If this story were a Netflix synopsis, it might go something like this: "First-time film director buys rights to book by rookie novelist, then hires untested actors for not one but both lead roles. Resulting movie about college life and love is filmed and released at height of 1960s culture wars, but still manages to run 107 minutes without a single passing reference to Vietnam, civil rights, protests, drugs or tie-dyed fashion."
The climax to such a story arc would seem pre-ordained: fade to black, with neither the movie nor those involved ever heard from again. As Richard Nixon once claimed to have said, though, "But that would be wrong." In fact, The Sterile Cuckoo — based on the novel by John Nichols '62, filmed on the Hamilton campus in 1968 and released in October 1969 — had a groovy little run, both critically and commercially. It launched the film career of Liza Minnelli, who was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Pookie Adams. It marked the directing debut of Alan J. Pakula, who would go on to direct an impressive string of hits over two decades, including (speaking of Nixon) All the President's Men as well as Klute, The Parallax View, Sophie's Choice, Presumed Innocent and The Pelican Brief. It provided an early boost to what has become Nichols' storied career as novelist, essayist, environmentalist and political activist. It grossed just under $14 million in the United States, according to the Internet Movie Database — more than respectable in an era when a movie ticket was typically less than a buck and a half. (The year's blockbuster, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, did $102 million.) Cuckoo even drew raves at the time for what eventually came to be regarded as the film's weakest element, its music: a second Oscar bid for Best Original Song, the cloying "Come Saturday Morning," and a Grammy win for the score based on the song.
And, of course, for dozens of Hamilton and Kirkland students hired as extras, as well as for the Hill itself, it offered a heady flash of cinematic exposure at the same historic moment that Andy Warhol was coining a prophecy which seemed absurd at the time, but which has since proven to be as reliable as a well-maintained VW Bug: "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."
Pakula was an enigma — a 40-year-old producer with half a dozen successful films and a 1962 Oscar nomination for To Kill a Mockingbird to his credit, but no directing experience. He discovered The Sterile Cuckoo in a New York City bookstore, secured the rights to the novel in May 1965 and quickly hired Nichols to take on the screenplay as well. "I traveled to Hollywood several times and we talked a lot," Nichols recalls, "and back in New York I did a few drafts of the movie between 1965 and '66." While Alvin Sargent (Paper Moon, Julia, Ordinary People, Spider-Man) eventually produced the bulk of the screenplay used for the movie, Nichols remained close to Pakula, scouting locations and possible actors for him and becoming a living resource for the film. "I certainly talked a lot with Pakula about my college life at Hamilton and the school's beautiful setting," he recalls. "Alan was gentle, compassionate, a lovely guy, and for whatever reasons the novel was very personal to him. He really grilled me about my life, my college days, my intimate relationships, everything."
Pakula first intended to bring a young director aboard to capture the adolescent turbulence of the characters. Then, he told Jared Brown in Alan J. Pakula: His Films and His Life, he came to a realization: "Why don't I use a man who is not quite so young, but who is certainly inexperienced, meaning myself."
He cast two relative unknowns, 22-year-old Liza Minnelli and 21-year-old Wendell Burton, in the lead roles; Minnelli had won a Tony and Burton had done Charlie Brown on stage, but neither had substantial film experience — making potential investors so skittish that Pakula eventually hid the screen tests he had done with the pair. Paramount agreed to finance the film 'with much trepidation,'" Pakula told Brown.
Richard Spence '60 recalls the debate well — he negotiated the film contract with Minnelli as a young chief financial officer who had recently come to Paramount after acquiring the film giant for Gulf and Western. She "had never been in a motion picture before, so we had to take a leap of faith as to whether she had any acting skill at all," he says. Though he didn't know Nichols and still has never met him, Spence played an instrumental role in ushering the novel to the screen and arranging to have it filmed on the Hill. "I arranged with Sid Wertimer to use the Hamilton campus and, in particular, the Theta Delt house," he says. He had a good working relationship with Wertimer from his student days: "He was the one who kept me in College after I had received four out of five F's," Spence says. "Sidney took me under his wing and showed me that I could do better."
The film condenses into a single school year a narrative that covers nearly three years of college life in Nichols' novel, but it otherwise broadly follows the novel's narrative. A story of two college innocents reeling through a doomed first love — Pookie Adams, motherless and unmoored, and Jerry Payne, mild and reserved — Pakula's version veers into the gloomier reaches of romantic comedy, but it avoids the book's bleak examination of early-1960s college life. Pookie and Jerry meet at a bus stop on their way to college at Wells and Hamilton, fictionalized as "Winslow" and "Harrisonville" in the film. Minnelli's Pookie is funny and smart, disdainful of convention yet desperate for attention; Burton's Jerry has a deer-in-the-headlights quality that leaves him perpetually backpedaling from Pookie's neediness. Both are too self-absorbed to engage the world in any real way, and — coupled with the pristine campus setting — the movie has an insulated, pastoral quality that seems quaint in the context of the political and ideological upheaval of the late '60s.
"I felt nervously that the movie was completely irrelevant to those turbulent times," Nichols says, but he points out that Pakula is not wholly to blame. Nichols had written the novel between 1962 and '64 and published it at 24, before the political shift and personal awakening that would "catapult" him into what he now calls "rabid anti-imperialist mode." The novel "must have some bite about the destructiveness of the social/party/fraternity scene at Hamilton," he says, "and it certainly attempts to be a complex character study of a really desolate livewire girl." But it lacked the raw social consciousness that he would soon develop; by 1968 and the filming of Cuckoo, he had "started writing novels that were so nihilistic and angry that I couldn't get another book published for almost a decade."
Deeply involved in the antiwar movement in Manhattan, Nichols returned to campus for just three days while The Sterile Cuckoo was being shot — long enough to do some publicity stills, watch a few scenes and have dinner at the Alexander Hamilton Inn with Pakula, Minnelli and others. "Liza kept laughing hysterically and tumbling over into my lap and asking me if I thought she was a good Pookie Adams," he recalls. "She said she'd read the book once a week over the last year."
Pakula and his 65-member Paramount crew were on and around the Hill from Sept. 11 until Oct. 15, 1968. They rounded up about 125 Hamilton and Kirkland students to use as extras and filmed largely on campus. Jerry's residence hall is a composite, and sharp-eyed Hamiltonians can still note the anomalies. When Jerry looks out his window, he is at 3 College Hill Road, looking across the street at 20 College Hill Road (the old Lambda Chi Alpha house), the "boarding house" where Pookie stays when visiting campus. In the scenes outside his residence, though, they've been transported to the front of Eells House (then the Alpha Delta Phi house) or — in the memorable houseparty sequence — to the back porch of Woollcott House (then the Theta Delta Chi house). Stairwell scenes were done in South Hall.
Other key scenes were done at Oudin's Court in Sylvan Beach (now Sunset Cottages) and the Union Chapel next door — added to the script on the spot because the chapel's proximity to Pookie and Jerry's love nest "seemed too good to be true," Pakula told Brown. (Oddly, Hamilton's Chapel went unused except for brief exterior shots.) The film's cemetery scene, set in Hamilton's cemetery in the novel, was moved to nearby Skyline Drive. Vernon Center's park at the western end of College Hill Road served as the rural bus stop near "Winslow." And the local flavor extends to Utica Club (which appears in an early dorm scene) and the Village Tavern (which gets a passing mention), long before product placement became a Hollywood cliché.
Because rain on the initial day of campus shooting forced the cast and crew indoors, the first thing shot was what turned out to be the movie's signature scene, Pookie's desperate phone conversation with Jerry in which she chokes back panic over his reluctance to see her during spring break. It was largely responsible for Minnelli's Academy Award nomination, and it gave the film a moment of stark, powerful theatre to counterbalance some of its lighter romp-through-the-fields sentiment.
The tight shooting schedule over a few weeks in early fall also meant that Pakula had to abandon any hope of seasonal verisimilitude. In one scene set just after their return from winter break, Pookie and Jerry sit bundled against the "cold" in the branches of a sprawling Camperdown Elm — in full green leaf — behind Minor Theater.
Pakula handed small but credited roles to Hamilton students Chris Bugbee '69 and Mark Fish '70 as well as Sandy Faison K'72, who — in the campus coup of the season — landed the role of Minnelli's roommate, Nancy Putnam. "I had a glorious time doing it," Faison says. Pookie describes Putnam in the novel as "a quiet girl with a feathery smile, trusting and simple and healthy looking, a sort of whimsical Shirley Temple, or a blond Breck Shampoo girl." The character was downsized between novel and film, and Faison had only two substantial scenes, but the theatre major made the most of them on her way to a successful acting career and major roles in such Broadway productions as Annie, You Can't Take It With You and Loose Ends as well as film, TV and teaching.
"I was dumb enough to audition but smart enough to know that these guys were the real deal," Faison says of Pakula and producer Robert Mulligan. "My impression of them was that they ran a tight ship and were really kind to youngsters who were working with them." Pakula, she recalls, "was a really extraordinary man and a calm presence. They were class acts, start to finish."
Faison's biggest scene comes toward the end of the film, during a student gathering where she plays guitar — her own idea. "They asked me, 'What would you do here in a party?'" she recalls. "And I said that I would play music. So they asked me to pick up the guitar and play something. It was great that my opinion actually meant something to the director." The performance was improvised, she says: "I had to think of something to play spur-of-the-moment. 'Greensleeves' was the only thing I could think of; it wasn't like I got to go home and practice."
While the personal rush of working with professionals — and going to California with Bugbee and Fish to do some of the filming — was intense, Faison says the effect on the whole campus — both Hamilton and the newly opened Kirkland College — was equally important. "It pulled the school together and made everyone really excited," she says.
What most alumns of a certain aga recall best, however, is the houseparty scene — a churning maze of bodies fueled by a live band and copious quantities of party beverages on the back porch of what was then the Theta Delt house. It was a Hamilton initiation for Tom Droesch '72, who had just arrived on campus and was told after soccer practice one day that extras were needed nearby for a crowd scene. "We went to the Theta Delt house, where our 'job' was to stand around and drink beer, dance and generally have a good time," he recalls. "After a while, the director stopped filming because the lighting wasn't right and asked that we come back the next day to do the same thing. Of course, the party carried on after the filming stopped, and we did it again the next day.
"I remember thinking, 'Wow, college is great, they film movies here!' — not knowing it was a unique event." The soundtrack for the festivities was supplied by a very real student band, the King James Version — "a reference to soul music rather than the Bible," notes Rob Harwood '69, who was joined in the group by classmates Benny Greenbaum, Bill Powers, Dave Campbell and Eric Milligan. "As I recall, a prodigious amount of beer was consumed during the filming, making it all the more an authentic Hill party. Regretfully, our brush with music immortality was just that. The music one hears in the movie is not the band's, but a studio overdub." Despite the disappointment, Harwood has hung on to his "location talent voucher," which documents the cool $78.34 he netted for three days' work.
One face you won't find in the party scene is that of Nichols. Pakula asked the novelist to make a cameo there — at what had in reality been Nichols' own fraternity house — but Nichols "vociferously declined," he recalls. "I was also appalled that all the houseparty extras were unrealistically dressed up like preppy yuppies instead of like slobbering gonzo chauvinist piglets."
But the angry young man who in 1968 was railing against both the darker traditions of college culture and the political inertia of the film based on his first novel has long since made his peace with both. "I mellowed a bit, and I became grateful once more for the charmed life I'd had at Hamilton," he says — particularly for the encouragement of "a great English Department that fanned my adoration of books."
Ultimately, The Sterile Cuckoo "made me queasy, and I think I've only seen it twice," Nichols says. But he notes that he had a similar reaction to two other films made from his novels, The Wizard of Loneliness and The Milagro Beanfield War. Two decades of working on screenplays himself with directors such as Louis Malle, Ridley Scott and Robert Redford led him to realize that "movies are a totally different discipline from novels."
Ultimately, Nichols says, "I thought Pakula made a gentle, delicate, awkward film. It made Liza Minnelli a star, got her an Academy Award nomination, won a Grammy for its sappy theme song, and sent Pakula on his way toward All the President's Men and Sophie's Choice, and Liza got to do Cabaret.
"You know, it wasn't my movie, it was their movie, as it should have been, and I'm glad it kind of worked out."