The Sterile Cuckoo & 3 in the Attic

The pursuit of romance, like hundreds of other societal rituals, was seeing significant change in 1969, and movies from that pivotal year were exploring the new possibilities just as young people in love were living the experience. And on Sunday, June 30th & Monday, July 1st, as part of the New Beverly’s ongoing showcase of movies of that time in anticipation for the release of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, two then-popular but now rarely-screened representations of the movement return from the vaults, to present alternately poignant and satiric stories of take-charge women and take-notice men, filmed on actual college campuses where these scenarios could very well have been unfolding in real life.

The Sterile Cuckoo chronicles a year of experiences between two college freshmen, “Pookie” (Liza Minnelli) and Jerry (Wendell Burton), each only beginning to determine their life path. Meeting on the bus to their respective campuses, the motormouthed Pookie overwhelms the unassuming Jerry, who nonetheless agrees to see her regularly as they begin their education. While they both initially seem to benefit from being together, Jerry is having an easier time adapting to meeting new people and being social, whereas Pookie’s combination of brash, alienating behavior and smothering loneliness only increases. Sometimes in a life, the end of a relationship is not an “if” question, but a “when” question.

 

 

Cuckoo originated as a novel by John Nichols published in 1965 when he was 24 years old, loosely inspired by his experiences at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Alan J. Pakula, at the time the longtime producing partner for director Robert Mulligan, optioned the book shortly after its release, enlisted Alvin Sargent to write the screenplay after initial dissatisfaction with Nichols’ own drafts, and after contemplating hiring a neophyte, chose to direct the film himself. Much of the film was shot on the Hamilton campus, in many cases using locations Nichols had frequented as a student. The author, whose later novels The Wizard of Loneliness and The Milagro Beanfield War would also be adapted to film, initially had reservations about how the film diverged from his book, but recently observed, “I thought Pakula made a gentle, delicate, awkward film. It made Liza Minnelli a star, [and] sent Pakula on his way toward All the President’s Men and Sophie’s Choice… it wasn’t my movie, it was their movie, as it should have been, and I’m glad it kind of worked out.”

Liza Minnelli had already won a Tony, but her only previous film credit as an adult was Albert Finney’s Charlie Bubbles, when she lobbied for the role of Pookie; Minnelli declared that she had turned down work for three years, including a role in Promises Promises on Broadway, in order to be available, and that she had read the book each week for a year to inhabit the role. Minnelli received her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance. Co-star Wendell Burton had not acted on film before, but drew Pakula’s attention from starring in the stage musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. The late actor’s other memorable performances include Harvey Hart’s Fortune and Men’s Eyes and Heat with Burt Reynolds, both of which have played the Bev in recent time. The theme tune, “Come Saturday Morning,” written by Fred Karlin and Dory Previn, and performed in the film by the multi-lingual group The Sandpipers (who also performed the title song for Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. “Come Saturday Morning” was also recorded in character by Liza Minnelli, though not featured in the film, and has become a pop standard, covered by artists as Chet Baker, Scott Walker, Tony Bennett, and more recently UK singer Rumer.

After cultivating a longstanding reputation at Willard College for Men as a campus lothario, Paxton Quigley (Christopher Jones) seems ready to commit to Fulton College for Women undergrad Tobey Clinton (Yvette Mimieux), having spent most of the summer break living with her. But when her parents forcibly separate them for the remaining weeks before school, Quigley dallies with sanguine artist Eulice (Judy Pace). Then, after ostensibly resuming his relationship with Tobey, he continues to make time with Eulice, and he soon has a third paramour, ersatz flower child Jan (Maggie Thrett). He thinks he’s kept them oblivious of each other, only to discover they’re more than hip to his game, and they’re about to turn the tables on him. Like any true wild stud, he’s about to find himself confined, coerced, and cast aside, far away from anyone to notice, as this Big Man on Campus is brought to heel by 3 in the Attic.

 

 

Stephen Yafa’s original screenplay, initially titled Paxton Quigley’s Had the Course, won him a WGA award for “Best New Writer” in November 1964 when he was 23 and pursuing a master’s degree at Carnegie Tech; the publicity drew some Hollywood interest but no deal or other work. When Yafa returned to school, and wrote bitingly about the failed experience for Playboy a couple years later, Richard Wilson, a longtime producer and collaborator with Orson Welles, was taken with his humor, and optioned the script, intending to produce and direct it for American International. Much of the shooting took place at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and in exchange for the wide use of the campus, Wilson and selected cast and crew addressed several UNC film classes and allowed students to visit the set. Graphic artist Sandy Dvore, who had previously designed the striking opening credits for AIP’s Wild in the Streets, created Attic’s title sequence; his next assignment would be formatting the all-sung-by-Harry-Nilsson closing credits of Otto Preminger’s Skidoo. Attic became AIP’s biggest hit of the decade, grossing over $2 million in 1969. Yafa would have another screenplay credit, co-adapting the play Summertree for the 1971 film directed by singer Anthony Newley and starring Michael Douglas, before shifting to writing on wine, nutrition, and social issues. Wilson would sign a directing deal with Universal afterward, but was fired from the Burt Reynolds project Skullduggery and did not make another dramatic feature; he is credited as one of the directors on the Orson Welles documentary It’s All True, and appears in an acting role in the posthumous Welles epic The Other Side of the Wind.

Star Christopher Jones had previously appeared as the iconic teen president Max Frost in Wild in the Streets, and would later be cast by David Lean for his epic romance Ryan’s Daughter. He shortly abandoned acting after completing the Lean film, a decision brought on by substance abuse problems and trauma from the deaths of friends Sharon Tate and Jim Morrison; for a while, after her death, Jones lived in her Cielo drive home. He turned down an invite to appear in Pulp Fiction, but did come out of retirement for his Wild in the Streets co-star Larry Bishop’s 1996 crime comedy Mad Dog Time. Jones died of gallbladder cancer in January 2014. Co-star Judy Pace had played bad girl Vickie Fletcher on the “Peyton Place” TV series before being cast in Attic: in an interview with film historian Tom Lisanti, she recalled the significance of her role, saying, “This was the first time a black female was being romanced by a white male and they were equals… She was a college student and he was a college student.” Pace was the only cast member to return for AIP’s 1970 non-canonical sequel 3 in the Cellar, playing a new character unrelated to the previous film. Maggie Thrett had been a teenage model, club dancer, and singer under her birth name of Diane Pine; her stage name was coined by music producer/songwriter Bob Crewe, who chose it because, as she told Tom Lisanti in a separate interview, “he thought it sounded British and more with [it].” She would appear in the “Star Trek” episode “Mudd’s Women” and Noel Black’s 1970 filmmaking drama Cover Me Babe with Robert Forster, before retiring in the mid-’70s. Her 1965 Crewe-produced single, “Soupy,” gained a second life when it was sampled by pioneering hip-hop group De La Soul for their song “Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin’s Revenge).”

 

 

Falling in love and making it work was never a simple thing, and in the transitional time of the late ‘60s, the complexities began to be addressed in movies as never before. Take a trip back to these unusual intersections at the New Beverly, and you may find some insights to carry forward with you.

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