Friday, June 22, 2018

Neglected Gem: The Sterile Cuckoo (1969)

Wendell Burton and Liza Minnelli in The Sterile Cuckoo. (Photo: Getty)

Alan J. Pakula’s first movie, before Klute and The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, was a small-scale adaptation of a first novel, The Sterile Cuckoo by John Nichols, written when the author was only twenty-three and published in 1965. It’s a touching chronicle of a college romance that gets crushed under the weight of passing time and shifting perspectives and the alcohol-soaked traditions of higher education; you feel the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the descriptions of party nights where things go wrong and can’t be put right. But even without the drinking, the relationship between Jerry Payne and Pookie Adams, the first real one for both, is too fragile to survive:

"It got so that we were always off balance together: one second I would love Pookie so much my intestines twinged, the next second I would dislike her intensely and sincerely wish that she would take herself and her wisecracks and go far away. It seemed that gradually our love affair was slipping out of our hands altogether, as if, while our backs had been turned... the magic had mysteriously drained out of it."

Pakula’s movie is a very different animal from Nichols’s book. The screenwriter, Alvin Sargent, reshaped the story to make Pookie – played by twenty-three-year-old Liza Minnelli, already a veteran of stage musicals but in only her second movie role – a freakishly unconventional and deeply neurotic young woman who inhabits her own private world and draws Jerry (Wendell Burton) into it, attempting to lock him inside it and everyone else out. Sargent had been writing for television for nearly a decade and a half, but The Sterile Cuckoo was only his third screenplay, and I think that the fact that the picture was put together by and with relative novices – Burton’s only previous movie role was a walk-on in The Gypsy Moths, though he’d played Charlie Brown on stage – contributes to its freshness, which it has maintained over half a century.

If Nichols owes a debt to Fitzgerald, Sargent’s superb screenplay bears the influence mostly of the two great American coming-of-age novels of the post-World War II era, Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding (written in 1946, dramatized by McCullers in 1950 and brilliantly filmed by Fred Zinnemann in 1952) and J.D. Salinger’s 1951 Catcher in the Rye. Pookie is an outsider like Frankie Adams in The Member of the Wedding, moody like her, and acutely sensitive, but unlike Frankie, she relishes her outsider status; she cultivates it, because, like Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, she mistrusts the communities everyone else seems to belong to. (Frankie covets them.) Holden thinks the world is full of phonies; for Pookie it’s full of creeps and weirdos. She fastens onto Jerry when she sees him at a small-town bus stop where they’re both waiting to travel to small colleges, just a couple of hours from each other, for their freshman year, perhaps in New England or upstate New York, where Pakula shot the movie (at Hamilton College). Jerry is a nice, quiet kid who’s dressed formally, in a sweater and a tie and a sports jacket; Pookie’s a gamine type, with heavy-frame specs and a short haircut that underscore her goofy, rabbitty look. She literally drops into his life, shoving her face into the frame of his camera, and though at first he finds her off-putting and takes care to sit alone on the bus, she negotiates her way next to him by making up a story that they’re siblings who’ve recently lost their mother, so sympathetic strangers politely make themselves scarce to permit her to ride beside him. The movie begins like a screwball comedy, with this buttoned-up boy encountering this kooky girl; we wait to see how she’s going to loosen him up. But that’s not the story Sargent and Pakula want to tell, and if we study the opening scene of the movie more carefully we can see from the outset that it’s not going to be. When we first see Pookie, she’s sitting awkwardly, uncomfortably, next to her father, in a long shot that accentuates their isolation, from the rest of the world and from each other; they don’t speak except when he tells her he hopes she enjoys college, and she doesn’t reply. She asks Jerry to take a picture of her for her dad, but instead of handing it to him she crumples it behind her back. And then there’s the theme song: the bittersweet Sandpipers ballad “Come Saturday Morning,” which is about the preciousness of young romance and also its fleetingness: “Come Saturday morning, I’m going away with my friend / We’ll Saturday spend till the end of the day / ...And then we’ll move on / But we will remember long after Saturday’s gone.”

Burton and Minnelli as Jerry and Pookie. (Photo: Getty)

Pookie and Jerry’s romance begins with this bus ride, where he can’t figure out what to make of her: she unsettles him, she even scares him a little, but she intrigues him. When he gets off the bus, he figures he won’t see her again, but she barrels back into his life, showing up at his school uninvited, presenting herself at his dorm and giving him a rare beetle because he told her on the bus that he was excited about studying biology. The gesture confuses him; we can guess that he’s not used to getting gifts from girls. But it’s such an odd, categorizable, and lovely gift. By the end of the weekend they’re friends. The movie shows us how first love can begin playfully, with friendship, before growing out of it into something deeper and more meaningful. Slowly but undeniably, he falls in love with her. She’s too much for him, as it turns out – she carries more psychic baggage than any eighteen-year-old boy could possibly handle. But this is the kind of first love that a boy of his age might find, especially if he’s sensitive like Jerry and feels a little outside of things himself. She writes him long letters full of extravagant details about her life and her relatives and neighbors; Jerry, entertained by them, thrilled by the way she includes him in them, and finally nuts about her, memorizes them. (My first girlfriend, whom I dated through senior year in high school and freshman year in college, used to write me long, freakishly and delightfully detailed letters, too. She was more than I could handle – bipolar, though I didn’t know it at the time and wouldn’t have known the term for it, which at the time, also the late sixties, was “manic-depressive.”) Eventually, in one of the tenderest and sweetest and most delicately funny loss-of-virginity scenes I know, Jerry and Pookie become lovers, going – in the awful old-school tradition – to a depressing motel in her college town, where the radiator doesn’t work and the bed creaks.

Pookie’s mother died giving birth to her, and her father, she reports, has never emerged from his bottomless grief. “My first victim!” she cries mock-ghoulishly, but it’s clear she isn’t really kidding. She fixates on death: it’s the theme of the whoppers she tells to other people (we assume that the stories she tells Jerry are essentially accurate), she wants Jerry to take a photo of her lying on a gravestone, and their first kiss takes place in a cemetery. (I thought of that scene when I watched the lovely episode in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise where Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy read the inscriptions in a Viennese graveyard.) Presumably there’s some link between this character’s motherlessness and her distance from her father on the one hand and on the other her need to protect herself by drawing a circle that separates her from the rest of the world – except Jerry, whom she pulls into that circle.

Pookie isn’t the protagonist of The Sterile Cuckoo; Jerry is. It’s his coming-of-age story. He’s shy and it takes him a little time to get used to things, so at first he’s startled by college – by his roommate Charlie (the talented second-generation actor Tim McIntire, who died way too young, in 1986), his endless supply of beer and his bullshit stories about making out with girls. But unlike Pookie, he wants to mix. He and Charlie become friends, while she keeps driving her roommates away. He likes other people, while she lumps them together as creeps and weirdos; she’s more at home in a graveyard, where she can create fictions about the dead people. She’s in love with fantasy, but though her fictions are charming (and so is Liza Minnelli), the way the movie allies her with death makes us worry that if Jerry stays with her he won’t be able to grow. The title of the movie refers to both Pookie, who is irreparably damaged (Minnelli perches like a bird throughout the film – on chairs, on sills, even at one point in the crook of a tree outside his dorm window) and to their relationship, which is stifled because she wants it to exist outside of the world.

Minnelli as Pookie. (Photo: Getty)

The morning after they make love for the first time, she’s terrified because everything is so perfect she’s certain it can’t last, but he sits behind her in an empty church and tells her he loves her. He has to repeat it before she’ll accept it as the simple truth, and then she begs him, “Let’s never be weirdos, OK?” What that means to her is that they live in a world where they’re the only inhabitants. What happens to an insulated romance like this one when one of the lovers wants to socialize, to be part of a community? Charlie and some other friends from Jerry’s dorm happen by in an open convertible, singing drunkenly, and offer him a lift, sweeping him away from her and leaving her alone on the side of the road, and the moment is prescient. When Charlie invites Jerry on a Christmas ski trip, Pookie feels threatened, so she claims that Charlie’s queer and is luring Jerry away. Then she tells him she’s pregnant. She isn’t lying, exactly – more like fantasizing, or convincing herself that it’s true. He’s terrified, but he’s loyal and sincere and he loves her. So he doesn’t run away, even when it turns out she’s not going to have a baby after all. But he does try to draw her into the world, explaining to her that people sometimes only seem like creeps and weirdos because they’re “a little cautious” (as he knows he is) – scared and insecure. The house party weekend he invites her to is a disaster. She feels jostled and exposed; she gets drunk and becomes insulting, hostile, even savage to his friends. From that point the romance moves to shakier and shakier ground. She grows increasingly desperate for his full attention, and he realizes he needs other things in his life. He stays in the dorm over Easter break to work on his classes (his grades are slipping), and though he submits, reluctantly, to her plea to let her stay with him, at the end of the time he proposes some time apart, and she falls apart. She drops out of school and he can’t find her – until he figures out that she’s holed up in the boardinghouse room she’s always rented on weekends visiting him, where she’s now a sort of ghost haunting the environs of the early days of their romance.

The movie made Minnelli a star and it’s easy to see why. She gives a brilliant performance – vulnerable but fierce. One scene, where Pookie keeps Jerry on the phone, terrified that he’s going to break up with her, is a classic of sustained intensity and tactical variety. Burton is hardly in the scene at all. (At close to five minutes, it’s a remarkable demonstration of what an imaginative, fearless film actor can do in a single take with nothing to rely on but a beautifully written text.) Minnelli’s work is so dynamic that Burton slipped through the cracks when the film came out, and his career faded; he finally gave up acting altogether. But I think that he’s wonderful: he gives a display of earnestness and decency that never lapses into cliché, as in the moment when Charlie drops his macho pose while they’re lying in their beds in the dark on their ski trip and he ventures a guess that they’re the only two guys in the dorm who’ve never been laid – and Jerry, unwilling to hurt his feelings, stays silent. Also Burton does something very difficult: he shows us how Jerry grows up over the course of this one year, his Pookie Adams year.

Nichols’s book is set in the early sixties, and though the movie doesn’t specify, it seems clear that Pakula retained the period, because the college kids don’t have long hair and don’t smoke weed. It was a little strange to see the movie in 1969, when I was a college freshman myself; it seems to take place in some long-gone era. Perhaps that’s why it never caught on with undergraduate filmgoers, though The Graduate had managed to transcend that barrier the year before. Its refusal to be hip seems now like a sign of integrity, and Pakula’s limitations as a director on this, his freshman effort, serve the movie too. He doesn’t have a clue how to shoot the two party scenes, at Pookie’s school the first weekend Jerry comes to visit and at the house party at his dorm later on. And his visual choices in the quieter, two-handed scenes that make up most of the film’s length are far from adventurous, but they seem right nonetheless – all those long shots, which draw out the melancholy, and the motif of Pookie on the far side of windows, which culminates in the heartbreaking scene where Jerry puts her on a bus back to her father – a scene that, of course, harks back to the opening. The Sterile Cuckoo is one of those movies that always stirs me and that I carry with me for a day or two after I’ve rewatched it.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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