The Sterile Cuckoo (1969)

sterile cuckoo 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: This relationship is doomed.

Mary Ann Adams (Liza Minnelli), who goes by the nickname of Pookie, is a complete social misfit who can’t fit-in anywhere.  As she waits at a bus stop to go off to college she meets Jerry (Wendell Burton) a shy and reserved young man who just happens to be attending the same school as she. Pookie immediately starts up a conversation with him and takes full advantage of his quiet nature to force herself into his life. The two soon begin to date, but Pookie’s inability to get along with others and her extreme insecurities make it almost impossible for the fledgling relationship to get off the ground.

This film marks the directorial debut of Alan J. Pakula and the result is nothing short of excellent. This is the type of movie that they don’t seem to make anymore where great sensitivity is taken to focus on a broken individual, but without ever making fun or demeaning them in anyway. The film’s pace is slow, but never boring and the emphasis is almost entirely on the nuances of its two leads. It also features one of the best and most memorable movie soundtracks to come out of the ‘60s.

The film is based on the novel of the same name that came out in 1965 and was written by John Nichols. It was even shot at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York where Nichols graduated in 1962. For the most part the script, by the prolific Alvin Sargent, stays quite faithful to the book with the only real big difference being that the story here encompasses only one year while in the book it was three. To me this revision was an improvement because the relationship was clearly doomed from the beginning and I couldn’t imagine it somehow lasting for three years let alone one to begin with.

Minnelli’s performance is Oscar worthy and the scene where she has a long talk on the phone with Jerry and the camera stays solely focused on her face is one the strongest moments in the movie and could only have been pulled off by a brilliant actress who somehow makes the viewer empathetic to this otherwise annoying character.

Burton, in his film debut, is equally strong and watching the two characters with such contrasting styles dealing with each other is the main catalyst that propels the story. Tim McIntire, as Jerry’s college roommate, is quite good as well playing the perfect composite of a partying college kid while also offering one of the film’s few moments of levity.

Some viewers have complained that the film lacks any wintertime shots even though the story takes place in Upstate New York where snow is inevitable and the story is supposedly spread over one full school year, but to me this is nitpicky. Clearly the film’s budget didn’t allow for shooting over an entire year and it wasn’t necessary anyways. The film captures the forestry region in such a vivid way that it almost becomes like a third character. It also in my mind made it more believable because I never felt this wacky, makeshift romance could last a full year and at best might’ve only existed for the fall semester before inevitably petering apart.

For me the only real criticism is the fact that we learn very little of about Pookie’s personal life. She mentions her relationship with her father quite a lot and we see him for a brief period at the beginning, but then that’s it even though it would’ve helped the viewer understand the character better had a backstory, or scenes involving her family life been shown.

The film is also incredibly sad to the point that it will make just about any viewer depressed after seeing it. On the technical end it’s flawless, but Pookie’s feelings of loneliness and the character’s extreme isolation eventually reaches out and sucks the viewer into it without any let up and it remains with them long after it’s over.

sterile cuckoo 2

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 22, 1969

Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes

Rated M

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

2 responses to “The Sterile Cuckoo (1969)

  1. Joseph Kearny

    Minnelli at her best in a touching, honest character study.

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