his first time out. In the same New York Times interview, Minnelli noted that Pakula scheduled several weeks of intensive rehearsals before they went on location at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Most of that time was spent improvising, so that the actors could really explore their characters. Once on location, Pakula put Minnelli together with a group of actual college girls who were going to play her dorm-mates, and Pakula asked them to get to know each other by talking about their backgrounds and families. When her turn came, Minnelli, who had planned to talk about her showbiz upbringing, instead talked about Pookie's family because she had completely inhabited the character by that point. However, the scenes with the other girls never made it into the film. As Pakula recalled in a 1972 Sight and Sound interview, "I wanted to suggest...that Pookie Adams was a girl who belongs nowhere. In the script originally, there was a whole sequence on her campus, but now you never see her college. You see her in boarding-houses, in buses, in his college, always coming and going." But the improvisations helped the actors make their characters true and touching. Over the years, such attention to characterization earned Pakula a reputation as an actor's director, and he has guided eight actors to Oscar® nominations, including winners Jane Fonda for Klute (1971), Jason Robards, Jr. for All the President's Men (1976), and Meryl Streep for Sophie's Choice (1982). Many critics disliked The Sterile Cuckoo's then de-rigueur "falling in love" montages of the lovers frolicking in golden-hued light, to the strains of a syrupy song, Come Saturday Morning. ("I suppose they are Lelouchy," Pakula admitted in the Sight and Sound interview, referring to Claude Lelouch, the director of the film that started the trend, 1966's A Man and a Woman.). But Come Saturday Morning earned an Oscar® nomination, and Fred Karlin's score was nominated for a Grammy. Some critics also complained about the shifts in tone, from romantic comedy to poignant drama. Roger Ebert called Pakula's work "a schizo directing job. Pakula has a good story, and tells it, and then gums it up with the unnecessary scenes he probably felt obligated to include.... But parts of it are awfully good, and Miss Minnelli is one hell of an actress." On the latter there was general agreement. There were raves for both Minnelli's and Burton's performances, and the critical consensus was that Pakula had made an auspicious debut as a director. Both Pakula and Minnelli would go on to greater glory. Pakula's next film was the superb Klute, and he earned Oscar® nominations for directing All the President's Men and for his adapted screenplay for Sophie's Choice. Minnelli won her Oscar® for Cabaret (1972), and while her film career has not lived up to her early promise, she has become a legendary stage performer. Pakula later recalled working on The Sterile Cuckoo as "One of the happiest times of my life....mostly because of Liza. I've never seen anybody get more joy out of working, and it's contagious." Director: Alan J. Pakula Producer: Alan J. Pakula Screenplay: Alvin Sargent Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner Editor: Sam O'Steen, John W. Wheeler Costume Design: Jennifer Parsons, John A. Anderson Art Direction: Roland Anderson Music: Fred Karlin Principal Cast: Liza Minnelli (Pookie), Wendell Burton (Jerry), Tim McIntire (Charlie Schumacher), Elizabeth Harrower (Landlady), Austin Green (Pookie's Father), Sandy Faison (Nancy Putnam) Chris Bugbee (Roe), Jawn McKinley (Helen Upshaw). C-107m. Letterboxed. by Margarita Landazuri

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

Location scenes filmed at Hamilton College and Rome, New York.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Fall October 1969

Released in United States October 1996

Shown at Hamptons International Film Festival East Hampton, New York October 16-20, 1996.

Film marks Alan Pakula's directorial debut.

Released in United States Fall October 1969

Released in United States October 1996 (Shown at Hamptons International Film Festival East Hampton, New York October 16-20, 1996.)