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  Sterile Cuckoo, The The Odd Couple
Year: 1969
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Stars: Liza Minnelli, Wendell Burton, Tim McIntire
Genre: RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Jerry Payne (Wendell Burton) is heading off for college to study insects, but ends up with more than he bargained for when someone goes up to him where he is waiting on the bench for the bus to take him there. That someone is Pookie Adams (Liza Minnelli), and as her nickname suggests, she is more than a little eccentric, and she insists that as he has his instant camera out, he should take her photograph. Bemused, he does so, and then feels slightly relieved when the bus arrives, but she is getting on it as well, and makes up some outrageous lie to a nun to ensure she sits next to him. This could be the start of something...

Minnelli was nominated for an Oscar for The Sterile Cuckoo, only her second film after her debut in Charlie Bubbles a couple of years before. It might have been significant that she was up for the award in that her mother Judy Garland had died shortly before this film came out, especially as Pookie does not have a mother, just one part of her personality that instructs audiences to feel sorry for her. Helping that along was an uncomfortably vulnerable performance that practically begged the viewer to collapse in tears before the story was over, and that has made it divide those who see it into the ones who respond, and the others who reject.

Actually, while it was easy to be cynical about Minnelli here, the truth was that she offered a very fine reading of a role that could have been a massive turn-off to everyone, and not simply the half who resisted her. The plot was simplicity itself, with only three actors listed in the cast, the others having such minor roles that they were not deemed important enough to be registered as appearing. It was a love story first and foremost, but one which as you watched it, came across as less and less romantic as it progressed, and more and more pathetic and troubling as Pookie tried her darnedest to cling to Jerry, even as he was outgrowing her, his first real love.

Even in those early stages what might have in other hands been lighthearted comedy has a pall of gloom hanging over it as we were in the privileged position of understanding that the bookish Jerry fell in love because no one had paid that kind of attention to him before, and Pookie was seeking an ally in this world of "weirdos", as she terms them, which she will never fit into. She picked Jerry because he was as sensitive to her as she was to him, but did not perceive that he would move on from her as he found his place in the world, and she was left to flail around emotionally. There may be points where you feel you should be laughing, but Alan J. Pakula, here turning director after a producing career, doesn't really encourage that reaction.

Of course, there have been roles such as Pookie for leading ladies reaching back beyond Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve through to Barbra Streisand in What's Up, Doc? and to further dramatic purposes with Natalie Portman in Garden State, but these women were there to draw male characters out of their shells in their own kooky fashion. In this, Pookie tries the same thing and it works, to the extent that Jerry doesn't actually need her any more by the last act, and while she recognises that in her heart of hearts, it's not something she finds it easy to accept. The Sterile Cuckoo was one of the few films to acknowledge that the wacky types found in these movies were more likely to be on the edge of some kind of breakdown, and if anything more needy than those they set their hearts upon. Minnelli and Burton (who was plucked from obscurity for the role) make a nice couple, but only Jerry could tell when enough was enough. In another era, this would be the cue for a scary lady horror movie; as it is, it's just sad. Music by Fred Karlin.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Alan J. Pakula  (1928 - 1998)

Smart American director and producer who started out producing Robert Mulligan dramas such as Fear Strikes Out, To Kill A Mockingbird and Inside Daisy Clover. He turned to direction with The Sterile Cuckoo, but really hit his stride in the seventies with the conspiracy-flavoured trio Klute (for which Jane Fonda won an Oscar), cult classic The Parallax View and Watergate thriller All The President's Men. Other films from the era included romance Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, western Comes a Horseman, and Burt Reynolds comedy Starting Over.

As the eighties dawned, Pakula had a hit with Holocaust drama Sophie's Choice, but seemed to lose his touch thereafter with middling efforts such as the odd drama Dream Lover, expensive flop Orphans, hit thriller Presumed Innocent, failure Consenting Adults, Julia Roberts vehicle The Pelican Brief and Harrison Ford-Brad Pitt team up The Devil's Own. He was once married to actress Hope Lange and died in a road accident.

 
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