Just like Jane Fonda became a truly independent actress in 1969 by parting herself from the name of the farther, Liza Minnelli also turned herself into an acknowledged actress with her turn as the free-spirited, cheerful but also sad and insecure Pookie Adams in The Sterile Cuckoo. Apparently, her mother Judy Garland was very positive about the part and Liza Minnelli’s possibilities with it but unfortunately died before the movie was released. But just as she predicted, critics reacted very positive to this performance and an Oscar win might have appeared very likely but the upset win by Maggie Smith delayed Liza Minnelli’s Oscar dreams – but only until 1972 when she won the award for her career defining turn as Sally Bowles in the classic musical Cabaret.
Cabaret is a good cue at this moment – when one hears the words ‘Liza Minnelli’ and ‘free-spirited’, isn’t the character of Sally Bowles that first images that comes into ones head? Yes, in some ways the part of Pookie Adams appears like a warm-up by Liza Minnelli in which she prepared for the most famous role of her career but The Sterile Cuckoo presents a character that may be similar to Sally Bowles in some ways but is ultimately also very different. Both women are very out-spoken, they aren’t afraid to open their mouth and say what they feel or quickly come up with some story if the situation demands it. Both women enter a relationship with a rather insecure, conventional man whom they fascinate with their unconventional behaviour and character. And both woman are, beneath the surface of fun, cheerfulness and the constant urge to either talk or do something, highly insecure, afraid of rejection and basically little girls trapped in the body of a desirable woman and unable to really open their characters up – so instead of truly wanting to find a relationship, both Sally and Pookie are rather looking for approval, for guidance and for security. So, yes, Liza Minnelli’s Oscar-nominated performances are rather alike in various aspects – but there are also differences. Sally Bowles has her own agenda, she likes to get ahead in the world even if that means parting from the things she truly loves – she’s a woman who has mastered the technique of overshadowing her own feelings and emotions with a masque of playfulness and loveable eccentricities. Pookie Adams has no such ambitions and she is rather desperate for any kind of human contact which she just can’t seem to find or hold. She is living a very lonely life and it’s never truly clear if she pushes others away by choice or involuntarily.
But all those comparisons are certainly not helpful when it comes to judging the individual performances. But what can be said is that Sally Bowles is certainly Liza Minnelli’s personal masterpiece which is probably also the result of the fact that Cabaret is a movie that gives her much more to work with, much more chances to impress and a character that allows her to be much more irresistible, careless and entertaining than ever before. The Sterile Cuckoo on the other hand suffers from a rather undecided script and while it gives Liza Minnelli a lot of opportunities to use her natural charm and spacy personality, it also holds her back at various moments and doesn’t allow her to develop such a full character as she would with Sally Bowles.
Right from the start, The Sterile Cuckoo and Liza Minnelli make sure that Pookie Adams appears as free-spirited as she can be. During her first scene, she suddenly introduces herself to Jerry while they are both waiting for their bus to their colleges and immediately everything about her screams the words ‘unconventional’,
‘unique’, ‘different’, ‘intriguing’ or ‘unusual’. Later in the bus, these first impressions are strengthened when Pookie displays her ability for making up all kinds of stories and lies in the face of a nun while still keeping her charm and that unique freshness. During the bus ride, she keeps making up stories about her and Jerry whom she had introduced to the nuns as her brothers and she combines those stories with other sentences or remarks that are totally out-of-place without making a single stop between them, jumping from one topic to the next, constantly talking or asking questions. It’s basically everything you would expect from this kind of character and the way Pookie is written it’s clear that the author was very proud his creation but it all could have become annoying very easily – not because of the nature of Pookie’s character but rather because everything about the way she is written is so full of clichés and stereotypes. But there is one aspect that helped Pookie Adams to survive all this and become a captivating and later heartbreaking character – Liza Minnelli. She has the unique charm and appearance to sell this character, to make her believable and to let her become a real, three-dimensional human being. In her hands, Pookie is much more interesting and mysterious than the script would have suggested and she also has the talent to constantly show that Pookie’s personality is not a natural part of her but rather something she uses to both keep people away and get closer to them. Liza Minnelli always displays the loneliness in Pookie – when she and Jerry are visiting a bar and she tells him that all the girls who have lived with her in a room have moved out again very quickly and nobody is really interested in talking to her, Liza Minnelli does not make it truly clear how much Pookie understands in this situation but she does show on her face how deeply insecure she is at moments like this. Pookie likes to call everyone she does not approve of ‘weirdo’ – or better, everyone who does not approve her. Liza Minnelli never makes it clear why Pookie is such a lonely girl, why she is not truly able to connect with others but she manages to make it understandable – somehow, her Pookie possesses both a lovely spirit but also a very difficult character, she can be very hard to accept, especially when you are not charmed by a woman like her. With all this, Liza Minnelli always avoids to play Pookie free-spirited just for the sake of making her free-spirited (the scene in an empty sports hall in which she pretends to fall only to laugh at Jerry afterwards would have been a disaster without Liza Minnelli’s charm) – instead, she displays how Pookie finds no other way to express herself, even in more serious scenes and moments.
Liza Minnelli finds various beautiful, silent moments in her performance which help her to craft the complexities and the inner life of Pookie Adams – when she covers herself with leafs during a little trip to the beach, when she sits in a church, lies down in a cemetery or simply remains silent for a few moments, dropping the masque from her face and showing the simple hopes and fears of her character. Pookie Adams was created to break the viewers’ hearts and while the movie and the character are sometimes too underdeveloped to completely succeed in this aspect, Liza Minnelli still achieved a lot. Her face can express thousand emotions at once and few other actresses can combine the joy of life with a fear of life like her. Her Pookie is a lost soul, almost like a woman who had to suffer a lifetime of misery and yet she is still young and only at the beginning of her way through the world. Somehow she has turned into a woman who lives a life of loneliness and pretends not to care about even though she clearly longs emotional and physical connection. In Liza Minnelli’s performance, Pookie Adams becomes a character who is both realistic and almost dreamlike because of all her contradictions and unusualness.
Unfortunately, Liza Minnelli does not truly work very well with her male co-star – both actors seem more concerned with their own work than creating the necessary chemistry which ultimately also harms Liza Minnelli’s performance in some parts. The combination of this lack of chemistry and the underwritten character never make it clear just why Pookie is so focused on Jerry. From the way the movie presents this relationship it seems as if she was trying to get close to him even before she spoke to him for the first time but neither the movie nor Liza Minnelli ever give any explanation for this. Also in the later scenes, the relationship does not truly develop in a way that explains her love for him – sure, Liza Minnelli portrays very well how much Pookie is looking for any kind of closeness and affection but she does not explain why this has to be Jerry. And so, her most famous and celebrated scene in which Pookie calls Jerry on the phone and goes through a firestorm of emotions by basically begging him to stay with her, has never truly connected with me the way it probably should simply because the relationship that is so close to fail at this moment never convinced me as working to begin with. But even though, there is no sense in denying how powerful Liza Minnelli is in this scene – a conversation on the phone is always a welcome opportunity for an actor to show off his skills since there is no partner to share the screen with and the character can so be played in a much more honest and open way. And Liza Minnelli’s talent for always appearing completely natural and making her character so complete helps her immensely in this scene – she believable goes from anxiety to fear, from desperation to false hope, from tearful breakdowns to sad smiles and does without ever exaggerating Pookie’s emotions since she has earlier displayed just how extrovert she truly is. Pookie does not hide her feelings at this moment and yet there still remains the feeling that the audience has not even learned ten percent about this woman yet.
The Sterile Cuckoo is a movie that does not exist to tell a certain plot but it rather only wants to tell a little story about two people and how their pats met and parted. Because of this, Liza Minnelli cannot truly follow a certain guideline in her performance but rather has to use every opportunity, every dialogue, every monologue and every wordless expression to craft her character – and she does so very beautifully even when sometimes the limits of the screenplay prevent her from going all the way. But even despite various obstacles in both the movie and the performance, Liza Minnelli still manages to be both touching and captivating, she possesses the gift for creating complex character in the most simple ways and so beautifully crafted a woman without any social skills, who depends on the kindness of strangers, who tries be lead a life that enables her to be who she really is but who also is too afraid to drop the masque she is constantly wearing to protect herself from rejection or disappointment.
Liza Minnelli is the emotional, but also intellectual core of this movie and carries it with ease and naturalness on her shoulders. She does not re-invent the character she is playing but still gives her own, touching and beautiful interpretation of it. Because of all this, Pookie Adams does not need to hide herself next to Sally Bowles since both women are unique creations and even though Liza Minnelli reached the peak of her professional career in Cabaret, her turn in The Sterile Cuckoo is warm, memorable, beautiful and occasionally heartbreaking. For all this, she receives