Monday, April 28, 2008

THE STERILE CUCKOO (1969)

This film contains Liza Minnelli's breakthrough performance; in only her second film role, she was nominated for an Oscar. What's striking to me is how much Liza's character of Pookie Adams is like Liza's character of Sally Bowles in CABARET three years later. We first see Pookie waiting quietly with her father for the bus that will take her from her small town to her freshman year at a New England college. On the bus, she meets up with Jerry (Wendell Burton), another freshman heading off to his all-boy's college not far from hers. She comes off as a total free-spirited kook and Jerry tries to keep his distance, but she forces him to pay attention to her and soon, thanks to the used, sun-roofed VW she buys, she is visiting him on weekends and they begin a relationship. His reserves are worn down eventually (after frolics in a cemetery, a cow field, and an overcrowded campus bar), and they begin renting a cabin regularly on weekends for sex. They tell each other they're in love, but when Jerry tells her that he's going to spend a chunk of his Christmas break helping his beer-swilling jock roommate Charlie (Tim McIntire) with his studies instead of taking her home to meet his folks, she accuses him of being gay. When that doesn't change his mind, she claims to be pregnant. He suggests an abortion, then offers to marry her, but still doesn't change his break plans. In January, she says the baby "went away" (we assume she was never really pregnant) and they carry on as before. At a drunken (but still fairly innocent) dorm bacchanal, she bonds with Charlie and makes a fool of herself. When Jerry stays at his dorm, all alone, during spring break to catch up on classwork, Pookie comes to stay with him. She gives him some space, but grudgingly, and soon he tells her they need a break. Later, when Jerry decides to look her up, he finds out she'd dropped out of school and seemingly vanished off the face of the earth, but they do wind up having one more sad little encounter.

Like Sally Bowles, Pookie Adams appears to be a strong-willed individual, but is actually rather fragile and insecure. They both seem flighty, but are also single-minded in getting what they think they want. Both have romances with men who are overwhelmed by them--unlike Brian in CABARET, Jerry isn't presented as gay, just inexperienced (their first lovemaking session is awkward and amusing, and realistic), though the seed of doubt that Pookie plants is never exactly proven wrong; Charlie admits to Jerry that, despite his persona, he's a virgin, assuming that Jerry is, too, which he's not, but that's as much as we see of their holiday week together. Minnelli uses many of the same mannerisms that she does in CABARET, and honestly, I was a little disappointed to see this, as it makes her performance in the later movie seem more like she was dipping into a used back of tricks. (She even references an old friend named Elsie here, just as she does in the song "Cabaret.") Burton is very good handling the potentially awkward role of passive observing male. This is really a two-person show; except for McIntire, no one else has any significant dialogue (and no one else gets screen credit), and as such, it held my attention fairly well. The song "Come Saturday Morning," which I like, is played a little too often as background music for romantic frolics (and for some of the sad scenes later). The production seems fairly cheap--though set against a "fall to winter to spring" seasonal arc, virtually all the exteriors were obviously shot in the fall, and the colleges both seem more like small boarding schools. Interesting mostly as a snapshot of Minnelli just before she hit full bloom. [TCM]

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