Though dated in some respects, The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) is an uncommonly perceptive film covering the wide array of emotions that encompass first love. Adapted from John Nichols novel of the same name, it marked the directorial debut of respected producer Alan J. Pakula and put star Liza Minnelli, then 23, on the map as a major new film talent. It was a big financial and critical success, and both Minnelli and a song heard throughout the film, "Come Saturday Morning" (performed by the Sandpipers) were nominated for Oscars.
A Paramount release sublicensed to Olive Films, the 1.85:1 picture gets a reasonably good though not great high-def transfer, nothing to write home about, and like most Olive Blu-rays it offers no extras, a shame since it all but begs for an audio commentary with Minnelli and co-star Wendell Burton, equally fine as Minnelli's boyfriend.
The story is quite simple, taking place over the course of a single school year, and limited to just three major characters. Chatty, aggressively friendly Pookie Adams (Minnelli) and shy, circumspect Jerry Payne (Burton) meet at a bus station. She all but forces herself into Jerry's life, but the bemused college freshman doesn't seem to mind her brashness. Shorty after he settles in at his dormitory, where he rooms with apparent ladies man Charlie Shumaker (Tim McIntire), Pookie turns up unexpectedly in a Volkswagen Beetle (purchased for $75), saying she's come to visit him for the weekend. Not sure what to do, they put her up in a boardinghouse across the street.
Nevertheless, Pookie and Jerry develop a strong attraction and affection toward one another, climaxing in their decision to rent a cabin and have sex. She becomes overwhelmed with anxiety afterwards, believing the seeming perfection of their relationship will soon turn sour. And, sure enough, tensions build as he decides to spend part of the Christmas break with his parents and, later, with Charlie on a skiing trip.
The Sterile Cuckoo is the kind of picture that, sadly, Hollywood studios just don't make anymore, capturing the honest human emotions of a typical, young male-female sexual relationship in ways only European filmmakers seem capable of anymore. Back in the late-1960s several American films did this spectacularly well, however; the same year The Sterile Cuckoo was released Frank Perry's Last Summer covered similar ground with equal verisimilitude and emotional impact.
On one hand The Sterile Cuckoo does a superb job sweetly capturing the awkwardness of two people drawn to one another but who are too inexperienced and uncertain to know how and when to make the next move, resulting in much embarrassment on both sides. (Nineteen sixty-seven's The Graduate expertly covered this same territory with a mostly satirical bent.)
But what's most interesting and impressive about The Sterile Cuckoo is how honestly - there's that word again - the less savory aspects of an unequal relationship are dramatized: insecure Pookie asking unromantic Jerry to write her a love letter; her anxiety about the permanence of their relationship, made worse by his lack of passion; her panic-stricken phone call where she all but begs him to let her join him over the Easter holiday, when he needs to study; and his slow but agonizingly painful efforts to break free from her suffocating, strained efforts to be a supportive lover. How many mainstream movies today would invite its audience to so cringe with recognition?
Wendell Burton is equally fine as Jerry, but Minnelli's part is the far more difficult to pull off without appearing grating in the wrong ways, or a cliché (as kookie Pookie), or overdoing in the film's later, darker scenes. I've never been much of a fan of even Minnelli's best-known films, but she loses herself completely in this character, reportedly using the novel as her Bible and identifying strongly with aspects of Pookie's emotional makeup. She's flawlessly cast and doesn't disappoint.
Released the year of Easy Rider, some found fault with Pakula's directorial style, his Claude Lelouch-style montages, accompanied by "Come Saturday Morning," whose melody and lyrics might have seemed syrupy in the age of Woodstock but which adds a haunting quality in retrospect.
Video & Audio
The Sterile Cuckoo looks just okay, though the film seems to have been shot in that grittier, less polished-style of cinematography just coming into vogue in late-'60s Hollywood productions. (In a distracting disregard for realism, scenes supposedly set in late-December/early-January were obviously filmed on what look like warm summer afternoons. There's no snow and everything is richly green and sunny, hardly accurate.) The transfer is unrestored and fairly loaded with dirt and other imperfections, and is on the soft side too, but it serves its purpose and better this high-def release than none at all. The mono audio (English only, no subtitles) is likewise acceptable. No Extra Features, sorry to say, owing to Paramount's general unwillingness to sign off on independently produced extra features content.
Highly Recommended, The Sterile Cuckoo offers an authentic look at young love relationships in ways rarely seen in American films today, and impresses with its sensitivity and performances. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.