The Sterile Cuckoo

“The Sterile Cuckoo,” an Alan Pakula film from 1969 starring Liza Minnelli as Pookie Adams, highlights the romantic relationship between two freshman college students in upstate New York.  Almost an orphan — her father travels all the time and can’t even make it home for the traditional holidays — the needy Pookie aggressively pursues Jerry Payne (Wendell Burton), a student studying insects at a neighboring college.  Payne proceeds cautiously, a bit put off by this neurotic woman, but he eventually falls in love with the infinitely strange Pookie.

Liza Minnelli as Pookie Adams

Pakula shows several montage scenes featuring the song, “Come Saturday Morning,” which involves Pookie and Jerry running around in the fields.  The relationship builds very slowly, which is certainly a contrast to the wide-open morality in some of the other movies of the period.  More lascivious movies from 1969 include such titles as “Easy Rider,” “Cactus Flower,” “Midnight Cowboy,” and “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.”

I found it unbelievable that college students could get away with trashing Jerry’s dorm during the party scene, where a very drunk Pookie lashes out at the more popular students.  They couldn’t do that at my state school, so I wonder if students tend to be more destructive at small private colleges.  Anyway, I walked away from this movie knowing for sure that pessimism, cynicism and calling everyone a “weirdo” does not work.  It sure makes Pookie unpopular.

The movie does what a small movie should do.  It concentrates on the story and only a few characters.  There are no subplots to interfere with the narrative flow.  Tim McIntire plays a few short scenes as Jerry’s roommate, which relieves the tension of focussing on his relationship with Pookie.  Liza Minnelli does a wonderful job playing Pookie, and she would have been a good choice for the best actress Academy Award, which went to Maggie Smith for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.”

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