Adams on Reel Women: Liza Minnelli on beauty, mom and dad, and her first Oscar nomination for ‘The Sterile Cuckoo’
Photo: Everett Collection
It's that voice that got me when Liza Minnelli phoned last Friday. The way it squeaks at times and then expands with feeling; the way it rises up as if it's trying to touch you, to prod you, to share the same emotion as the speaker. The way the voice never stays still and carries a bit of her mother, Judy Garland, like a genetic imprint, but still is all Liza (with a "z").
Liza made her film debut as a lead actress in 1969 for director Alan J. Pakula in "The Sterile Cuckoo." Now available for the first time on DVD and Blu-Ray from Olive Films, the dramedy is a simple story: A young woman named Mary Ann "Pookie" Adams takes the bus upstate to a girl's college near Hamilton, New York. She meets a straight-laced boy, Jerry (Wendell 'Where is he now?' Burton), who's traveling to the neighboring men's college and badgers him into a friendship. In her freshman year, Pookie loses both her virginity and her equilibrium, but manages to come out the other end with her spirit battered but intact.
Minnelli earned an Oscar nomination for this, her first lead role in a film notable for the strong portrayal of a kooky young woman of unconventional beauty at its center. It anticipates "Love Story," which came out the following year, without the melodrama and uber-beauties Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal. Pakula, having gotten his taste of directing with "The Sterile Cuckoo," went on to make the "paranoia" trilogy "Klute," "The Parallax View," and "All the President's Men." Meanwhile, the newly minted Oscar nominee went on to win an Oscar for "Cabaret" and star in "New York, New York" and "Arthur." She's recently turned up on TV's "Arrested Development." And Liza popped around by phone to discuss "The Sterile Cuckoo," her first-born and a movie of which she's still enormously and rightfully proud.
Thelma Adams: I'm so happy there's a revival of "The Sterile Cuckoo." It was made over 40 years ago and it still looks fresh and raw. When was the last time you saw it?
Liza Minnelli: It's been years. I went to the opening with everybody in L.A. At the time, I didn't care much about doing movies. I loved Broadway. And my friend Tony Bill sent me the book and thought I should play Pookie Adams. I loved the character. I fought for it and I waited. I went in to audition and everybody was dressed in kooky clothes — it was the '60s. I wore what my father would have dressed me in for school but with the zipper undone on the skirt. The shirt collar was in the sweater. And they believed in me.
TA: What happened next?
LM: So Alan Pakula, who was producing, said he would do it. His partner Robert Mulligan ("To Kill a Mockingbird") was the director. And then Alan said, "I want to direct it." We went to studios and they wouldn't accept me. They said, "She's not discovered, people. She's never been in a film." So meanwhile, I went to London and got a job in Pakula's "Charlie Bubbles" to get a credit. The studio still didn't want to do it, so Alan changed studios to Paramount and we finally got it done.
TA: Do you think it hurt your career that you're not — I hate to say it — conventionally beautiful?
LM: Of course, but neither was Pookie. I hope I helped her out a little bit. My father [director Vincente Minnelli] was very smart. After I cut my hair off — before the screen test I had long hair — he said you still look almost too distinctive. "You should dye you hair," Daddy said. "You should have it streaked."(Because I have dark Italian hair.) Daddy said, "You have to look more conventional, more nothing. And you're very distinctive." So I followed his advice and it worked.